What Emotional Abuse Does to Your Mental Health

There are multiple forms of abuse — and some can go totally unnoticed by friends and family. Unlike physical abuse, Verywell reminds us that emotional abuse is one of the hardest to recognize from the outside. And because it works in cycles (like most forms of abuse do), it can also be difficult for the victim to fully see what’s going on as well.

Though those who have been through emotional abuse may not have physical evidence of the wrongdoings committed against them, what they’ve endured can have lasting effects on their mental health. Here’s how to detect the abuse, how it hurts at the time it’s occurring, and its lasting impact.

What is emotional abuse?

A couple in conflict

A couple in conflict | Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images

Plainly put, Verywell explains the goal when someone emotionally abuses another is to gain control by “discrediting, isolating, and silencing” them. While emotional abuse in relationships may be the most obvious situation, you can also be violated in this way by friends, family, and anyone else who’s close to you.

As stated before, emotional abuse is often subtle — and if you’re in a relationship with a lot of confrontation from other sides, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being abused, contributor Andrea Mathews notes to Psychology Today. If you do feel criticized, controlled, and threatened, however, this could indicate you’re being abused. If you’re in a relationship that’s abusive in this way, you may find everything you’re doing, saying, or wearing is up for critique — and this is all an attempt at further controlling your behavior.

It’s also important to note many abusers don’t realize what they’re doing is so insidious. They may convince themselves that they want what’s best for you and they’re simply acting on their own insecurities for the good of the relationship. When they feel as if their grasp of the relationship is out of their control, the abuse is likely to get worse.

How it harms your mental health in the moment

Though it may be subtle at first, it’s common to feel as though something may be off once the abuse begins. HealthyPlace explains you might initially feel shocked and confused by the accusations made against you. You might also start to question your own memory, as it’s common for abusers to tell the abused that they’re “crazy” or recalling information falsely.

In the direct aftermath of the abuse, you may find you’re generally more angry and anxious, you feel powerless, you avoid eye contact, you feel totally undesired by others, and you feel guilty of wrongdoings you didn’t commit. You may also find that the abuse is isolating you from other family members and friends, which can then lead to even more anxiety or depression.

How it affects your mental health later in life

Doctor In Consultation With Depressed Female Patient

Doctor consulting a depressed female patient | Monkeybusinessimages/ iStock/Getty Images Plus

Leaving an abusive situation is very difficult, especially when you feel like the rest of those close to you have no idea what’s really taking place. And unfortunately, for many abuse survivors, the mental health effects don’t disappear once they’re out of the dangerous circumstances. Instead, the effects can actually intensify and cause further issues down the line.

Many abuse survivors find that their self-esteem suffers for years from the trauma. Though they may be told that what their abuser did was dangerous and unfair, they may have trouble believing in their own self-worth. This can then lead to long-term issues with depression, withdrawal, anger, an inability to trust in the future, disturbances in sleep, or even suicidal ideation, HealthyPlace notes. And mental health effects aside, other physical ailments, like pain without a known cause, can also occur from the stress.

What you can do for your mental health

Post-abuse, you may find yourself replaying scenarios in your head on repeat. Perhaps you’re looking back on the way others should have helped the scenario, or perhaps what you could have done to leave sooner. You may also find yourself participating in people-pleasing behaviors to win approval from those around you. But it’s important to note that healing from abuse takes time, patience, and kindness toward yourself — and it’s never a linear path.

Mindbodygreen reminds us we need to treat ourselves with compassion when we’re healing. Sit with the feelings you have and allow yourself to feel them. You must understand the extent of your suffering in order to work through it with yourself or a therapist and truly release yourself from the abuse.

Additionally, make a point to release resentment. While forgiveness may be effective for some, at least allow yourself to live presently. Surround yourself with people who lift you up and keep you in the moment so you don’t drift back into the “shoulds” of the past.

Remember: You don’t have to go at it alone. Seek professional help if you need it, and ask close friends and family for a listening ear.

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