Mental health: PTSD from domestic abuse
As part of our #SpotlightOn campaign, for the month of May we’ve been shining a light on the impact on the mental health of domestic abuse victims and survivors. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 we looked at emotional abuse and mental health, and for Maternal Mental Health Week we discussed the mental health challenges faced by pregnant women and new mothers who live with domestic abuse.
In this blog post, we’ll be looking at one of the range of mental health outcomes often experienced by women who have been the victim of domestic abuse; PTSD, which stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Please note that this post comes with a trigger warning – we will be touching on topics some readers may find distressing so reader discretion is advised.
What causes PTSD?
In a general context, many life events and experiences can cause PTSD. You may have heard the term used in relation to military personnel such as soldiers, or in relation to police officers or paramedics who are first-responders to violent and sometimes fatal incidents. According to UK based charity PTSD UK, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is caused by “a traumatic event – an event which provoked fear, helplessness or horror in response to the threat of injury or death”. We can use this definition* to understand how PTSD is also caused by domestic abuse.
As we’ve discussed in many of our previous blog posts, domestic abuse is all about the perpetrator holding control over their victim and inflicting fear, shame and guilt in order to maintain this control. Perpetrators use a variety of methods to exert control, including physical, sexual, financial, and emotional means. Any form of abuse can be traumatic, which can be defined as “causing severe and lasting emotional shock and pain”. It’s key to focus on the word “lasting” here; trauma is not a short-term outcome of domestic abuse, but can affect victims and survivors for a long time after the abuse has stopped or they have left the relationship.
Trauma and PTSD
Following a traumatic event or experience, it can take time for your brain to process and adjust to what happened. The effects of trauma can be present even if you are distanced from the incident and living in a safe place. It can take a particularly long time to adjust if you have been in a relationship where your partner was very controlling/abusive for an extended period of time. Try to remember that it is completely natural for you to take time to recover. We like to think of responding to trauma as if it were a visible physical injury – you wouldn’t try to run on a leg you broke last week so allow yourself time to mentally and emotionally progress at your own pace after experiencing trauma.
Trauma and PTSD from domestic abuse could be caused by physical abuse such as being punched, kicked, burned or even stabbed. It can be caused by a perpetrator repeatedly threatening to kill you, to destroy your home or harm your children – even if they never act on their threats it still provokes a fear response. PTSD can be caused by sexual assaults or threats to assault you sexually. In short, there are many, many ways a perpetrator can traumatise their victim, and not all of them have to include physical abuse. If this trauma is not processed properly, that is when severe psychological issues can arise. PTSD UK suggest that when symptoms of trauma last for over a month, the person may be suffering from PTSD.
Some of the symptoms of trauma and PTSD include:
- Re-experiencing symptoms such as: flashbacks (reliving the traumatic event) recurring nightmares related to the traumatic event, intrusive thoughts, sweating, trembling or being in pain
- Avoidance symptoms such as: keeping yourself busy, taking alcohol or drugs to get away from your memories, being unable to remember the traumatic event, avoiding places, people or objects which remind you of the event
- Arousal & reactivity symptoms such as: being easily startled, feeling on-edge, difficulty falling asleep, aggressive outbursts, difficulty concentrating
- Cognition & mood symptoms such as: being unable to trust anyone, loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed, difficulty feeling positive, overwhelming anger, sadness, guilt or shame, trouble remembering the traumatic event
If you have experienced a combination of the four categories of symptoms, it’s important that you reach out for support. For a PTSD diagnosis in the UK you must have experienced at least: one re-experiencing symptom, one avoidance symptom, two arousal & reactivity symptoms and two cognition & mood symptoms over a period of at least a month. However, if you don’t meet this criteria but still experience some of the symptoms above following trauma of any kind, you should still seek support.
Types of PTSD
Above we used PTSD UK’s definition of what causes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to understand how it can develop from experiencing domestic abuse. This definition stated that PTSD stems from “a traumatic event”; whilst this is correct, it is now recognised by medical professionals that a continuous exposure to or experience of multiple traumatic events or stressful situations can cause PTSD to develop too.
Medically, PTSD following continuous exposure – such as the type of PTSD a domestic abuse victim may suffer – is referred to in many different ways. For the sake of this post, we’ll use just one name for it – Complex PTSD. PTSD UK detail the range of experiences which can cause this particular type of PTSD, which include:
- Frequent sexual abuse
- Long-term & repeated feelings of captivation and/or powerlessness
- Long-term victimisation such as bullying
- Frequent and constant exposure to verbal or emotional abuse and threats
- Living under severe threat for a very long time
For victims of domestic abuse, there is the possibility that they regularly and consistently experience all of the above. And not only does this affect the victims themselves, but also could have a traumatic impact on any children that witness or live with the abuse too.
How we can help
Although we are not experts in mental health, we understand the complex relationship between trauma and domestic abuse. Our team is fully trained to support you if you need help. We also work closely with organisations and services in the Belfast and Lisburn areas who offer specialist support to help with mental health challenges.
Above all else, we want you to know you are not alone. We understand that you may feel it, but we are here for you. Reach out to us for completely free, confidential and non-judgemental support, help or advice:
Call us – 028 9066 6049
Email us – support@Belfastwomensaid.org.uk
Chat with us – www.belfastwomensaid.org.uk Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm and til 8pm on Thursdays
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