PTSD from emotional abuse is more common than you think

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is most commonly associated with physical abuse and trauma, such as sexual assault or war. But those aren’t the only things that can lead to PTSD. Mental health experts have determined that emotional abuse can also cause PTSD symptoms, in addition to other symptoms related to psychological trauma. Some people find it useful to talk to a complex PTSD therapist nearby, while others find online therapy more useful. Most people are not aware that children can suffer from PTSD too. 

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When PTSD is caused by emotional abuse, it may become C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder), a unique variant of C-PTSD. The distinction between the two types of PTSD is not made because one type of trauma is physical, and the other is psychological. 

Instead, the distinction is made because C-PTSD is often a result of multiple traumatic events that lasted weeks, months, years, or even decades. Those suffering from the condition experience PTSD symptoms, as well as numerous additional symptoms, which can include: 

  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Feeling distrustful or angry at the world
  • Consistent feelings of hopelessness or emptiness
  • Feeling like you’re permanently worthless or damaged
  • Feeling like the people around you are completely different from yourself
  • Thinking that nobody can understand what happened to you
  • Avoiding maintaining relationships with others or finding it very difficult to
  • Dissociative symptoms, like derealization or depersonalization
  • Frequent suicidal feelings
  • Physical symptoms, including dizziness, headaches, chest pains, and stomach aches

C-PTSD is a relatively new term, and not all mental health professionals use it because it is not in the DSM-V, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-V). The DSM-V is the standard classification for defining mental health disorders used by all medical and mental health professionals. Therapists do agree that prolonged and repeated emotional abuse can cause PTSD. Still, some are unsure whether the resulting condition is a form of PTSD or a separate condition that should be given its name. Research is currently being conducted to determine the necessity of including C-PTSD in the DSM in the future. 

Because C-PTSD is not a formal diagnosis, your therapist might refer to your symptoms using different terms such as:

  • EPCACE — enduring personality change after catastrophic experience
  • DESNOS — disorders of extreme stress not otherwise specified

How does C-PTSD happen?

Even though emotional abuse is a form of psychological trauma, it can have a similar effect on the body’s nervous system as physical trauma. Physical and psychologically traumatic events are highly distressing and can cause an overreaction of stress hormones, making it difficult to focus on anything else.

Any trauma can get frozen in your memory because of the surge of stress hormones caused by traumatic events. This is an evolutionary survival mechanism. Thousands of years ago, it was more important for your brain to remember foods, animals, and dangerous and traumatizing situations than benign ones. 

Today, however, we do not need to be constantly vigilant about possible saber tooth tiger attacks or the tar pit that almost swallowed us alive. However, our brain still locks onto traumatic events and replays them in our minds, sometimes in a perpetual loop. Even though the traumatic event may have happened decades ago, the fact that the memory is still with you can make it feel like it’s happening right now. 

Undiagnosed PTSD or PTSD without knowing it

It is important to realize that the vast majority of people with PTSD does not know that they have it. This means that problems can occur throughout your life while you have never been diagnosed. If you know that you have it, you can work on symptom reduction and on a treatment plan.

When these events get locked in our memories, the following symptoms may appear:

  • Anxiety
  • Flashbacks
  • Hypervigilance
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Nightmares

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse takes many different forms, but they all involve harming someone in an emotional way. This can be done using actions and words intended to isolate, control, insult, or frighten.

Here are some examples of emotional abuse:

  • Removing your privacy and freedom
  • Isolating you from friends and family
  • Expecting to know where you are and what you’re doing at all times
  • Scaring you with their anger
  • Threatening you and your loved ones
  • Humiliating and belittling you
  • Intimidating you with yelling, put-downs, or threats of violence

An emotionally abusive relationship is one wherein multiple traumatic events occur. The ongoing nature of these abusive events can mean the symptoms are present throughout the relationship and carry on long after it’s ended. 

If you experience PTSD-like symptoms within 30 days of a traumatic experience, PTSD is rarely diagnosed. Instead, therapists define the condition as ASR — Acute Stress Reaction. However, when the same symptoms are experienced for longer than a month, the diagnosis is PTSD.

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Emotional abuse and PTSD

Emotional abuse can undoubtedly lead to the C-PTSD form of PTSD. The two are distinguished because while PTSD generally surrounds a single traumatic event (such as a sexual assault), C-PTSD can be caused by a series of traumatic events (such as ongoing emotional/physical abuse from your partner).

A pattern of ongoing emotional or physical abuse within a relationship can make it more difficult for someone to heal fully. Often the symptoms of the abuse are buried beneath layers of maladaptive coping mechanisms, which have to be identified, understood, and then modified so that they can be free from the traumatic effects of their past trauma. 

Even though many people are brave and strong enough to break the cycle of abuse and leave their abuser, they must heal from their trauma before moving on with their lives. Failure to resolve their past traumatic experiences means they’re more likely to fall back into another abusive relationship, as they’re particularly vulnerable to the form of manipulation abusers use to control the people around them.

Don’t stay silent

Emotional abuse doesn’t always lead to PTSD or C-PTSD, but it can. If you’re experiencing PTSD symptoms due to emotional or physical abuse, you shouldn’t ignore them. When you’re ready to begin recovery, get in touch to schedule your first appointment with one of our PTSD therapists. They’ll provide you with a safe outlet where you can vent your feelings while also giving the tools you need to manage your symptoms so you can improve your quality of life and have healthier, more fulfilling relationships in the future. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are symptoms of PTSD from emotional abuse?

Symptoms of PTSD from emotional abuse can include flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, avoidance of triggers, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating. Emotional abuse can have lasting psychological effects, leading to PTSD-like symptoms in some individuals. It’s essential to seek professional help for diagnosis and treatment.

How do you recover from emotional abuse PTSD?

Recovery from emotional abuse PTSD typically involves therapy, support from loved ones, and self-care. Seek professional help, like therapy or counseling, to address trauma.

Can you get PTSD from a toxic relationship?

Yes, it is possible to develop PTSD from a toxic relationship. Emotional abuse and trauma from such relationships can lead to lasting psychological distress, anxiety, and trauma-related symptoms. It’s essential to seek support and therapy if you’re experiencing these effects.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. If you are in a crisis or any other person may be in danger,  these resources can provide you with immediate help:
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988
24 Hour Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255
Crisis Text Line Text TALK to 741741