Can You Get PTSD From Emotional Abuse?

Have you considered clinical trials for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder¹ (PTSD) is a psychological condition defined by the onset of stress-related symptoms after a traumatic event. 

Many examples of traumatic events exist, including sexual and physical violence and the threat of death or harm to an individual or their loved ones. People can also experience PTSD after learning about their loved ones’ traumatic experiences. 

Situations threatening physical harm and death are not the only causes of PTSD. Experts have found that a form of PTSD can also be caused by emotional abuse. While classic PTSD results from a single, highly traumatic event, recurring or long-term trauma can cause a form of the disorder known as complex PTSD² or C-PTSD. 

Although some experts believe it should be classified as a separate disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) currently classifies C-PTSD under the umbrella of PTSD, and people with C-PTSD usually receive a general diagnosis of PTSD. 

However, the World Health Organization³ does classify these two disorders differently. The diagnosis of C-PTSD includes all of the symptoms of PTSD, along with trouble with emotional regulation, negative self-concept (such as feeling intense shame or guilt), and problems forming relationships.

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD can result in a range of symptoms. These are primarily psychological but can also be physical. 

PTSD is categorized in the DSM⁴, a manual that provides consistent definitions for psychological conditions. In the most recent revision of the DSM, the DSM-5, PTSD symptoms are split into four categories. These are: 

  • Intrusion symptoms

  • Avoidance symptoms

  • Negative alterations in cognition and mood symptoms

  • Arousal and reactivity turbulence symptoms 

To be diagnosed with PTSD from the DSM-5, you must experience symptoms for at least a month. You must also have symptoms from all four categories, and they should interfere with your daily functioning. 

Each of the above categories is broken down in more detail below. 

Intrusion symptoms

Intrusion symptoms often involve what we think of as “flashbacks” to the traumatic event or experience that caused the PTSD. Intrusion could include intrusive and vivid memories and dreams. 

Additionally, dissociation can occur. This is when the individual disconnects from their current surroundings, memory, or identity. Intrusion symptoms often result from triggers, such as a reminder of a traumatic event, and cause significant psychological distress. 

Avoidance symptoms

As their name suggests, avoidance symptoms involve avoiding physical reminders, memories, or thoughts associated with traumatic events. People affected by PTSD often try to cope by “blocking out” triggering memories and thoughts. 

Negative alterations in cognition and mood symptoms

This category of symptoms is varied but mainly involves mood and emotions. It can include dissociation to the point of memory loss. 

Ongoing negativity is typical, involving a pessimistic worldview and a negative emotional state. People can also experience a feeling of numbness, detachment, and possible inability to feel happiness, excitement, and other positive emotions.  

Arousal and reactivity turbulence symptoms

These symptoms include outward expressions, such as bursts of anger and self-destructive tendencies. People experience a sense of hypervigilance where they’re constantly wondering and worrying about potential threats. They may also have issues with focusing and sleep. 

People also ask: How does PTSD affect interpersonal relationships?

PTSD can be challenging to live with and can impact your interpersonal relationships. For example, research⁵ on military veterans found that PTSD is linked strongly to relationship and family issues, including a higher divorce rate.

Studies⁶ have shown that people with PTSD may struggle with attachment or forming close and trusting relationships with others. This issue may be due to negative feelings about oneself (like shame and guilt) and constantly feeling on guard and fearful.

Complex PTSD resulting from emotional abuse can make it particularly hard for the affected person to trust others again, as they’ve been harmed repeatedly by someone they trusted.

Fortunately, there is help available. Therapy can support many people who have relationship issues resulting from PTSD.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse⁷ is a phenomenon that can be difficult to identify and define because it’s broad and can have many different origins. It’s also considered a more “hidden” form of abuse, as the damage caused by the abuser may be less obvious or apparent. 

With emotional abuse, the abuser uses non-physical methods to control or manipulate someone. Emotional abuse can involve: 

  • threats 

  • cruelty 

  • taunting

  • humiliation 

  • verbal aggression 

Emotional abuse isn’t limited to these behaviors. People’s experience of emotional abuse is often defined by the trauma it causes and its ongoing effects. 

Childhood emotional abuse can be particularly harmful because it can affect and undermine a child’s development, causing long-term effects and possibly contributing to PTSD. Emotional abuse among adults commonly occurs in romantic relationships, particularly among younger people. 

Effects of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse has wide-ranging effects on both physical and mental health. Importantly, it’s regarded as a traumatic event that can result in PTSD. 

Many studies⁸ have looked at the impact of childhood emotional abuse on PTSD and other mental and physical health conditions. However, emotional abuse during adulthood⁹ is also known to cause PTSD. For instance, domestic emotional abuse situations can be incredibly traumatic. 

Emotional abuse and mental health

Emotional abuse can have significant impacts on mental health. A study¹⁰ of women experiencing various types of abuse found that emotional abuse was significantly associated with psychological symptoms, like suicidal ideation. 

Childhood emotional abuse can be particularly harmful because children experience critical periods of cognitive and emotional development. These are times when important developmental events occur, and emotional abuse threatens to disrupt them. It may not be possible to make up for missed developmental stages later in life.

In fact, childhood emotional abuse has already been linked to mental health problems later in life, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. This phenomenon isn’t limited to childhood emotional abuse. Physical abuse can also cause these effects.

Emotional abuse and physical health

The effects of emotional abuse aren’t limited to psychological impacts. Surprisingly, emotional abuse can affect a person’s physical health.

Studies¹¹ of the long-term implications of emotional abuse for children have found that emotional abuse connects strongly to some health-related factors. For instance, emotional abuse is linked to both obesity and smoking later in life. These increase the risk of serious health issues, like heart disease and stroke.

Emotional abuse and PTSD

Like any other form of abuse, emotional abuse can be incredibly traumatic. As with any traumatic event (or series of events), it has the potential to lead to PTSD.

In fact, a study on childhood trauma found that emotional abuse in childhood produced more severe symptoms of PTSD. Emotional abuse of children was often considered the causal event for their PTSD.

In addition, for those with PTSD caused by other traumatic events, emotional abuse was found to worsen the condition.

The evidence also makes it clear that emotional abuse in adulthood significantly impacts mental health, including potentially causing PTSD. However, there is far less research on emotional abuse in adulthood and resulting PTSD. This is an area where more investigation is needed.

People also ask: How does PTSD affect children differently?

Children can experience severe, life-long impacts from PTSD due to their developing brains being negatively affected by the trauma. This disorder can permanently impact their emotional and cognitive development.

Children don’t always express their thoughts directly, but they may display them indirectly. For example, children with PTSD may engage in repetitive trauma-related play activities.

They may also show regression in their behavior, meaning they seem to move “backward” in their development. A child may start wetting the bed again after being fully toilet trained. Some children with PTSD also stop talking, even though they previously could talk.

PTSD treatments

Many options for treatment and management are available for those with PTSD due to emotional abuse or other forms of trauma. The most effective treatments are mainly therapy-based, including cognitive behavior therapy and exposure therapy. 

Another form of therapy-based treatment is called eye movement desensitization and restructuring, a way of processing traumatic memories using repeated, controlled eye movement. Some medications are also prescribed to people with PTSD to help them manage their symptoms. 

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavior therapy¹² is a specialized therapy designed to help people with psychological disorders like PTSD. It’s considered one of the gold-standard treatments for PTSD. Cognitive behavior therapy involves investigating negative thinking patterns and beliefs and trying to alter these patterns. 

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy involves repeatedly recalling traumatic memories with a therapist. You may also be gradually exposed to situations that trigger fear and anxiety related to your PTSD.

By bringing up the memories in a safe and nurturing environment, your brain will slowly learn that it’s no longer necessary to be afraid, and you’ll be less likely to panic when these memories come up in your daily life.

Eye movement desensitization and restructuring (EMDR)

EMDR is a form of exposure therapy. The technique involves recalling traumatic memories while rhythmic physical stimulation is performed on both sides of the body at the same time. This may involve eye movements, tones, or tapping.

EMDR is believed to help the brain fully process the experience, so the memory no longer causes an anxiety response.

People also ask: when are you ready to start recovery?

PTSD can only be diagnosed after a month of symptoms, which must be severe enough to interfere with daily functioning. Within the first few weeks after a traumatic situation, you may experience PTSD-like symptoms, such as extreme stress and even panic. Although this time can be very challenging, it’s considered a part of a normal adjustment period to have symptoms like these in the month after a traumatic event.

You can consult a doctor or psychologist for support during this period if you’d like some help getting through it. However, it’s only possible to be diagnosed with PTSD after having symptoms for at least a month.

Once you’re diagnosed, it’s a good idea to start exploring treatment options as soon as possible. 

The lowdown

PTSD is a psychological condition caused by traumatic events. It results in several symptoms, from flashbacks and dissociation to low mood, anger, and hypervigilance. PTSD can look different for each person who experiences the condition.

Studies have found that emotional abuse can cause PTSD and other mental and physical health issues. Emotional abuse is a phenomenon that can involve threats, intimidation, taunting, humiliation, and verbal aggression.

The links between emotional abuse in childhood and PTSD are clear. However, emotional abuse in adulthood can also cause the condition. More research is needed to learn about the specific issues caused by emotional abuse during adulthood. Luckily, many treatments for PTSD are available, including specialized therapies and some medications.

  1. A review of epigenetic contributions to post-traumatic stress disorder (2019)

  2. Complex PTSD - Post-traumatic stress disorder | NHS

  3. 6B41 Complex post traumatic stress disorder (2022)

  4. PTSD: National center for PTSD | U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

  5. Military-related PTSD and intimate relationships: From description to theory-driven research and intervention development (2010)

  6. Childhood trauma, attachment orientation, and complex PTSD (CPTSD) symptoms in a clinical sample: Implications for treatment (2021)

  7. Is emotional abuse as harmful as physical and/or sexual abuse? (2020)

  8. The effect of parental emotional abuse on the severity and treatment of PTSD symptoms in children and adolescents (2021)

  9. Psychological and pharmacological interventions for posttraumatic stress disorder and comorbid mental health problems following complex traumatic events: Systematic review and component network meta-analysis (2020)

  10. The role of emotional abuse in intimate partner violence and health among women in Yokohama, Japan (2009)

  11. The long-term health consequences of child physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect: A systematic review and meta-analysis (2012)

  12. Cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety and related disorders: A meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials (2019)

Other sources:

Have you considered clinical trials for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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