PTSD from domestic abuse

PTSD from domestic abuse

Post-traumatic stress disorder has been shown to occur as a result of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, intimate partner abuse is a far more common occurrence than most people would like to think and affects all genders.

Women’s Aid define domestic abuse as an “incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.”

Traumatic events like being a victim of domestic abuse can often lead to shame and confusion, particularly surrounding the way we respond to it. We wonder why we didn’t fight back or try to escape, and the reality is that we have little control over the defence mechanisms of our brains.

Even when the victim escapes their abusive partner, it can take time to adjust to a safe environment. This is particularly true if the perpetrator was very controlling and/or violent over a long period of time. When trauma is not processed properly, it can linger in the subconscious and cause severe psychological problems that inhibit a person’s day-to-day life.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD symptoms include intrusive memories of traumatic experiences, nightmares and physical distress like sweating, trembling or nausea. Other symptoms include:

– Avoiding people or places that remind you of traumatic experiences

– Ongoing anxiety or restlessness, including being easily startled, leading to irritability and sleep deprivation.

– Negative changes in beliefs, including loss of loving feelings towards others, a belief that the world is dangerous, and low self-esteem

How does domestic abuse cause PTSD?

PTSD can develop in anyone after experiencing or witnessing a major life-threatening event. This can include domestic abuse as it exposes the victim to extremes of fear and vulnerability.

The fear can become overwhelming during and after an experience of abuse. This can be exacerbated by the fact that the perpetrator remains close by, often for long periods of time.

Not every person who experiences trauma will go on to experience symptoms of PTSD. There are various protective and risk factors that can have an impact on whether or not PTSD develops. If the victim received emotional support after the traumatic event, this can help reduce the risk. But this requires close, trusted friends/family or conscientious people nearby willing to intervene.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the risk factors that increase the likelihood of PTSD include:

– Being female
– The severity of the trauma
– Being injured
– Having past trauma
– Extremes of fear or helplessness
– Lack of support immediately after the event
– Having to cope with additional stressors after the event
– A history of mental illness or addiction

What can help after experiencing domestic abuse?

The very first thing that can help in the aftermath of an instance of domestic abuse is to seek emotional support. This should come from a trusted person like a friend or family member. It’s important to escape the situation if possible, as the longer you are exposed to that fear and danger, the more likely it is that symptoms of PTSD will occur.

Unfortunately, the victim does not always have full control over their options when an intimate partner has been abusive. In some cases, the abuser may even seek the emotional support of the victim after a traumatic event, which inhibits the victim’s ability to care for themselves.

What treatments are there for PTSD after domestic abuse?

Every patient is different, and PTSD affects people in different ways, so a mental health professional with experience of PTSD must devise a treatment plan to treat the symptoms of the individual patient.

If the trauma is ongoing, such as when the victim is still in a relationship with the perpetrator, both problems must be addressed. It is unlikely to be possible to treat the victim’s PTSD if they are still experiencing the same trauma every day. People who feel trapped or hopeless often experience other mental health issues like depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts.

In most cases, PTSD is very treatable, so it’s important to seek help if you are experiencing symptoms.

What should I do if I think I may be suffering from PTSD?

Taking the first step to help yourself is often the hardest thing to do. Understand that it may take time for treatment to help, but you can get better. The first thing to do is to make an appointment with your GP and speak about your concerns. Your GP will be able to perform basic screening and either make a referral to a mental health service or give you the details to self-refer.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about what you are experiencing, we invite you to read more articles on the PTSD UK website.

For more support and information on Domestic Abuse, the following organisations are available:

  • National domestic abuse helpline 24-hour helpline: 0808 2000 247
  • Welsh Women’s Aid Live Fear Free 24-hour helpline: 0808 80 10 800
  • Scotland National Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriages 24-hour helpline: 0800 027 1234
  • Northern Ireland Domestic Abuse 24-hour helpline: 0808 802 1414
  • Men’s Advice Line 0808 801 0327
  • Police: 999 (press 55 when prompted if you can’t speak – please note: pressing 55 only works on mobiles and does not allow police to track your location.)

Online webchats and text services are also available.

If you are worried that someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, you can call Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline for free, confidential support, 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247. Visit the helpline website to access information on how to support a friend.

If you believe there is an immediate risk of harm to someone, or it is an emergency, always call 999.

PLEASE NOTE: Household isolation instructions as a result of coronavirus do not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse.


IMAGE: Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.