Emotional abuse is often harder to recognize than other forms of abuse, but its effects can be just as profound. Healing is possible.
Emotional abuse involves a broad range of tactics, including shaming and gaslighting, which are meant to leave you feeling powerless, hopeless, and less.
In some cases, the signs of emotional abuse are so subtle that you might not be sure you’re on the receiving end.
Depending on the types of emotional abuse and how long you’ve been dealing with these behaviors, you might experience different effects on your emotional, physical, and mental health.
Some people experience emotional abuse over many years, such as during childhood or the course of a romantic relationship.
But you can also experience more acute or short-term instances of emotional abuse, such as a casual exchange with a stranger or interactions with colleagues or friends.
You might be more likely to experience both long- and short-term impacts of emotional abuse if you’ve dealt with these behaviors for many years as a child or an adult.
But abuse can affect you even if you experience it once.
Even if you’re not aware of the abusive behaviors or you feel they don’t affect you, they’re still abusive if that was the intention.
Short-term effects of emotional abuse
- isolation and loneliness
- low self-esteem
- fear when interacting with others
- avoidance of activities related to the incident
- feelings of powerlessness
Long-term effects of emotional abuse
- mental health conditions
- neuroticism, or the tendency toward low mood and negative emotions like anger
- chronic stress
- physical health challenges like body aches and heart palpitations
- attachment challenges
- emotional disconnect or apathy
What are the effects of emotional abuse in children?
Children who experience emotional abuse may go through some of these effects:
- Behavioral changes. Children may
appear to“act out,” show signs of attention deficity hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and sometimes become abusive toward other children. Self-harm and suicidal thoughts can also be effects of emotional abuse on a child.
- Emotional development. Children who experience emotional abuse might have more difficulty managing their responses to difficult emotions. They may also seem less emotionally mature than their peers, as abuse could make it harder to grow a trusting relationship with their own emotions.
- Maladaptive coping. Research from 2014 highlights how childhood emotional abuse can lead to the development of unhelpful ways of coping in women who have experienced it. For example, it can lead to numbing or disconnecting from emotions. Other kids may resort to fantasy and imagination, leading to avoidant behaviors and isolation over time.
Long-term emotional abuse can potentially impact your brain, especially if the abuse happened during childhood when the brain is still developing.
These are some of the ways research suggests emotional abuse can impact your brain:
- Emotional understanding and empathy. Early emotional abuse could cause changes to the hippocampus that make it harder to empathize with the emotions of others.
- Self-awareness. Emotional abuse is
linkedto thinning of certain areas of the brain that help you manage emotions and be self-aware — especially the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe.
- Epigenetic changes and depression. Research from 2018 has connected childhood abuse to
epigeneticbrain changes that may cause depression. Epigenetic refers to how your environment and behaviors affect your genes. In particular, the study found changes to certain genes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is an area of the brain that’s involved in the stress response.
If you’ve experienced emotional abuse for a while, you might inadvertently think these behaviors are to be expected from partners, family, or friends.
Chronic emotional abuse could affect how you see yourself in relationships and your tolerance toward certain behaviors.
You might experience some of the following effects:
- Codependency. Long-term emotional abuse can make you feel as if your needs don’t matter as much as everyone else’s. This can lead to codependent behaviors or ignoring your own needs and boundaries. You might also engage in people-pleasing behaviors or tend to establish relationships with abusive partners.
- Fear of abandonment. If emotional distance was used as a manipulation tactic, you might feel high levels of stress or abandonment anxiety in your relationships. This could manifest as a behavior sometimes labeled “clinginess” that’s often rooted in a deep fear of losing your support system.
- Trust challenges. Past emotional abuse can make it harder for you to trust even a supportive, compassionate partner. When you’ve been let down in the past, it can take courage and vulnerability to trust that another person won’t hurt you again on purpose.
- Difficulty being authentic. If the emotional abuse you experienced often took the form of criticism or picking you apart, you might have internalized some of these comments leading you to feel shame. As a result, it could seem difficult and scary to open up to a partner, leading to emotional distance in the relationship.
The way you view and relate to yourself can also change in the wake of chronic or isolated emotional abuse:
- Low self-esteem. Emotional abuse that consists of put-downs can wear your self-esteem thin, leading to feelings of worthlessness. It might make you feel like you’re less deserving or valid than the people around you.
- Self-doubt. Emotional abuse called gaslighting can make you question your own thoughts, abilities, and perception of reality. If you’ve been continuously gaslit, you might notice you have less confidence in your own instincts. You might question yourself more often, tend to self-sabotage, or have more difficulty identifying and trusting your own feelings.
- Shame. Sometimes emotional abuse involves behaviors intended to making you feel ashamed of parts of who you are, such as personality quirks, likes and dislikes, or hopes for the future. This can cause you to stifle parts of your identity to avoid feeling the shame associated with them.
Unaddressed effects of emotional abuse can lead to mental health conditions over time. These may include:
- Social anxiety. According to
2015 researchthat studied adults from Israel, emotional abuse in childhood may lead to social anxiety disorder. This happens when the abuse creates feelings of shame and inadequacy, as well as self-criticism, making you more prone to fearfulness when you interact with others.
- Depression. Emotional abuse in childhood is strongly linked to depression in adulthood. Experts suggest this can happen when behaviors undermine your capacity for self-compassion and fosters shame.
- Eating disorders. When emotional abuse leads to high levels of self-criticism, it may increase your chances of developing an eating disorder, including binge eating, bulimia, and anorexia.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD (C-PTSD). Research suggests emotional abuse and bullying can cause symptoms that meet the criteria for PTSD or C-PTSD.
Several physical impacts are also connected to past experiences of chronic emotional abuse:
- Chronic pain.
Research from 2018suggests adverse childhood experiences including emotional abuse could increase your chances of experiencing forms of chronic pain, such as back pain and headaches.
- Fibromyalgia. Past emotional abuse may be more common in people with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome, suggests 2015 research that studied 34 patients with the condition. The study connected fibromyalgia to unresolved trauma and attachment trauma.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Emotional abuse has been
foundto predict IBS, which can involve painful bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
If emotional abuse has impacted any aspects of your life, healing is possible with time, patience, and lots of self-compassion.
Working with a compassionate mental health professional is one way to address the effects of emotional abuse.