Navigating domestic violence isn’t easy and can lead to lasting mental health effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A home is your safe haven in a world that’s sometimes chaotic and stressful. But when there’s violence where you live, it can be a continuous source of stress and undermine your psychological stability.
Whether you’re an adult experiencing intimate partner violence, or a child living with domestic abuse from an adult, you can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD was formerly associated only with war veterans, but anyone can develop this condition.
Any traumatic event involving a threat to your safety — such as a car accident or natural disaster — can lead to PTSD. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD.
An estimated 70% of adults in the United States will experience a traumatic event at least once in their lifetime, but only about 20% of them will develop PTSD.
Domestic violence can activate the fight, flight, or freeze response, which can lead to PTSD.
Traumatic events such as accidents have an end point after which you can work on recovery. Other types of traumas such as domestic violence are long-term (chronic), meaning they continue or repeat indefinitely.
This type of ongoing trauma can lead to complex PTSD (C-PTSD).
In need of help right now?
If you’re in a domestic violence situation, you’re not alone. Millions of people each year live with and report domestic violence by an intimate or romantic partner.
Nothing you’ve done can make you “deserve” any form of abuse from a partner or anyone else.
There are steps you can try to navigate the situation until you feel it’s safe to leave. Psych Central offers several resources for survivors of domestic or intimate partner violence.
You can check out these Psych Central pages:
- How to Deal with Domestic Violence
- How to Leave an Abusive Relationship and Not Go Back
- How to Heal After an Abusive Relationship
If you’re unsure about whether your situation is an abusive one, consider checking out these pages:
Triggers are trauma reminders or prompts that activate your sympathetic nervous system response. They usually connect to your trauma in some way such as a location where domestic violence occurred.
When you witness a trigger, you may experience a physical reaction such as a startle response or elevated heart rate. A trauma trigger can cause an elevated reaction but the same sensory experience might not affect someone without PTSD.
Domestic violence triggers can include anything that reminds your brain of the person involved in your trauma:
- Sounds: breaking glass, slamming doors, or yelling
- Smells: cigarette smoke, coffee, or cologne
- Sights: the person’s style of clothing, hairstyle, or type of vehicle they drive
Triggers can be less direct, too. For example, you might see someone walking a dog. This might remind you of a conversation about dogs that you had with the person involved in the domestic violence you’ve experienced.
Long-term trauma can have lasting effects on the way your brain works. It can even change the shape of your brain.
According to a 2018 study, people living with PTSD may have smaller hippocampi. The hippocampus plays an important role in learning and memory.
Trauma can also change how you interact with your surroundings and other people. Your sympathetic nervous system remains activated, and you live in a state of hypervigilance against possible danger.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs lists the following as symptoms of C-PTSD:
- behavioral changes such as aggression and impulsivity
- emotional issues such as rage or depression
- cognitive signs such as changes in identity
- relationship difficulties
- physical symptoms with no apparent medical cause
You may also experience symptoms such as:
- difficulty sleeping
- shame or guilt
- trust issues
- avoidance tendencies
- startling easily
Relationship-based trauma such as domestic violence can change the way you interact with people. For example, you might find it harder to trust others.
Some people who’ve experienced domestic abuse feel like they don’t deserve a trauma-free relationship. They may repeatedly find themselves in dysfunctional relationships because they’re familiar.
A 2016 study found that children with a history of physical and sexual abuse were more likely to experience victimization by their peers once they reached adolescence.
Psychotherapy is an effective treatment approach for many people living with PTSD and C-PTSD. Options include:
- cognitive processing therapy
- prolonged exposure therapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- internal family systems (IFS)
- cognitive restructuring
Self-care strategies can also reduce the impact of trauma. Even if you feel too overwhelmed to make many changes at once, small lifestyle improvements can still make a difference:
- stress reduction
- supportive social contact
PTSD from domestic violence can make it hard to think objectively. An important part of coping is to understand that the situation isn’t your fault.
Finding someone you trust to talk with can help. An option to consider is an online support group where you can connect with others who share your experience.
Domestic violence can cause PTSD and C-PTSD and can have a lasting impact. It can affect the way you interact with the world, and even change the shape of your brain. You may also experience reactions such as flashbacks in response to triggers.
Therapy can help, as well as self-care strategies.
It can be difficult to reach out for help while domestic violence is ongoing. You might worry about making the situation worse.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has confidential support available online, by telephone at 800-799-SAFE (7233), text at 88788 (text the word “start”), and TTY at 1-800-787-3224.
Psych Central has a PTSD resource hub and mental health support page that you might find helpful.
If you or someone in your life needs urgent support, consider reaching out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is available 24/7:
- Online Lifeline Chat
- English: 800-273-8255 (or 800-TALK)
- Text: 838255
- Spanish: 888-628-9454