Abuse comes in all shapes and sizes and doesn't discriminate. These kinds of relationships can happen to anyone, unfortunately, and it's not always obvious — to outside observers or even, sometimes, to you — that it's actually going on in the first place. Sifting through what's happening in your own mind and determining if there's emotional abuse in your relationship isn't always easy. Sometimes it takes a professional or close confidant to point it out to you for you recognize how serious the situation is. Emotional abuse isn't entirely hidden, however. There are physical signs you're being emotionally abused that you might not even realize can be signs, things that you wouldn't have thought were linked, but actually are. Seeking help if you suspect or know that your relationship is emotionally abusive or encouraging someone else to do the same is important.
"If you or someone you know may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, please seek help for a mental health professional and/or contact your local Domestic Violence Hotline," Melissa Dumaz, MS, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Romper in an email exchange. Don't assume that things will get better on their own.
"It is not your job to change the abuser," therapist Kimberly Hershenson tells Romper by email. "It is up to them to learn to change the way they respond when they are angry or stressed as well as understanding their patterns of controlling behavior. If your partner is unwilling to get help it is best to end the relationship."
These physical signs of emotional abuse can help provide insight into what might be going on in your relationship. If you notice them and notice that they match up with other characteristics of emotional abuse — like controlling behaviors — reaching out to a qualified therapist might be a good next step.
"With emotional abuse the common physical manifestation is anxiety or depression," Hershenson says. And with anxiety or depression can come a whole host of other physical symptoms. One such symptom is migraines. Though, of course, there can be many other reasons for your migraines, if you're dealing with intense stress, tension, or anxiety in your life related to emotional abuse in your relationship, that's one potential way your body might be trying to let you know.
2. Stomach Issues
Hershenson also says that stomach and digestive issues like acid reflux can be a potential way that something like emotional abuse could take a physical form. These kinds of relationships and situations can be extremely stressful (and, of course, exceedingly traumatic) and stress can really take a toll.
3. Fear Of Making A Mistake
"Emotional abuse is an attempt to control another person without the use of physical abuse. Although emotional abuse leave no physical mark, it is still abuse, it is still real, and it can be hurtful," Dumaz says. She also notes that those who've been emotionally abused often have a real fear of making mistakes. If you know that there's a good chance that you'll be berated or otherwise emotionally manipulated or verbally attacked for making a mistake, it makes sense that you'd try to ensure that it doesn't happen.
So many things — physical, mental, and emotional — can cause pain. And while emotional abuse isn't the same as physical abuse and might not always be as obviously-associated with pain as physical abuse, it too can cause you to feel a lot of pain. "Any kind of trauma is going to affect the autonomic nervous system — which most of us know as the 'fight or flight' instinct— and have effects on the body," Abby Thompson, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist, tells Romper in an email exchange. "Your body has a reaction to fight back, or flee, or freeze, or submit, and in abuse you likely can't carry that out, so the physical action might get 'stuck.'" This, she says, can result in those dealing with emotional abuse to experience real pain.
Again, if you feel as though you have to walk on eggshells around your partner or someone else, it follows that you might be hyper-vigilant as to your words, actions, and behaviors — and others'. Dumaz says that hyper-vigilance can certainly be a way that emotional abuse manifests physically. You have to be alert so much of the time.
6. Feelings Of Panic
When your body is responding to a threat, like in the case of emotional abuse, you can definitely experience feelings of panic, as Thompson notes. Again, there's so much stress, tension, and anxiety that can be associated with run-ins with someone who is emotionally abusive. Because you want to protect yourself however you can from the trauma, it makes sense that you'd feel panicked and shaken.
7. Postures To Protect Yourself
"People are often going to try to protect themselves from emotional abuse as they would [from] a blow — rounded shoulders, minimal eye contact, ready to defend themselves or run — even if they're not actually going to do that," Thompson says. If you seem to be carrying a lot of tension in your shoulders, feel like you can't or don't want to make eye contact with the person, or otherwise seem to be trying to keep yourself safe — which is only natural — that could be a sure sign that your body is physically responding to emotional abuse or an otherwise potentially-traumatic situation.
'"Any effects of trauma should be celebrated, even if they are problematic right now, because it's your body's brilliant way of keeping you safe," Thompson says. "When we acknowledge how useful the symptoms have been, they are a lot easier to treat!"
Take note of these and other physical reactions that might mean your body is trying to clue you in to the fact that something serious is going on. And make sure to reach out to qualified professionals if you need help.
EDITOR'S NOTE: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
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