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Can emotional abuse cause anxiety?

Emotional abuse, also called psychological abuse, can have severe and long-lasting effects on mental health. Emotional abuse involves non-physical behaviors such as threats, insults, constant monitoring, isolation, humiliation, intimidation, denial of access to finances, or making the victim feel guilty or crazy. This type of abuse can occur in both intimate relationships and in caregiver relationships. Emotional abuse erodes a victim’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth, often leading to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse involves patterns of behavior that impair, dismiss, or damage the victim’s well-being. Acts of emotional abuse send harmful messages to the victim, eroding their sense of self-worth and self-esteem over time. This may include:

  • Insults, name-calling, put downs
  • Yelling, swearing, screaming
  • Threats, intimidation
  • Isolation, restricting outside relationships
  • Extreme jealousy, invasion of privacy
  • Silent treatment, disregarding feelings
  • Gaslighting – making the victim question reality
  • Trivializing feelings, mocking concerns
  • Financial control, restricted access to money

Unlike physical abuse which may result in visible scars or injuries, emotional abuse leaves no physical signs. However, victims often describe feeling helpless, stuck, depressed, anxious, worthless, insecure, confused, and suicidal.

How common is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is very common. Studies indicate:

  • Over 80% of people seeking counseling for domestic abuse report emotional abuse.
  • Around 25% of American women and 10% of men experience some form of emotional abuse by an intimate partner.
  • Up to 90% of current or former psychotic patients report emotional abuse in caregiver relationships.
  • Over 60% of emotional child abuse cases involve emotional maltreatment only, without physical abuse.

These statistics likely under-represent the true rates of emotional abuse, since many victims do not recognize or report the behavior. Emotional abuse often occurs gradually, in patterns that the victim normalizes. Many abusers are adept at concealing their actions from outsiders. The absence of physical signs also makes emotional abuse difficult to identify and substantiate.

How does emotional abuse impact mental health?

The cumulative effects of emotional abuse can be extremely damaging to mental health. Emotional abuse may result in:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Self-harm

The tactics used in emotional abuse actively undermine the victim’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth. The abuser’s hurtful words and behaviors send constant messages that the victim is flawed, unimportant, and unworthy of love or respect. Over time, the victim internalizes these messages, coming to believe the abuser’s depictions of them. This steadily erodes the victim’s confidence and stability, leading to severe psychological impacts.


Anxiety is one of the most common mental health consequences of emotional abuse. Living with regular threats, criticism, isolation, and coercion keeps victims in a prolonged state of fear and hypervigilance. Anxiety may become an ingrained reaction to the abuser’s presence and behaviors. Even after escaping the abuse, trauma can cause anxiety to persist, potentially manifesting as:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – ongoing, irrational worry
  • Panic attacks – sudden surges of fear, racing heart, dizziness
  • Agoraphobia – fear of leaving home, public places
  • Social anxiety – extreme fear of social situations
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – repetitive thoughts and rituals
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – flashbacks, hypervigilance after abuse


Depression is another common effect of emotional abuse. The abuser’s demeaning actions and statements teach the victim to see themselves as worthless and defective. Eventually, the victim internalizes these negative self-perceptions, viewing themselves as inadequate, unlovable, and hopeless. This can manifest as symptoms of clinical depression such as:

  • Sadness, emptiness, or numbness
  • Tearfulness or breakdowns
  • Frustration, anger, and irritability
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  • Fatigue, lack of energy and motivation
  • Sleep disturbances – insomnia or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Living with the constant stress of emotional abuse can overactivate the body’s fear response, similar to the effects of trauma. Eventually, the nervous system has trouble returning to normal functioning, remaining hypervigilant and sensitized. PTSD involves re-experiencing trauma through intrusive memories, flashbacks, and nightmares. Symptoms may include:

  • Inability to remember key details of trauma
  • Avoidance of people or situations associated with the trauma
  • Negative thoughts and feelings – anger, shame, sadness
  • Feeling tense, on edge, trouble relaxing
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability, increased aggression
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Trouble sleeping


Thoughts of suicide or self-harm are not uncommon following emotional abuse. Victims become convinced of their own worthlessness and burdensomeness to others. Seeing no way out, some resort to self-destruction. Warning signs include:

  • Expressing a desire to die or commit suicide
  • Talking about feeling hopeless, trapped, or suicidal
  • Withdrawing from loved ones and social activities
  • Giving away possessions
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family
  • Self-destructive behavior – cutting, risky sexual behavior
  • Preoccupation with death in conversation, writing, drawing

If you or a loved one shows these signs, seek help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

Are some people more vulnerable to effects of emotional abuse?

While anyone can experience emotional abuse, some factors increase vulnerability to its harmful impacts:

  • Previous trauma – Past emotional, physical or sexual abuse makes one more susceptible to re-traumatization.
  • Age – Elderly and children have increased dependence on caregivers.
  • Physical disability – Reliance on abuser for care needs.
  • Mental illness – Decreased ability to recognize or escape abuse.
  • Isolation – Lack of outside contacts to provide reality testing.
  • Financial insecurity – Inability to become independent of abuser.

With trauma, age tends to increase vulnerability. Childhood emotional abuse can profoundly impact development, personality, and self-esteem. Later in life, declining cognitive skills and physical health make the elderly more dependent on potentially abusive caregivers.

Is emotional abuse considered domestic violence?

Yes, emotional abuse absolutely qualifies as a form of domestic violence or intimate partner violence (IPV). Historically, domestic violence focused on physical assault in heterosexual relationships. However, the definition has expanded to include emotional, verbal, psychological, sexual, and financial abuse as well. Same-sex couples experience IPV at similar rates as heterosexual couples.

While physical abuse may be more visible, emotional abuse can be equally damaging due to its persistent nature and ability to undermine self-worth. In fact, emotional abuse often precedes or accompanies physical violence. Perpetrators often use emotional tactics to establish control before escalating to physical force.

Can men be victims of emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse affects both men and women. However, some key gender differences exist:

  • Women experience higher rates of intimate partner emotional abuse.
  • Male victims are more reluctant to report emotional abuse due to social stigma.
  • Abusive tactics used against men often involve attacks on their masculinity.
  • Men face more barriers in accessing resources due to lack of support systems.

Society tends to paint domestic abuse as a female issue. But men deal with many of the same harmful impacts to mental health. Increased awareness and support services for male survivors are still needed.

What should you do if you are being emotionally abused?

Recognizing emotional abuse is the first step. Many victims do not realize they are being abused, especially if no physical harm occurs. Consider if your partner or caregiver:

  • Calls you names, puts you down or humiliates you
  • Isolates you from family or friends
  • Explosive temper, mood swings, yelling
  • Controls how you spend money
  • Threatens to hurt you or loved ones
  • Damages property
  • Accuses you of cheating and being possessive
  • Controls where you go and who you see
  • Intimidates with weapons
  • Stalks you or monitors your activities

If you see a pattern of these behaviors, seek help. Talk to someone you trust – friends, family, clergy, doctors, counselors, or call a domestic abuse hotline. Abuse tends to escalate over time. Develop a safety plan and consider legal protections, counseling support, and terminating the relationship. You deserve to feel safe, respected, and free.

How can friends and family help victims of emotional abuse?

Loved ones play a crucial role in assisting emotional abuse victims:

  • Listen – Allow the victim to share feelings without judgment.
  • Validate – Acknowledge their experiences and don’t minimize the abuse.
  • Provide resources – Share hotline numbers, legal services, counseling referrals.
  • Help make a safety plan – Brainstorm strategies to reduce risks.
  • Offer shelter – Provide a place to stay to escape the abuser if needed.
  • Remain patient – Understand leaving abuse can take time.
  • Give ongoing support – Check in regularly even after separation.

Avoid blaming or pressuring the victim. Building up their confidence and autonomy will support the path to healing.

Can therapy help victims recover from emotional abuse?

Therapy plays an invaluable role for emotional abuse victims. Psychological counseling can:

  • Help build self-esteem and autonomy.
  • Teach coping strategies for anxiety, depression, PTSD.
  • Support processing trauma.
  • Provide solutions to escape the abuse.
  • Give tools to identify and avoid future unhealthy relationships.
  • Refer to other services – legal, financial, housing, medical.

Therapy helps counteract the destructive messages of abuse with more positive self-perceptions. A skilled therapist provides a non-judgmental space to work through complex feelings. They can also assess if psychiatric medications may help manage mental health symptoms. Peer support groups also offer understanding and validation from fellow abuse survivors.

Key types of therapy include:

  • Individual counseling – One-on-one meetings with a therapist to talk about emotional abuse experiences. This allows personalized treatment plans.
  • Group therapy – Connecting with other abuse survivors provides support and accountability for recovery.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – Identifies harmful thought patterns from abuse and replaces them with healthier beliefs.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) – Handles extreme emotions, reduces self-destructive coping.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – Uses bilateral stimulation to reprocess traumatic memories.

Seeking counseling takes courage but can greatly speed the healing process. Therapy empowers victims to build the fulfilling lives they deserve, free of abuse. Many options exist for low-cost and sliding-scale therapy services.

What legal protections exist for emotional abuse victims?

Laws regarding emotional abuse vary based on location. Some key legal interventions possible include:

  • Restraining orders – Requires the abuser to keep distance from the victim.
  • No contact orders – Prevents direct or indirect contact with the victim.
  • Protection orders – Prohibits abuse, stalking, harassment.
  • Financial compensation – Repayment for monetary losses or medical bills.
  • Divorce and child custody – Emotional abuse can impact these family court rulings.
  • Abuser intervention programs – Court-ordered counseling for domestic violence offenders.
  • Jail time – Serious emotional abuse may warrant criminal charges. Laws are improving to punish psychological harm.

Documenting a pattern of abusive behaviors will strengthen legal action. Seeking advocacy through domestic violence organizations can help navigate the legal system.

Can emotional abuse be prevented?

Preventing emotional abuse requires education at individual and societal levels. Key strategies include:

  • Learning about healthy relationships – Knowing signs of abuse can prevent becoming a victim or abuser.
  • Speaking up against abuse – Friends and family should voice concern over toxic behaviors.
  • Teaching emotional intelligence – Recognizing and managing emotions prevents hurtful actions.
  • Reducing poverty – Financial insecurity makes leaving abuse difficult.
  • Challenging gender roles – Rigid norms of masculinity/femininity enable abuse of power.
  • Improving mental health care – Better access to support prevents abuse linked to psychiatric disorders.
  • Domestic violence outreach – Programs offering help-lines, shelters, legal aid.

With greater public awareness, survivors speaking out, and treatment for aggressors, society can reduce instances of emotional abuse.


Emotional abuse can be a devastating experience with long-lasting mental health impacts. Victims face heightened risks for anxiety, depression, PTSD, self-harm, and other effects. Recognizing abusive patterns and seeking help through counseling and legal protections can mitigate the damage. Friends and family play key supporting roles for victims traversing the path to healing. With proper understanding and support, survivors can emerge renewed with greater emotional resilience and self-worth.