Traumatic stress is a natural reaction after exposure to a terrifying event or a series of independent incidents that we find distressing. It is not only caused by physical scenarios – It can also manifest after exposure to unpleasant emotional influences.

After exposure to a frightening event, our brains are alert to danger, but usually our nerves soon settle down and we resume a calm composure. However, if the circumstances have an extraordinary impact on us, the fallout can be more comprehensive and last for a long time. This lingering stress-effect is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Normally, we prefer to feel safe, comfortable and happy. This condition is known as homeostasis. Our brains have an autonomous ability to “fade out” memories of unpleasant incidents and to return us to a state of homeostasis. However, the memories do not disappear – they are just consciously ignored.

When we suppress thoughts of unresolved incidents, we may be less aware of them, but the part of our brains responsible for survival, will continue to nag us. For instance, it will continue to urge us to eat when we need nutrition. It also keeps a record of any threats that we experience and keeps prompting us when these threats are not resolved. It also stores any solutions that we previously used to survive a threat.

Sometimes, if trauma, or the threat it represents, is not properly resolved, our survival instincts will keep asking us for a resolution. It does this by injecting intrusive, anxious thoughts into our conscious minds. If we keep suppressing it, it can lead to a host of disorders, including PTSD, that negatively affects us.

The trauma of unresolved emotional abuse is a “threat” that our subconscious often pursues endlessly until we deal with it. What makes emotional abuse a dilemma, is that it can be subjective, leaves no visible wound, and can be hard to prove. We may keep suppressing it because we simply do not know how to resolve it.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is the use of manipulation and intimidation to undermine and control another person’s self-esteem, independence and credibility. Methods used by emotional abusers include the following:

  • Shouting and swearing at you
  • Setting unrealistic goals for you
  • Frequently insulting, blaming you
  • Forcing unfair obligations on you
  • Making you feel guilty, ashamed
  • Ignoring your remarks, opinions
  • Isolating you from other people
  • Limiting your freedom of movement
  • Invading your privacy, spying on you
  • Accusing you of being untrustworthy
  • Rejecting your complaints as baseless
  • Unfavourably comparing you to others
  • Making you financially dependent
  • Intimidating, threatening, scaring you
  • Using influence or authority to gag you
  • Threat of public humiliation, embarrassment

For more information on Emotional Abuse see this video here.

Defenses against emotional abuse

When someone is influenced by emotional abuse, they tend to adopt defense mechanisms to protect them from anguish. These strategies operate at a subconscious level. Unfortunately, though victims may be less cognitively aware of it, they are still affected by their emotions and the defenses they utilise.

Some of the many defense mechanisms include:

  • Dissociation: Disconnecting from thoughts, feelings, and people around you.
  • Denial: Rejecting the recognition, acceptance or existence of a problem.
  • Displacement: Taking your frustrations out on an innocent third party.
  • Rationalisation: Distortion of facts to make a problem seem less threatening.
  • Self-medication: Use of mind altering substances, triggered by subconscious emotions.

The residue of failed trauma protection

Many trauma victims fall prey to self-deprecation and adopt internal defense mechanisms to cope with it. Inappropriate coping mechanisms lead to severe problems, such as anxiety, depression, distrust, poor relationships, alcohol and drug usage, and a long list of other comorbid mental and physical disorders, unless the suppressed residue of emotional trauma is removed.

When people are subjected to emotional trauma, especially when their assertions are rejected by others, they can harbour internal feelings of anger, humiliation, inadequacy, guilt, shame, frustration and self-loathing. They can then “lock in” these emotions, where it can fester and grow internally over a long period of time. This is part of PTSD and C-PTSD.

To purge themselves of the pent-up emotions, victims have to open up, by vocalising their feelings and redirecting it outwards. In order to do so effectively, they need professional help to identify the lingering emotions and to be educated about exactly how to accomplish healing.

During therapy, a psychotherapist can bring a patient’s subconscious turmoil to the surface, assist them to relieve the inner pressure and enable them, through further education, not just to cope with it into the future, but also to create new perspectives and to gain normal levels of fulfillment and wellbeing.

Disclaimer: Public platforms provide general information for broad audiences. Individuals are required to consult suitably qualified professionals for personal legal and health advice.

Contributed by Dr Johan van Zyl @ Recovery Direct