I have met with dozens of survivors of domestic violence since I first started providing counseling services as an intern and later as a licensed professional. Many times, survivors of domestic violence describe feeling detached or disconnected with other people and with themselves. Survivors often tell me they feel like they were a completely different person in the past, that they want to bridge their past and present “selves”, and they want to reconnect with who they “used to be.” This post identifies some of the symptoms teen and adult survivors of domestic violence experience that keep them disconnected and provides a few ideas about how to manage those symptoms.
Some symptoms of abuse are physical in nature. There may or may not be physical signs of injury, like bruises. Physical symptoms might include things like panic attacks, stomach aches, headaches, racing heart, suicidal behavior, shortness of breath, being easily startled, disturbed sleep, and increased use of alcohol or other substances. Physical symptoms begin having negative effects on the abused person’s life as they start using avoidance to manage the symptoms. People with constant fear and stomach aches, for instance, may start calling in to work or neglecting their job duties which can lead to financial problems or job loss.
There are also cognitive symptoms related to abuse that include unwanted thoughts and mental images called flashbacks where survivors feel like they’re reliving an abusive moment. Unwanted thoughts can be triggered by anything in the environment that reminds the survivor of the abuse. Survivors may feel triggered by news reports, odors, sounds, people with an appearance or mannerisms similar to their abuser, or symptoms may seem to come out of the blue.
Emotional symptoms of abuse include feelings of grief, depression, guilt, anger, irritability, numbness, confusion, shock, exhaustion, fear, and self-doubt. Survivors who struggle to manage their emotional symptoms often find that their relationships with friends and family are strained since the survivors feel reactive and unable to maintain healthy connections with the people closest to them. Building communication skills can help survivors convey what it is they’re feeling. The process of abuse diminishes a victim’s connection with their own feelings. Abused people are often told, through words or actions, that their feelings don’t matter or aren’t real.
Another symptom of abuse people talk with me about includes a detached feeling, a loss of interest in things normally enjoyed like hobbies, work, or social activities. Most survivors I have talked with describe feeling as though they lost their sense of identity somewhere along the way with their abusive partner. Perpetrators of abuse take away a person’s sense of identity through manipulation and control leading the abused person to become increasingly isolated and sometimes unable to make their own decisions. I work with abuse survivors to explore the identity they want to have for themselves by discussing values, likes, dislikes, and things they might become interested in.
Survivors also describe finding healthy partners after leaving abusive relationships and how the new, healthy relationship feels scary and unfamiliar. Survivors in new relationships ask questions about how to communicate, how to stop using reactive behaviors, or how to open up and feel less guarded after building a wall of protection. It can help to explore what it means to have a partner who is supportive instead of mean or violent. Domestic violence can feel like the “norm” for some survivors so when they experience healthy relationships they may feel uncertain about how to navigate the new and different ways of connecting.
Maybe you or someone you know has some of these symptoms and have been involved with a violent partner and you’re wondering what you can do to manage these symptoms?
One idea is to use affirmations, tools to relax your thoughts and rewire your mind. If you’re noticing negative thoughts, or are still in an abusive relationship and receiving negative messages about yourself, affirmations can help reframe your thinking and can help address cognitive symptoms. Affirmations are a form of positive self-talk that help send different, positive messages about yourself to your brain. You can practice using affirmations daily. Here are a few examples:
- “I am strong”
- “I am learning how I want others to treat me”
- “I deserve respect”
- “I love who I am and who I am becoming”
Other suggestions are to use various self-care activities. Take care of yourself in some way every day by doing something that feels relaxing and nurturing. What do you like to do for fun? Eat a healthy diet that limits caffeine, sugar, sodium, and fat. Exercise to keep your body in good physical and mental health. You might also seek out counseling or find a support group for domestic violence survivors as part of your self care.
Having a safety plan in place can also provide a sense of reassurance that steps are in place to keep you safe if you decide to leave and can provide peace of mind. Because there is a risk of written safety plans being discovered by the abuser, your plan should be kept somewhere other than your home such as with a trusted relative, coworker, or neighbor. Safety plans can include the following but should be personalized to your needs:
- copies of important documents like birth certificates, divorce papers, restraining orders, bank account numbers, etc.
- medical records
- spare car keys
- where you will go
- people who will support you
- what you will do with pets
- what to do if there are weapons in the home
Having pre-planned steps to keep you safe, a list of supportive people and their phone numbers, ideas about where you will go and what to bring with you can help you feel prepared, ease some of the symptoms and stress involved with leaving an abusive relationship, and optimize your safety when you do decide to leave.
Symptoms of domestic violence can be physical, emotional, or cognitive in nature and can be managed in several ways, a few of which include using affirmations, self-care, and safety plans. If you’ve noticed any of these symptoms related to an abusive relationship, how have you worked to overcome them? What worked for you to manage symptoms? What kind of safety plan did you have in place?
If you’re not ready to seek counseling yet but want to talk with someone about abuse, the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the United States offers 24/7 phone support: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Inspired by the prompt: Overcome