Identifying and Managing Common Symptoms of Domestic Violence

railway-2439189_1920I 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.swing-1365713_1920

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.
  • money
  • medication
  • 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

3 Stages of Survival: Moving from Victim to Survivor and Beyond

Following the trauma of domestic violence people are often identified as victims. Victimhood is only one stage in the recovery process. The stages aren’t linear, they don’t proceed in a straight line. I often tell the people I work with that progress is often one step forward two steps back. The following identifies the various stages of survivorhood: victim, survivor, and thriver.

Stage 1: Victim

Victimization by a domestic violence (DV) perpetrator often leads a person to feel worthless and incapable. Domestic violence is about controlling another person and depleting their sense of power. Control and power over another person can take the form of physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse.

People who are victims often have low self-esteem, feel a sense of shame and worthlessness, and may not feel that they deserve nice things or that they deserve to be treated respectfully by others. Victims may be hypervigilant, always expecting a threat, and feel guarded. People in the victim stage of healing often feel alone, selfish, numb, damaged, confused, and hopeless. It’s common for perpetrators to isolate victims from friends and family. Isolated, lonely people with low self-esteem are easier to control and maintain power over.

Victims of DV are often afraid to tell their stories for a number of reasons. They may fear that their partners will retaliate or be fired from their jobs. Victims may believe that their stories are not worthy of sharing. It is also common for people in the victim stage to feel overwhelmed by their past as they come to recognize the struggles they have endured. DV victims commonly have difficulty setting healthy boundaries and find themselves wrapped up in drama and unhealthy relationships with toxic, unsafe people. Victims tend to put their own needs last and often have difficulty communicating in ways other than being passive or sometimes passive-aggressive. Victims tend to believe that suffering is just the way things are and have a hard time finding joy. Victims also frequently turn to substance abuse or codependent relationships to help them feel like they are doing okay.

Stage 2: Survivor

Once a person begins moving away from unhealthy and violent relationships with an abuser, they can begin reflecting on their experiences in a safe environment. As they recognize the struggle they have survived they begin searching for reasons why this experience happened and how they can heal. People in the survivor stage view themselves as both wounded and healing and begin gaining a sense of hope. A grieving process may take place as the survivor comes to terms with the different losses that have taken place.

Survivors are often eager to tell their stories and want to talk about all the aspects of their experience in their attempts to heal. Support groups can be a great help for people in the survivor stage since they want to share their stories and hear others’ experiences as well. Survivors begin learning ways to set healthy boundaries and explore what is safe or dangerous in their relationships. Through their curiosity and sharing of experiences with others, survivors begin identifying patterns, which can become goals to begin changing. Change takes time for survivors and doesn’t happen overnight or in a matter of weeks. Whereas victims tend to believe that suffering is normal, survivors begin gaining a sense of hopefulness and relief as they see a journey leading them forward.

Survivors also learn to laugh again. They have a healthy sense of humor and can find moments of joy. Instead of needing substances or codependent relationships, survivors can begin regulating their emotional pain and may seek out therapy to explore the new and uncomfortable feelings that have been numbed or disregarded before. Survivors begin learning about a wider range of emotions.

Stage 3: Thriver

Although many people feel satisfied reaching the survivor stage, others believe that there is still more to go on their journey and these people become thrivers. People in the thriving stage have a sense of gratitude for this new found life that seems to be overflowing with miracles and wonderment. Instead of feeling isolated, thrivers feel a sense of connection with others and the universe. Thrivers have healthy connections and are both independent and interdependent. Thrivers have a sense of pride in their ability to care for themselves. They live in the present moment and understand that emotional pain passes and can be learned from.

Thrivers set healthy boundaries with others and protect themselves from toxic people but are also capable of living with an open mind and heart. Thrivers place their own needs first as they recognize that helping others requires care for themselves first. Thrivers create peace instead of chaos and find joy around them. They use healthy humor and feel a range of positive and negative emotions which helps them feel alive and genuine.

Each of the first two stages takes time move on from and some people feel quite content and happy living life in the second stage. Some people experience great difficulty moving from victim to survivor stages and even become more comfortable staying in the victim role. The victim role offers familiarity. Oftentimes when I meet with survivors of DV who have entered into what seem to be healthy relationships, they describe feeling fear and confusion because they don’t know how to cope with a healthy partner and it feels scary. Survivors have often learned a number of coping skills during the victim stage to get through a violent relationship and learning to be in healthy relationships can require learning or building on a whole new set of skills. Reaching out for support is common for survivors and many of them turn toward family and close friends.

More can be found on these stages in the book: Surviving Domestic Violence: A Guide to Healing Your Soul and Building Your Future by Danielle F. Wozniak, PhD, and Karen Allen, PhD.tree-338211_1280

Inspired by the daily prompt: Survival

When Home No Longer Feels Safe

What comes to mind when you think of safety? Comfort, freedom from danger, feeling secure, being unharmed, feeling protected, having a sense of trust, peace houseand sanctuary may be some words associated with safety.

Maybe there has been a time when you’ve felt unsafe. Perhaps there was a sense that your life was somehow in danger or you felt distrustful toward someone because of the way they were behaving. Maybe it was something that seemed minor but a “red flag” went up in your mind that something didn’t feel “right.”

Unfortunately, for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, the sense of safety becomes diminished through the violating behaviors of the abusers. Violating, abusive behavior might be physical, emotional/verbal, or sexual in nature and is typically used to exert control over another person. Whether a violation happens once or multiple times, a victim’s sense of safety changes.

The often traumatic violations affect how you view yourself, the people around you, and the world in general. It becomes difficult to feel comfortable and safe in your own home. Many victims are also often isolated by the abusers so social supports are unavailable as safe connections to reach out to.

Survivors become masterful at observing other people in an effort to stay safe. You remain in a heightened state of alertness as you try to meet your partner’s (often confusing) demands. You become acutely aware of your partner’s behaviors and moods. You may find yourself asking How did they seem when they got home or woke up in the morning? Are they slamming the door? Do they seem calm? Do they seem too calm? Did they have a good day? Have they been out drinking? Was dinner okay? Did they get home late again? Are the kids being too loud? All of the questions running through your mind seem to be related to one larger concern: Am I safe? The thinking tends to be that if you can identify or predict your partner’s behaviors, moods, or mannerisms, you can stay safe by knowing how to respond accordingly and attempt to prevent a blow-up. The intention of this skill of observation is to keep you safe but can lead to feeling anxious and exhausted.

Anxiety arises as you attempt to please a partner who never seems to be satisfied. You come to believe that you are not enough for your partner. You often second-guess yourself and your decisions because your partner tells you whatever you did wasn’t enough, was done wrong, wasn’t what they wanted, or call you a degrading name for trying to do anything at all.

It’s hard to feel safe if you feel anxious, concerned, worried, or scared most of the time. Even if the abusive relationship has ended, you may find you still remain in that constant state of readiness; ready to meet someone else’s needs; ready to be the peace-keeper; ready to do whatever it takes to keep another person from harming you, your children, or your pets.

If you have been violated in some way by an abuser, it’s important to know that it’s not your fault and that you deserve to live a life in comfort, free from danger, with a sense of security, and without fear of being harmed. You can click here to download my free booklet on abuse and safety planning or call the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). If you want to learn some ways to identify abuse or take action you can read my blog here. What does safety mean to you? When do you feel most safe? What does safety look and feel like to you?


Inspired by a prompt from~ Safety First~

Leslie Morgan Steiner Describes Her Experience with Domestic Violence in this TEDTalk

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Here is a 2013 TEDTalk by Leslie Morgan Steiner on her experience as a domestic violence victim and survivor. She encourages everyone to “talk about what you heard here, abuse thrives only in silence. You have the power to end domestic violence simply by shining a spotlight on it.” She encourages everyone to recognize the signs of abuse and to talk about it with their children, coworkers, friends and family. She asks her listeners to create a different view of survivors as “wonderful, lovable people with full futures” and not blame them for the abusive situations they’re in.

The Black Dot Campaign: 10 Other Ways to Support Domestic Violence Survivors

I recently noticed a post being shared on Facebook for a campaign involving victims of domestic violence (DV) and a “Black Dot.” The black dot is supposed to be a symbol that victims of DV can draw on the palm of their hand to let professionals and others know they are involved with domestic violence but are unable to ask for help because the abuser is watching their every move. Theblackdot Black Dot Campaign encourages everyone to post a picture of a black dot on his or her palm to show support for domestic violence survivors.

Campaigns to raise awareness about DV can be great. They create conversations, inspire blog posts, and draw attention to important social problems. On the other hand, some of them can also create the illusion that they are official programs, insinuate that professionals are trained and aware of the campaign, or even put survivors at risk for more abuse. While the Black Dot is intended to be a silent way for survivors to communicate their abuse, it may cause more abuse if discovered by the perpetrator. Survivors who try to use the Black Dot may attempt to show everyone their secret dot and then wonder why no one is responding to it or offering help. People who see it, might not have a clue what it is, what it means, or know what to do if they do recognize that the person needs help. As a provider who works with DV survivors, I think the campaign is a great start to creating discussion about domestic violence but I also think it is currently an unreliable method for helping people affected by abuse.

There are often a number of warning signs that can indicate someone is being abused in their relationship. Although a single sign may not indicate abuse, multiple “red flags” may suggest abusive behavior is going on. Here are eight ways to recognize abuse and ten ideas about how to help if you suspect or know that abuse is happening.

8 Signs of an Abusive Relationship:

  1. A person seems withdrawn and misses work or socializes with friends and family less often
  2. A person has a partner who seems unusually jealous or suspicious of the person’s behavior
  3. A person’s partner regularly criticizes, puts them down, or humiliates them around others
  4. A person seems unable to be away from the partner without receiving unending texts or phone calls that seem to be checking on or monitoring the person
  5. Obvious physical injuries including black eyes, bruising (especially around the neck or wrists), or broken bones that don’t seem to fit with the person’s description of how the injury occurred
  6. One partner does most of the talking and the other person seems nervous about saying anything in the presence of the partner
  7. A person expresses fear or says they don’t feel safe going home to their partner
  8. A person makes excuses for the aggressive, suspicious, abusive behavior of the other person

10 Things you can do if you suspect or become aware that someone is being abused:

  1. Offer to help the person get connected with local services, such as a crisis center or a local domestic violence agency which can help them with things from basic needs to protection orders.
  2. Offer to create a safety plan with the person. This might involve offering to keep an emergency bag for the person. Emergency bags contain copies of important documents like birth certificates and protection orders as well as emergency cash and extra clothing. The bags can be useful if the person decides to flee quickly.
  3. Offer to go with the person to appointments such as to court, to meet with police, to the hospital, or to the attorney’s office.
  4. Offer to watch the person’s children while they attend appointments.
  5. Offer to provide transportation to run errands or to attend appointments. Many DV survivors I’ve worked with have been isolated and are left without transportation during the day while a partner or spouse is away.
  6. Share your concern about the person’s safety and let the person know you’re there for support if needed
  7. Be aware that confronting the abuser could make things worse for the survivor; always keep the survivor’s safety in mind when attempting to help.
  8. Don’t provide unwanted help or try to rescue an adult DV survivor. Allow survivors to make their own choices about what they want to do and respect their decisions.
  9. Be aware that leaving a domestic violence situation is the most dangerous time for survivors and that there may be a variety of reasons why survivors stay in the relationship.
  10. Report child abuse. If you suspect or know that a child is being abused, report it by calling local law enforcement, statewide hotlines, or local CPS services.

What are your thoughts on the Black Dot Campaign? If you’re a DV survivor what things were most helpful to you during or after the abusive relationship? How did you tell others about the abuse?

Abusive Relationships Booklet

bookletFeatured image

Click on the booklet link above to view a PDF file and learn about the abuse cycle, different forms of abuse, how abuse might affect victims and their children, how survivors may cope in healthy ways during and after an abusive relationship, five qualities found in healthy relationships, and some tips for safety planning in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. There are areas for reflection and journaling in each section.