Stress Awareness Month: Stress & Emotional Abuse

According to, “Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure.” Many things can cause stress. Often negative experiences like bereavement, debt, problems at work, or divorce, but also positive life events like moving homes or a job promotion can be stressful.

We are all still trying to get used to life post lockdown with all its uncertainties, after an unprecedented global pandemic that has affected all of us adversely in various ways. We’ve all coped differently depending on our characters and our social and economic circumstances.

The risks for domestic abuse victims were further heightened due to social isolation and this would have left many in a permanent state of fight or flight. So how can we identify when we are stressed?

The Signs of Stress:

The physical signs of stress can include:

  • Aches and pains.
  • Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing.
  • Exhaustion or trouble sleeping.
  • Headaches, dizziness or shaking.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Muscle tension or jaw clenching.
  • Stomach or digestive problems.
  • Trouble having sex.
  • Weak immune system.

Stress can also lead to emotional symptoms like:

  • Anxiety or irritability.
  • Depression.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Sadness.

Often, people with chronic stress turn to unhealthy behaviours as coping mechanisms, including:

  • Drinking alcohol too much or too often.
  • Gambling.
  • Overeating or developing an eating disorder.
  • Participating compulsively in sex, shopping or internet browsing.
  • Smoking.
  • Using drugs.

The Effects of Emotional Abuse:

Emotional abuse is often misunderstood and it is much more difficult to recognise or diagnose due to the unseen scars. Every survivor’s story is different and not everyone will feel the full impact of the abuse that they were subjected to straight away. This can explain why a lot of victims of child abuse don’t come forward until much later on in adulthood. It can take years to process.

Short-term effects can include:

  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Nightmares
  • Physical pains
  • Low moods
  • Hopelessness
  • Confusion

These can end up developing into long-term effects such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Insomnia
  • Anger issues
  • Guilt
  • Loneliness
  • Severe pains
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance and alcohol abuse
  • Flashbacks
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships

The Five Fs:

The freeze, flop, friend, fight or flight reactions are immediate, automatic and instinctive responses to fear. Understanding them a little might help you make sense of your experiences and feelings.

All five responses are our bodies’ automatic ways of protecting us from further harm and surviving dangerous situations:

  • Fight: physically fighting, pushing, struggling, and fighting verbally e.g. saying ‘no’.
  • Flight: putting distance between you and danger, including running, hiding or backing away.
  • Freeze: going tense, still and silent. This is a common reaction to rape and sexual violence. Freezing is not giving consent, it is an instinctive survival response. Animals often freeze to avoid fights and potential further harm, or to ‘play dead’ and so avoid being seen and eaten by predators.
  • Flop: similar to freezing, except your muscles become loose and your body goes floppy. This is an automatic reaction that can reduce the physical pain of what’s happening to you. Your mind can also shut down to protect itself.
  • Friend: calling for a ‘friend’ or bystander for help, for example by shouting or screaming, and/or ‘befriending’ the person who is dangerous, for example by placating, negotiating, bribing or pleading with them. Again, this is not you giving your attacker consent, it is an instinctive survival mechanism.

Managing Stress:

Everyone manages stress differently, and your approach needs to be specific to your individual needs as there’s no one size fits all solution or technique. Below are some examples of things that we invite you to consider. Ultimately the best advice is to seek professional help or support before things get out of hand.

  • Be kind and patient with yourself – give yourself grace and the time to process what has negatively impacted you.
  • Talk to someone you trust – we understand that opening up about difficult situations especially abuse can be challenging. There is a lot of shame and stigma and the feeling of being inadequate, alongside worrying about what others may say or think. But sometimes, talking through our feelings can be helpful.
  • See your doctor – if you’re experiencing any of the physical signs mentioned or struggling with your mental health, it might be a good idea to get advice from your GP who can refer you to the right services.
  • Get professional therapeutic support – there are lots of counselling services, charities and helplines that you can contact for help. See here for more information from the NHS. At The Haven, we specialise in support services for domestic abuse survivors and our helpline (08000 194 400) is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Check out our health and wellbeing guide in this guide curated by our counselling and therapeutic team, you will find details of ways in which you can “mind” your mental health and stay well. There are also links to some resources that you may find useful.


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