Dr. Maria D. Reyes
Other research shows that childhood trauma (including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse) can increase your risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung diseases, alcoholism, and liver disease (Felitti et al., 1998). It’s a huge problem, but if you’re a victim of any kind of abuse, it’s not so much these increased risks that plague your thoughts. Rather, your focus will more likely be on figuring out how to navigate life after abuse.
I Haven’t Been Abused, Have I?
Denial is a common coping strategy after abuse, which means you may have convinced yourself and others that what you’ve experienced wasn’t actually abuse. While that may help you manage intense emotions, it’s not a healthy coping mechanism and only delays recovery.
“Abuse” is a broad term that covers a variety of different types of abuse. The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine defines abuse as “Any action that intentionally harms or injures another person.”
With this definition, however, you need to bear in mind that “harm” is another broad term and it doesn’t just mean physical harm. Harm can be emotional, psychological, financial, something that affects your employment, something that affects your trust, just to mention a few of the possible types.
Types of Abuse
There’s a shockingly long list of types of abuse:
- Abuse of authority
- Abuse of dominance
- Abuse of information
- Abuse of power
- Abuse of the system
- Abuse of trust
- Academic abuse
- Child abuse, including sexual abuse
- Civil rights abuse
- Cyber abuse/ cyberbullying
- Domestic abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Employee abuse
- Financial abuse
- Hate crimes
- Legal abuse
- Medical abuse
- Mental abuse
- Mind control
- Parental abuse (where children abuse parents)
- Physical abuse
- Psychological abuse
- Religious abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Spiritual abuse
- Spousal abuse
- Workplace abuse
With so many different types of abuse, can you be sure that you’re not being affected by the aftermath of some kind of abuse?
Signs of AbuseAlthough there are clearly many types of abuse that you can experience, the most commonly reported fall under the categories of mental/emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse. Even if you didn’t recognize the signs at the time, if any of these signs sound familiar, you are likely living with the after-effects of abuse.
Mental or Emotional Abuse
The signs of mental abuse can be harder to spot. It tends to be more subtle, confusing to the victim, and more likely to be brushed off as part of denial (with the attitude that “that’s not abuse”). Mental abuse can affect adults who have emotionally abusive partners and children who have emotionally abusive parents.
Some of the most common signs and examples of emotional abuse include:
- Your partner uses gaslighting to make you doubt yourself, telling you things such as “you’re not remembering right, I didn’t say that”, even though you’re absolutely sure that they did. Gaslighting leads to chronic self-doubt and is, in fact, one of the reasons why you may deny that you were ever abused.
- You’re always the one to apologize even though you’ve done nothing wrong.
- You feel like you’re walking on eggshells because you never know how your partner/parent is going to react. One day they may be nice or sympathetic, the next they may fly into a furious rage.
- Your partner or parent constantly belittles your accomplishments and only focuses on your weaknesses. You may feel that nothing you do will ever be good enough.
- Your parent withholds affection as a way of punishing you.
- Your partner controls all the finances and will only allow you to spend money when they think you deserve it.
- Your parent forces you to perform degrading acts.
- Your parent deliberately ignores you as a way of punishing or controlling you.
- Your parent or partner is emotionally neglectful.
Physical AbuseOf course, physical abuse is the most obvious, and the signs of physical abuse are easy to recognize. Children are at just as much risk of being victims of domestic violence as adults are, and men who are physically abusive towards their partner are likely to physically abuse their children, too.
According to the American SPCC, every year, more than seven million children are affected by abuse, and 18.3% of these are physically abused (around 7.1% are victims of psychological maltreatment and 8.6% are sexually abused).
If you’re not sure whether the physical violence you’ve experienced (either as an adult or as a child) really counts as abuse, take a look at these examples of physical abuse:
- Breaking bones
- Deliberately tripping
- Strangling or choking
Sexual abuse is a term that covers the abuse of both adult and child victims. Some people have difficulty describing their experiences as being sexual abuse. For example, if your spouse is sexually violent towards you or engages in marital rape, you may think that it “doesn’t count” as sexual abuse. It does count.
Any non-consensual sexual act in adults (children are not mature enough to give consent under any circumstance) is classed as sexual abuse. This includes:
- Sexual assault
- Marital rape
- Non-consensual masturbation
- Non-consensual penetration with an object
- Non-consensual sexual intercourse
- Sexual intercourse when the victim is too intoxicated to consent
For children, sexual abuse includes:
- Being touched intimately
- Being forced or coerced into touching the perpetrator’s genitals
- Having someone expose themselves either in person or online
- Being forced or coerced into having sexual intercourse
- Being exposed to sexual videos or images (pornography)
- Being made to watch someone doing something sexual (e.g. masturbating)
- Being made to do something sexual (masturbating)
Life After Abuse: Strategies for Coping
If you’ve recently escaped from an abusive relationship or are a survivor of childhood abuse, you’ll know that the effects are manifold. Abuse affects your view of yourself and others; causes poor self-esteem, shame, and guilt; leads to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation; and can affect every part of your life. Coping isn’t easy. You may feel that you’re doing better and then suddenly get hit with a flashback or intrusive thoughts about what happened to you.Those people who say that time heals all wounds aren’t entirely correct. Time heals some wounds, but in most cases, time alone isn’t going to heal the wounds caused by abuse. That’s not to say you’ll never recover. You will, but it means that you will need to work at recovering.
There are two approaches to coping after abuse that you can take – the self-help approach and the counseling approach. If the abuse was particularly severe and you’re experiencing depression or other mental health issues, the counseling approach is advisable. You can use the self-help techniques, too, but counseling will give you a better route to recovery.
Self-Help After Abuse
Self-help is often rooted in practicing self-care which is often one of the things that abuse survivors really struggle with. There are lots of ways that you can approach self-care – it’s very much an individual thing, and what works for one person might not work for you. However, one self-care technique that is very effective is positive affirmations.
Abuse survivors often have a very negative self-talk tape running through their heads. You may have internalized your abuser’s voice or belittling taunts and these keep playing in your mind long after the abuse is over. Positive affirmations counteract those negative thoughts and can reprogram your inner voice. Examples of positive affirmations include:
- I am beautiful, inside and out.
- I am strong, brave and beautiful.
- I can face everything that today holds
You could record the positive affirmations and play them repeatedly if you struggle to say them out loud to yourself. You could also look up Bible verses that reiterate your identity in Christ and use these as positive affirmations. For example:
- I am God’s child (John 1:12)
- I have been justified (Romans 5:1)
- I am free forever from condemnation (Romans 8:1-2)
- I have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind (1 Timothy 1:7)
- I may approach God with freedom and confidence (Ephesians 3:12)
- I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13)
Christian Counseling for Survivors of Abuse
Emotional abuse and sexual abuse, in particular, can have a devastating effect (this is not to minimize physical abuse, of course) that may require the help of a trained professional. While secular counseling is a great resource, if you have faith in Jesus Christ, seeking out a Christian counselor can enable you to bring a biblical perspective and spiritual healing into your recovery journey.
With a Christian counselor who has experience in treating survivors of abuse, you can explore your trauma and express emotions that you previously may have not allowed yourself to express. Counseling can delve deeper into the effects that abuse is having on your life and challenge unhelpful beliefs that can prevent your recovery.
When you work with a Christian counselor, your therapist will bring you on a healing journey with Jesus and help you to overcome any fears or beliefs that may be preventing you from fully depending on God for strength to overcome the trauma. Exploring Scripture provides biblical insights into what you have experienced and can help you to find hope for the future.
After all, Jesus made this promise to His disciples, and it applies to you, too.
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world – John 16:33
References:American SPCC, National Child Abuse Statistics, https://americanspcc.org/child-abuse-statistics/
Easton, S.D., Leone-Sheehan, D.M., O’Leary, P.J. (2019) ‘“I Will Never Know the Person Who I Could Have Become”: Perceived Changes in Self-Identity Among Adult Survivors of Clergy-Perpetrated Sexual Abuse’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol 34, Issue 6, pp. 1139-1162
Felitti, V.J., Anda, R.F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D.F., Spitz, A., Edwards, V., Koss, M., Marks, J.S. (1998) ‘The Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol 14, Issue 4,n pp. 245-258
“Grieving”, Courtesy of Ksenia Makagonova, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Stressed”, Courtesy of Nik Shuliahin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lake View”, Courtesy of Japheth Mast, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love”, Courtesy of Emmanuel Phaeton, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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