Author, Stacy Ruse LPC, EMDRIA Approved Consultant & IFS Approved Clinical Consultant
All abuse is horrific and traumatizing.
This article is in response to advocating for my clients and anyone who has been abused, neglected, and has experienced other situations that led to enduring trauma symptoms.
I intend to highlight and advocate for the devastation of psychological abuse, which is insidious, and to recognize that psychological and emotional abuse causes significant trauma. I also want to educate the reader about other factors and experiences that cause trauma and to break commonly held assumptions that trauma and dissociation only come from physical or sexual abuse.
Many clients express feeling invalidated, defeated, and misunderstood by the medical and mental health field and by friends, family, peers, society, social media, etc. I want to address and debunk a long-held, and toxic, collective belief that abuse is only physical, sexual, or combat-related and anything else is not considered abuse, or to be traumatizing enough to have lasting effects.
These beliefs are not true and are harmful. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, and combat are traumatic, and trauma and dissociation also come from psychological abuse, neglect, and many other situations.
The following list highlights other events that can cause trauma:
Medically invasive procedures and invalidating the medical field and professionals
Illness, disease, disorders, chronic pain, and mystery illnesses
Loss of someone or something important
Unresolved and unexpected losses of relationships
Bullying, stigma, discrimination, limited opportunities, being othered, etc.
Physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs not being met
Being humiliated, shamed, and guilted
Being invalidated for the way you feel or for who you are
Being, or perceiving to be, abandoned, especially in times of need
Not feeling loved or cared for
Not having a sense of belonging somewhere
Legacy burdens from ancestors, society, and culture
All kinds of accidents
Natural and unnatural community disasters
Witnessing and being told about trauma happening to others
It is crucial to be more conscious and trauma-informed in our world. It is time to heal and transcend trauma at the individual, community, and collective levels. We need greater understanding and compassion towards lasting symptoms of trauma and dissociation, and what to do about it, not less, and to move past the old paradigms of denying, invalidating, ignoring, shunning, mocking, or minimizing it. All of which are psychologically abusive tactics when consistent and persistent. Learn more about psychological abuse below.
We can all take small actions to recognize, advocate, and educate more people about the misinformation and misunderstandings about trauma.
People who endured physical and sexual abuse were also psychologically abused and neglected. An act of abuse in any form is neglectful and having to stay in abuse as a child or teenager does, or staying in an abusive relationship as many traumatized adults do, stems from the psychological abuse involved in all forms of abuse. Do you see the common denominator?
What is trauma?
Trauma is the experience of too much and too fast, based on Kathy Steel’s work. During a traumatic event, dissociation is an adaptive response to make it more manageable and survivable. The associated feelings, emotions, images, and body sensations from the traumatic memory fragment, separating from conscious awareness, leaving the trauma unprocessed and unresolved from a neurobiological standpoint.
The more events someone experiences that are too much and too fast to process, the more stored trauma a person holds, referred to as complex trauma.
What is dissociation?
Dissociation is non-realization. It is not realizing the gravity of a situation because it is too much to process. It is a phobia of the inner experience, an internal avoidance of re-experiencing the emotions, feelings, body sensations, and images because they are too painful, horrifying, or overwhelming.
For example, a person in a car accident likely goes into a state of shock, a form of dissociation.
With the proper support, the accident can begin to be realized and remembered as the person comes out of dissociation, and the trauma can be processed, released, and healed. Without proper support and tools to regulate, or when the person has too many accumulated traumas for the dissociated material to be realized, the dissociation remains protected, and the trauma is not released and healed.
What does it mean to be triggered?
A person consciously or unconsciously senses (smells, hears, sees, touches, tastes, feels, or intuits) something in the environment, and the mind identifies the sensory information as associated with the original threat. The unprocessed memory from the past trauma, including the accompanying emotions, images, and body sensations, then floods the person in the present moment. This is what flashbacks are. The person may be conscious or unconscious of the sensory triggers.
The world needs more education, compassion, understanding, and advocacy about trauma in general.
What is psychological abuse?
any definition will be limited to the possibilities of how to define abuse, so this is a wholehearted attempt to define abuse that I hope does some justice.
Abuse is any subtle or overt behavior that attempts to control, subjugate, demean, or belittle yourself, another human, animal, or living being through cruelty, fear, humiliation, guilt, shame, discrimination, and other harmful tactics. Abuse may be verbal, non-verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual, developmental, social, spiritual, physical, cultural, etc.
What is neglect?
Neglect is the state of not being cared for properly; not being cared for in a way that supports healthy and growth-orientated development of emotional, psychological, sexual, social, spiritual, physical, cultural, and individual needs, etc. Neglect can come from family, friends, society, culture, and other organized systems, such as church and state, school, the medical profession, etc.
Common types of psychological abuse
Psychological abuse is tormenting and is a form of brainwashing that neurologically wires in unhealthy beliefs and cognitive distortions about self, others, and the world. This causes doubt and distrust in oneself, others, and the world.
Commonly it comes from continuous berating, belittling, intimidation, or guised as guidance, coaching, teaching, or advice. The recipient of the abuse then loses, or does not develop, a healthy sense of self and does not feel their value and self-worth. Psychological abuse causes deep wounds that may be more lasting than physical ones, debunking the popular childhood lyrics: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Denying and minimizing can be particularly damaging. In addition to lowering self-esteem and creating conflict, the invalidation of reality, feelings, and experiences eventually lead to questioning and mistrusting perceptions and emotional experiences.
Common types of psychological abuse
Gas-lighting (extreme Denying)
Social abuse and isolating
Shaming and guilt tripping
Coercive emotional sexual Abuse
Financial abuse and control
Cultural and spiritual abuse
Using the judicial system to abuse
Using technology to abuse
Common effects of psychological abuse
Trauma, including PTSD and dissociation
Depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns
Breakdown of relationships due to isolation
Problems at work or school
Questioning your own experience
Trauma bonding, where the perpetrator and victim have an emotional bond
Self-destructive behaviors, addictions, or compulsions
Inability to enjoy people, things, and events that would otherwise be enjoyable
Suicidal thoughts, sometimes actions, and self-harming urges and behaviors
Difficulty being vulnerable to close others
Increased chances of experiencing Agoraphobia
Alexithymia, or the ability to name or identify emotional experience
Healing from trauma and abuse
When you pay attention to your internal feedback, you not only enhance your emotional intelligence but can learn to carry this wisdom into the world in a manner that enhances your health and relationships.
Healing is about embodying what comes up in the present moment, even the past, and giving it awareness. You learn to no longer resist, fight, escape, repress, or amplify the internal experience. By giving it compassion and attention, you can release it.
As Eckhart Tolle gives an example in his book The Power of Now when a duck feels threatened by another duck, they fight for a few seconds, and the duck swims off. The duck then shakes their wings several times to release the residual energy of distress, calms down, and returns to the moment as if nothing happened. In this example, the energy is not trapped and therefore does not accumulate.
The trapped energy is in the body, and the mind replays it as drama and trauma. Mindful awareness of your body and the internal experience is called ‘interception’, which brings the unconscious into consciousness to be released and offers an opportune time to heal.
Trauma-informed care will generally include establishing a greater sense of ‘then versus now’ to help the nervous system to stabilize around a felt sense of ‘safe enough in the present moment. We transform within an environment that is non-judgmental, compassionate, conscious, and gentle. This allows our innate healing wisdom to come forward so deep healing can happen.
If you have a history of abuse, this may take time and gentleness to trust enough. Healing comes when we turn curiosity and self-compassion towards ourselves and the inner wounded child. This allows space and safety for deep healing. Learning, practicing, and developing healthy resource-building and coping skills to help tolerate and regulate internal experiences is crucial.
Learn more about our trauma-informed services such as EMDR therapy, Attachment-based Therapy, Art Therapy, CBT for trauma, and more. We also offer DBT Skills Groups that change lives.
For more information on trauma, please see our other trauma articles.