The nature of human suffering can be existential, or necessary suffering that comes with war, natural disasters, loss of life, and the like. Neurotic suffering, on the other hand, is unnecessary and occurs when people struggle to resist normal levels of emotional pain.
Stress is a normal part of life, but it is the type of stress that determines how we cope. If we awfulize a stressful situation, we are less likely to manage the situation successfully.
Chronically elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, can result in depression and considerable anxiety. Examples would include child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, POW experiences and refugee trauma, which produce prominent levels of cortisol. These situations can be considered as existential crises and create immune suppression.
Whatever the kind of abuse, be it physical, sexual, or emotional, the potential for depression and anxiety is created not only in childhood, but also in adulthood. Sometimes an abused child grows up to be abusive. An overly critical parent who may belittle a child or tell them they are worthless may diminish the child’s ability to thrive.
Some individuals may internalize their past abuse and see themselves as a failure, stupid or incompetent because they believed what they had been told. They may fear abandonment and believe the world is dangerous and therefor no one can be trusted. They may also become very clingy.
Domestic violence is defined as an “act carried out with the intention of causing physical harm or injury to another person. The best predictor of domestic violence is the existence of other previous episodes.” Most victims are women, but men are also victimized.
Domestic abuse, one of the most common forms of abuse, happens between partners. The victim of domestic abuse may experience a partner who is constantly expressing obnoxious, hurtful words that degrade the victim. They may ridicule the victim for being sexually inadequate; they may humiliate their victim for any shortcomings and compare them unfavorably with others. Domestic violence can be most devastating to the victim and can consist of physical assault, battery, rape, imprisonment and even death.
Domestic violence can cause a sustained state of stress that is manifested as constant fear, flashbacks of past abuse, anxiety, hypervigilance, depression, nightmares and despondency. The victim’s symptoms can be identified as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Too much stress can cause a considerable release of stress hormones. However, a trauma victim can produce low levels of cortisol and overproduction of norepinephrine, which leads to a persistent state of hypervigilance as in PTSD. For example, a police officer may always sit with his back to the wall in a restaurant because he is vigilant for any sign of danger.
Abusers tend to blame their victims for their abhorrent behavior. “If she did not think to consider my feelings, I wouldn’t have reacted that way. She should know better.”
Abusers are emotionally immature and may have experienced or witnessed abuse as a child. Individuals prone to being hot-headed are more likely to engage in domestic violence. If you find yourself having difficulty understanding why a potential partner behaves in ways that seem overly reactive, beware.
Watch for explosive emotions and manipulative behaviors in others before becoming involved. Lack of emotional maturity is a symptom of a poor prognosis for a happy relationship. The narcissistic personality will always look out for themselves as opposed to a partner. And someone lacking empathy is a poor predictor of a healthy individual. Above all, if you are in an abusive relationship, get help by involving the police and get counseling for yourself and your partner.
Dr. Lynda M. Gantt, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Maria.