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Why survivors of domestic abuse may experience PTSD

May 29, 2023
Louise Wills

If you’re currently experiencing domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Abuse 24-hour helpline on: 0808 2000 247.

We all have the right to feel safe and respected in every relationship, however, for many people this isn’t the case. Sadly, domestic abuse is more common than a lot of us may realise. Last year, 1.7 million women and 699,000 men were victims of domestic abuse in the UK, and, since these figures only include the official number of people who came forward, the real figures are likely to be much higher.

Domestic abuse can be extremely traumatising. It can diminish your self-worth, cause you to question your own judgement and create long-term mental health issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If you’ve experienced domestic abuse, it’s worth getting to know the symptoms of PTSD so that you can recognise it and take steps to treat it sooner, rather than later. With the right help in place, it’s possible to process your trauma and heal.

What is domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse is abuse that occurs between people who are or have been in an intimate relationship, or family members. Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of their age, sexuality, gender or ethnicity.

A lot of people think that domestic abuse means physical violence only, however this isn't the case. More than anything, domestic abuse is about exercising control over another person. This can take many forms, including physical, emotional, psychological, financial and sexual abuse.

Often, if someone is abusing you, they will try to blame you for their actions or find reasons to justify their behaviour. No matter what they tell you or how they make you feel, remember that no one deserves to be treated badly and there are no excuses for abusing another person.

You can read more about domestic abuse and how to help someone who is experiencing domestic abuse on the NHS website.

What is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder which is caused by experiencing traumatic events. Most of us will go through a traumatic situation at some point in our lives that’s painful to think about, however, we’re able to stop thinking about it when we choose to. A person with PTSD can’t control how much they think about the traumatic event; it enters their mind and dreams uninvited, so they’re forced to relive it.

PTSD tends to occur when we haven’t processed a traumatic event properly - perhaps it’s too distressing to think about or we have unanswered questions about what happened. When we leave trauma undealt with, it lingers in our subconscious and various triggers can bring it to the surface. Sometimes these triggers are predictable, while other times, they may take you by surprise.

Symptoms of PTSD:

Some of the more common symptoms that people experience include:

  • Flashbacks of the traumatic event where you feel as though it's happening again
  • Intrusive thoughts about the event
  • Feeling distressed when reminded of the event
  • Dreams or nightmares relating to the event
  • Physical sensations, like sweating, nausea or shaking, when reminded of the event
  • Struggling to concentrate or to sleep
  • Feeling ‘jumpy’ or easily startled
  • Feeling extremely alert to potential threats
  • Avoiding anything that reminds you of the event

PTSD following domestic abuse

Domestic abuse can be incredibly traumatising and as a result, almost two thirds of survivors experience PTSD. Victims of domestic abuse are often involved in the relationship for some time, which means that they may be frequently exposed to traumatic situations and different kinds of abuse. Therefore, it’s difficult for them to process their trauma because it’s always on-going. These unresolved issues can make them more likely to experience PTSD.

Another reason that it may be difficult for a victim of domestic abuse to process their trauma is due to their emotions surrounding the events. They may feel conflicted or ashamed about the way they responded to the abuse and struggle to forgive themselves for not fighting back or leaving. It’s important to remember that in reality, when facing a threat, we have very little control over how our brains react and all we can do is rely on our instincts at that moment.

Treatment for PTSD

If you’re a victim of domestic abuse, it can be difficult to take the first steps towards getting help, especially if you’re used to hiding the truth about the relationship. However, it’s important that you get emotional support as soon as possible, as the longer that the trauma is left unresolved, the more severe the impact can be on your mental health.

You could start by making an appointment with your GP who will refer you to the correct mental health service or give you the information you need to make a self-referral. Once you’ve been referred, someone will get in touch with you to discuss the appropriate treatment options, which may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

At ieso, we offer CBT for PTSD. CBT is a form of talking therapy which challenges negative thought patterns, feelings and behaviours, while helping you to develop coping strategies. Sharing the details of your abuse with a therapist can enable you to process the trauma and they can help you to understand the link between the event(s) and how you feel, think and act now. Our service is free for lots of NHS patients. Sign up to check if you’re eligible and to get started.

Help for victims of domestic abuse


Phone numbers:

  • National domestic abuse 24-hour helpline: 0808 2000 247
  • Welsh Women’s Aid Live Fear Free 24-hour helpline: 0808 80 10 800
  • Scotland National Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriages 24-hour helpine: 0800 027 1234
  • Northen Ireland Domestic Abuse 24-hour helpline: 0808 802 1414
  • Men’s advice line: 0808 801 0327
ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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