It’s often said that “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you”. While that phrase may help some people brush off mean words, it isn’t exactly supported by science. While physical abuse is easy to spot, how do you even recognize emotional abuse?
How to recognize Emotional Abuse
It is like carbon-monoxide: It doesn’t have any obvious signs we can see, but it can be deadly. Emotional abuse can actually damage your brain structure. Victims suffering from constant emotional abuse experience a shrinking of the hippocampus.
This is a brain area that is crucial for learning. The hippocampus plays an important role in your short-term memory. And for learning, short term memory retention is the first step. Any piece of information in your brain is first stored in your short-term memory before it can either be converted to permanent memory or deleted.
Importance of Short-term Memory
Without short-term memory, there can be no learning. This damage to the hippocampus is a lot more disturbing than scientists initially thought. When you are under stress, your body releases a stress hormone known as cortisol.
Researchers found that cortisol attacks the neurons in the hippocampus and causes it to reduce in size. So, the more stressed you are, the more cortisol will be released and the more the hippocampus will shrink in size.
Another part of the brain that is affected by emotional abuse is the amygdala. Victims of emotional abuse remain in a constant state of anxiety and fear. This is because long term emotional abuse results in swelling of their amygdala.
This part of the brain controls your breathing and heart rate. It is also your emotional control center which determines how you process feelings such as love, lust, hate, and fear.
When someone is abused, their amygdala is constantly on the alert and reacts to the slightest sign of abuse. As a result, the victims are in a constant state of fight or flight. This is also why is difficult for some people to move away from an emotionally abusive relationship.
Humiliation, yelling, and name-calling is just as destructive to the brain as physical abuse, especially in children whose brains are developing. In one study researchers found that young, healthy adults who had been bullied in their adolescence, showed a lack of connection between the right and left sides of the brain.
The brain increases the chances of anxiety
Failing to develop these connections in the brain increases the chances of anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, dissociation and drug abuse in later ages. When a person is emotionally abused, their brain goes into survival mode.
The brain attempts to protect itself by rerouting abundant levels of stress and pain to avoid overload. Areas of the brain that are important for the functioning of cognition and behavior are smaller in people who are emotionally abused, and these are lasting impacts.
As a result, they are unable to have a healthy response even when there is no longer a present threat or traumatic situation. People in abusive relationships feel constantly drained, both physically and emotionally.
All their energy is expended because their brain is constantly on alert. So, no, words don’t directly leave marks as sticks or stones do, but the science is in: the way we treat each other on an emotional level can have effects that last far longer than a broken bone.