Even if I understand the psychodynamics and the biology of it, it keeps amazing me that people affected by domestic violence continue to be attached to the abuser; often repeat choosing abusers as partners or, worst scenario, turn into being abusers themselves.
Experience taught me to see the red flags of an abuser or a domestic violence situation.
Standing up straight, chin upright, legs slightly apart to look larger, an abuser’s physical stance shouts superiority. He maintains piercing eye contact to intimidate others; talks in a condescending or sarcastic tone and feels entitled to special treatment. He jumps queues because why would he wait for his turn? His face might display a frozen smile and when he doesn’t get what he feels he deserves, he reacts with rage; he raises his voice, he walks toward what he perceives as his opponent as if wanting to physically overpower the other.
In many cases, the abuser can be charming as well.
So, amazement doesn’t prevent me from understanding how abusers carefully and systematically craft dependency by controlling, manipulating, debasing and criticizing their victims and blaming others for their own behavior.
Abusers create a stressful environment, which shapes certain patterns of behavior, thought processes and perceptions.
Not unlike a spider strategizing to capture its prey, an abuser has an impressive arsenal of psychological weapons and strategies, but also their own brand of emotional venom that literally paralyzes their objective. Victims’ physiology respond in a way that renders them helplessly trapped and entangled in the silky and sticky web weaved by the abuser.
Domestic violence: Psychobiology of trauma
One hundred years ago Sigmund Freud was probably the first MD who, by using systematic observation, devised a well-founded elucidation of the effects of the violent trap. Freud and followers concluded that people are drawn by a compulsion to repeat traumatic experiences, and also have the tendency to identify with the aggressor as a defense mechanism against psychological pain.
Now, MRI and lab technologies explain to us that this is because of the plasticity of the brain, which can change its structure and function in response to experience.
We have also learned there are neuronal patterns of activity and a biochemical substrate to specific workings of the mind.
Biologist and author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine, said, “Until we understand that traumatic symptoms are physiological as well as psychological, we will be woefully inadequate in our attempts to help them heal.”
Body’s chemistry is altered by violence
Before present-times, humans have been on Earth as prey for lions, leopards and tigers.
Since survival depends on the capacity to automatically respond to a threat, evolution has made sure that the human body grew a system of hormones and neurotransmitters capable of preparing the body for fight or flight… and also to freeze until fight or flight responses are available.
In the presence of a threat, such as domestic violence, our body responds by releasing:
- Catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenalin): Prepare heart, lungs and muscles to fight or flight
- Corticosteroids (glucocorticoids, cortisol): Control energy use and body’s immune functioning
- Opiods: Prevent pain, inhibit memory consolidation
- Oxytocin: Inhibits memory consolidation, promotes good feelings.
Emotional and neurobiological responses to psychosocial stressors differ from person to person.
If someone is exposed for too long to high levels of stress (like the victims of abuse and domestic violence), the body stops recognizing danger signals; the brain basically shuts down.
The constant release of cortisol increases the number of receptors in the cells and explains the startle response (typical of posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD), while oxytocin not only hinders memory recall but also explains the attachment to the abuser.
Whereas physical and/or sexual violence have been studied as causing PTSD, borderline personalities, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions, not as much has been studied about the impact of continual emotional and verbal abuse of the victims. I’ve seen the effects: the destroyed self-esteem, the fear and the incapacity to trust other human beings.
Do not blame the victims of domestic violence or abuse
It was probably the study of posttraumatic stress disorder that opened the door wide open to understanding that the effects of violence on the human mind and body could not continue to be measured by some kind of weakness.
Previously, society often blamed the victims, often equating women to children, and assumed that men even had the right to exert their authority with some violence. Even now, you could hear some “dinosaurs” asking: If they don’t want to be violated, why do they stay? Or, what did they do to provoke such aggression?
Now, with veterans being the majority population group suffering from PTSD, we are starting to really listen to all victims of violence and give this subject more funding for research. Veterans could certainly attest that even though as combatants they were not particularly feeble, being the victims of or even witnessing violence has frayed their spirits.