MHAW: “Reoccurring anxiety and PTSD is very common in women who have experienced abuse”

Women who have been abused are three times more likely to develop mental health difficulties. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week this year, we’ve asked our Volunteer Counsellor, Michelle, a few questions. 

In what ways does domestic abuse impact the mental health of survivors? (Are there patterns, diagnoses, during and after the relationship… long term effects?) 

Yes, I believe there are patterns. I have noticed that experiencing reoccurring anxiety and PTSD is very common in women who have experienced abuse. Clients will often re-live physical sensations or nightmares as if they were happening in “real time” especially if they were traumatic at the time they occurred. They will continue to remain in this ‘survival state’ after a relationship has ended even when there appears to be no immediate “threat” to them. This re-triggering is the body trying to stay safe and alert to any danger and is a protective system of the body. Physical sensations (such as anxiety/flashbacks) can occur on a regular basis during and after survivors have left (even if they are in safety and appear not to be in immediate danger) such as sweating, racing hearts, panic attacks, and social phobias, for example. There are many more symptoms, and each person reacts differently depending on the abuse they have experienced, which has a very negative effect on their well-being, health and internal voice.   

At SATEDA, how do you work with women to support their mental health after abuse and why is it important for them to have this support? 

Due to the PTSD responses that clients experience from being in a permanent state of fear, their bodies are often exhausted and drained, and they will continue to produce high levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol) and need the space to feel safe, heard and validated. This, in turn will allow them to find ways to calm their bodies/minds down so they understand that they are safe to move forward once the abuse has ended. Working with clients allows them to realise that once there is no more abuse, they can rebuild trust in others (who are not abusive) and develop a kinder internal voice and empower themselves to become more attuned to their own bodies and mind and how they interconnect with each other. It is through empathy and love from another that they can then find peace and acceptance and build self-esteem. I also work with clients to empower them through the importance of affirming the gentler nature of their own inner voice and to follow those gut instincts and give them a sense of renewed purpose to their life and restore their sense of identity. It is also vital through psychoeducation to help them identify abusive behaviours so they can recognise the unhealthy patterns of abuse in others and the impact it has had on them, long after they have left a relationship.  

Are there any common myths surrounding domestic abuse and mental health problems? 

There are many myths, but the most common one is “why doesn’t she just leave the perpetrator” and another one is “If he doesn’t hit her, why does she have an issue” or “why can’t she just move on, as she keeps going back”. Much of this has come from a lack of understanding of the types of abuse that affect people and the impact it has had on the survivors, and how hidden and manipulative this abuse can be from others, including family members. Many cases of abuse are only subjected onto one particular person using power, control and isolation and the rest of the outside world doesn’t see it.  

This is why it is vitally important to: 

a) believe the person who is saying something isn’t right  

b) to listen actively to the issues at hand  

c) validate their feelings so they know their voices matter and then help them to seek professional advice and support as soon as possible.  

How do you look after your mental health? 

I have learnt to identify what my body is telling me physically in order to identify my own stress levels. If I see that it is declining, I will be honest with myself about what the root cause is and what is causing this distress. Being self-aware helps me to work with my body and mind to calm the inner voice and train my mind that I am in a safe environment and speak to my inner self as if I was my own best friend! I have learnt to healthily obliterate that negative voice from taking over! Eating well, being out in nature, gardening and being around animals also help me to connect with my surroundings and see a bigger picture and purpose. I also use arts and crafts as a form of therapy on myself too. Works wonders to clear the mind and find peace!