Why Emotional Abuse Can Cause Nervous Breakdown and How You Can Recover

Emotional abuse in an intimate relationship can cause profound psychological damage that persists long after the relationship has ended. In some cases, emotional abuse can even cause nervous breakdown. In these cases, residential mental health treatment may be necessary to find resolution and recovery.

Courtney’s ex-boyfriend never hit her. He never pushed her down or pulled her hair. He never sexually assaulted her. And, yet, for four years Courtney lived in a constant state of fear. She lost count of number of affairs he had accused her of having and the number of names she had been called as a result. She got used to keeping her eyes down in public so he wouldn’t think she was flirting with other men. Even as she slept, she would recognize his weight settling on the bed as he prepared to interrogate her about a co-worker, a friend’s husband, strangers who said hello on the street. In the dark, her body would grow numb and cold, and she wondered if it was possible to feel your spirit disappearing.

Of course, it didn’t start that way. In the beginning, she could never have imagined that this kind, generous, lovely man would one day be monitoring her text messages or threatening to kill himself because she came home 10 minutes later than planned. In the beginning, it didn’t occur to her body would stay in a state of hypervigilance for months after they broke up, always ready for a one-sided fight, slammed doors, the kind of screaming that makes your ears ache. She never considered that, years later, the residual effects of emotional abuse would cause a nervous breakdown.

What is Emotional Abuse?


When we talk about abuse in an intimate relationship, physical abuse is often the first thing to come to mind. In a way, this makes sense; physical abuse is overt and its damage is often readily apparent. Emotional abuse, however, can be harder to see, both while it’s happening and afterward. After all, emotional abuse can take a virtually endless variety of forms and it can be difficult to determine exactly when it begins. Its effects don’t manifest in bruised skin or broken bones, those undeniable signs that something has gone terribly wrong. Instead, psychological violence often remains invisible even to its victim. But emotional abuse can create deep damage that is every bit as serious as the emotional wounds of physical violence.

There is no one true definition of emotional abuse. However, as ReachOut Australia says, “The aim of the emotional abuser is to chip away at your feelings of self-worth and independence.” There are many ways abusers seek to accomplish this, including:

Belittling Behaviors

  • Yelling at you
  • Calling you names
  • Constantly criticizing you and putting you down
  • Dismissing or mocking your feelings, opinions, or experiences
  • Blaming you for things that are not your fault or blowing your mistakes out of proportion
  • Humiliating you, including in front of others
  • Ignoring you or your accomplishments

Controlling Behaviors

  • Instilling fear in you by making threats, whether overt or implied. This includes threats of self-harm, harm to you, and harm to your loved ones, including pets.
  • Acting jealous and possessive, including accusing you of infidelity
  • Preventing or discouraging contact with family, friends, colleagues, or strangers
  • Controlling your finances
  • Telling you what you can and can’t do
  • Monitoring your activities. This may include demanding to know where you are and what you are doing, checking your phone and internet history, putting a keylogger on your computer, installing security cameras in your house, or putting a GPS tracking device on your car.
  • Preventing you from seeing a doctor or therapist

It’s important to recognize that each person’s experience of emotional abuse is unique and each is valid. It can be tempting to try to minimize the severity of your experiences in an attempt to protect yourself from facing the reality of your trauma or to protect your partner, particularly if you have formed a traumatic bond. This desire to protect the abuser is common, even if you are no longer together. However, all forms of emotional abuse are unacceptable and can profoundly impact your psychological well-being. No one deserves it.

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Emotional Abuse Can Cause Nervous Breakdown


The effects of emotional abuse can be painful and destructive, both in the short and long-term. Survivors are often plagued by low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness. Many experience deep shame, guilt, and self-loathing, in part because these are feelings the abuser has deliberately cultivated in you and as a result of of the stigmas and misunderstanding that surround abusive relationships. Often, shame and guilt drive you to stay silent about your experiences and may act as a barrier to leaving the relationship. Even if you have already walked away from the relationship, psychological pain can remain pervasive, shaping your understanding of yourself and the world around you. This may be particularly true in the absence of a strong social support network, which abusers so often strip from you in order to fuel your dependence.

For some, emotional abuse eventually leads to nervous breakdown. While there is no clinical definition of this phenomenon, it typically refers to the point at which psychological distress disrupts functionality. This loss of function occurs when the effects of emotional abuse become too much to bear. Dr. Philip Timms describes a common trajectory of breakdown:

A person would begin to feel more on edge, find it more difficult to sleep, find themselves thinking more negatively about themselves, feel increasingly hopeless and incompetent in what they’re doing, and then there comes a day when they just can’t face going to work, or getting out of bed, perhaps. Breakdown occurs if [distress] is not dealt with—it builds up and it’s part of a process.

The exact features of nervous breakdown may vary from person to person, but usually involves losing the ability to participate in social and professional activities as well as diminished self-care (including eating and personal hygiene). In addition to feelings of depression and anxiety, you may experience sleep disturbances, paranoia, hallucinations, obsessive thoughts, and physical symptoms such as gastrointestinal upset, trembling, and muscle tension. Sometimes, the most troubling symptoms lie not in the presence of overt distress, but in their absence—you may simply cease to feel anything at all.

Nervous breakdowns do not necessarily occur while you are in the abusive relationship. In fact, it is common for survivors to experience nervous breakdown only after the relationship has ended, sometimes even years later, especially if you have never had the opportunity to process your experiences in a healthy way.

Finding Resolution and Recovery


If you are experiencing or feel as if you will experience a nervous breakdown, it is imperative that you seek intensive mental health treatment as soon as possible. Due to the severity of distress inherent to nervous breakdowns, comprehensive care in a residential facility is often the best option to ensure rapid healing in a safe environment.

The goal of comprehensive mental health treatment is both to alleviate acute symptoms of psychological disturbance and to investigate the roots of that disturbance in order to create lasting recovery. Through an interdisciplinary curriculum of therapies, you will be able to deeply explore your experiences, give voice to your pain, and identify any damaging patterns of thought and behavior that fuel your emotional turmoil. For people who have experienced abuse, these patterns often involve the internalization of your abuser’s words and actions toward you and it is imperative to replace such patterns with healthier, more realistic alternatives in order to psychologically free you from your abuser. At the same time, it is important to remember that, while a nervous breakdown is not mental health diagnosis, it can indicate that you have a mental health disorder, whether caused by or independent from your experiences of abuse. As such, appropriate treatment will depend on accurately assessing the presence of a mental health disorder and ensuring that your treatment plan addresses both the illness and its connection to your trauma.

Of course, talking about trauma can be difficult. Recalling memories of abuse can be deeply painful and elicit profound fear, anxiety, and sadness. Survivors often have complicated feelings about their experiences, including love and longing for the abuser, which you may be reluctant to discuss. You may also feel ashamed to disclose the details of your abuse, particularly if you believe you are to blame or if you have experienced traumatic bonding. Clinicians with experience treating survivors understand these challenges and will work with you to ensure that you are able to participate in treatment in a way and at a pace that is safe and meaningful to you. This includes modeling a trusting relationship by establishing a positive therapeutic alliance and guiding you toward honest and nonjudgmental explorations of complex feelings. It also means giving you the opportunity to participate in therapeutic modalities suited to your needs and abilities. For many, non-verbal, somatic, and holistic therapies can open up space for you to begin the healing process without having to directly talk about your experiences before you are ready.

One of the most powerful aspects of residential mental health treatment for survivors of emotional abuse is often the feeling of belonging. Emotional abuse is an isolating and lonely experience that can keep you feeling alienated even from those closest to you. In a residential treatment program, you are able to immerse yourself in social experience both through group therapies and everyday living, helping you quickly connect to compassionate peers who will be your allies in healing. That feeling of connection can be transformative and instrumental in your recovery process, giving you the ability to imagine a social world outside of the abusive relationship and the strength you need to move toward the life you truly want.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.