Can Emotional Abuse Cause PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with physical sources of trauma, such as war, physical assault, or sexual assault. But mental health experts have come to realize that emotional abuse can lead to PTSD as well. However, this type of trauma falls under a distinct type of PTSD known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Professional treatment can help work on the causes and symptoms of C-PTSD and provide solutions for achieving a healthier, happier life.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that comes with difficult symptoms that interfere with everyday life. Some of these symptoms involve remembering or avoiding trauma associated with the cause of the person’s PTSD. This disorder comes with other symptoms as well, such as anxiety, nervousness, and negative thoughts.

It is common knowledge that physical trauma can cause PTSD. This could be the result of experiences such as war, physical assault, or sexual assault. It’s also possible for a natural disaster or other traumatic experiences to cause PTSD.

Yet, physical trauma is not the only cause of this disorder. PTSD can also develop due to emotional abuse and other emotion-based experiences. Professional treatment can help PTSD caused by any type of trauma.

How Can Emotional Abuse Cause PTSD?


Emotional abuse involves one person manipulating another in an emotional way. It can include words and actions aimed to insult, control, frighten, or isolate.

Examples of emotional abuse include:

  • Taking away your freedom and privacy
  • Separating you from loved ones, work, and activities
  • Expecting to know your whereabouts and activities at all times
  • Frightening you with anger
  • Threatening you and those you love
  • Humiliating and belittling you

Emotional abuse can be a form of psychological trauma that can have a similar impact on the nervous system as physical trauma.

Types of PTSD


PTSD from emotional abuse can be considered complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). This is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but many health professionals have distinguished C-PTSD from PTSD. It is included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as its own condition.

PTSD tends to refer to a response to one-time or short-term trauma, such as a rape or terrorist attack. On the other hand, C-PTSD happens because of ongoing trauma without the ability to leave the situation. This category includes emotional abuse, as well as other ongoing trauma such as being a prisoner of war, experiencing human trafficking or prostitution, or facing repeated violence.

Someone with C-PTSD may have the same symptoms as someone with PTSD, such as reliving trauma, avoiding trauma, and experiencing hyperarousal. Nonetheless, complex PTSD may cause its own symptoms, such as a negative self-perception and inaccurate views of the perpetrator.

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The Emotional Component of PTSD


PTSD from emotional abuse is not distinguished as C-PTSD because of its emotional rather than physical nature. All PTSD, even from physical forms of trauma, is based on emotional and psychological reactions to trauma, which develop because of fear and distress.

Also, regular PTSD can happen because of any event the person finds disturbing or distressing, even when the person witnesses it or hears about it rather than experiencing it first-hand. PTSD can come from emotional responses to experiences such as:

  • The sudden death of a loved one
  • Witnessing a murder
  • Hearing about a terrorist attack
  • Going through a hurricane without experiencing any physical harm

The distinction between PTSD and C-PTSD is not because of a difference between physical and emotional trauma. The difference has to do with the ongoing nature of the trauma involved in C-PTSD.

PTSD Treatment


When any type of PTSD is left untreated, the person may fail to resolve the trauma or be able to move forward in life. It’s important to work through the trauma and develop skills and strategies for living a healthier, happier life. Psychotherapy can help with this process, and a person may also benefit from medication and holistic treatment focused on all aspects of the problem.

It’s important for treatment to be tailored to the individual, including the type of trauma the person experienced. Complex PTSD may require intensive treatment, which can be provided by an inpatient program that provides continuous treatment, holistic care, and the opportunity to remove yourself from everyday stressors.

Emotional abuse can lead to C-PTSD, a type of PTSD that involves ongoing trauma. C-PTSD shows many of the same symptoms as PTSD, although its symptoms and causes can differ. Treatment should be tailored to the situation to address the ongoing trauma the person experienced from emotional abuse.