Domestic Violence and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

An Introduction to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Domestic Violence Victims: Its Symptoms, Causes, and Risk-Factors

So just what is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a trauma and stress-related mental health disorder that occurs after a person witnesses or experiences a terrifying event. It is most common after a traumatic event in which death or severe physical or sexual harm occurred or was threatened. Even though current research on PTSD tends to focus on military combat, there is strong evidence to suggest that experiencing domestic violence of any kind can lead to the development of the disorder. “Individuals who have been physically or psychologically abused have experienced a traumatic event” (Trauma Abuse Treatment). This trauma is often just as severe as military combat. It is therefore not uncommon for domestic abuse victims to be so scarred by their abuse that PTSD results.

Symptoms of PTSD

The feelings, thoughts, and fears one experiences as a domestic abuse victim can cause many of the symptoms of PTSD. These symptoms can manifest within a month of the start of the abuse, however, they may not appear until years later. PTSD symptoms are often so severe that they interfere with one’s daily life. They may have serious ramifications for social and work situations, as well as relationships. PTSD symptoms are usually divided up into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions (The Mayo Clinic).

Intrusive Memories:

These Symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks to event that cause a person to relive it as if were happening again
  • Nightmares
  • Severe emotional or physical reaction to a reminder of the event
  • Recurrent and distressing memories


These symptoms include:

  • Avoiding object, people, or places that remind one of the traumatic event
  • Avoiding thinking about the event

Negative Changes in thinking and mood:

These symptoms include:

  • Hopelessness
  • Lack of activities that one used to enjoy
  • Negative thoughts about oneself, others, or the world in general
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Trouble maintaining relationships
  • Memory problems
  • Feeling detached from family and friends
  • Difficulty feeling positive emotions

Changes in physical and emotional reactions:

These Symptoms include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability or aggressive behavior
  • Being easily startled
  • Overwhelming sense of shame or guilt
  • Always being on guard for danger (hypervigilance)
  • Engaging in destructive behaviors

The specific symptoms that one develops, as well as their intensity, varies widely from person to person and over time. However, most people with PTSD will have at least one life-long symptom without effective treatment. It is therefore easy to see how this PTSD can interfere with one’s functionality for their entire lifetime. (The Mayo Clinic).

Causes of PTSD:

Even doctors do not really know what causes one to develop PTSD. Two people who have the exact same experience may have completely different outcomes from it. Unfortunately, like most mental health conditions, it is somewhat of a mystery. It is most likely caused by a complex mixture of several underlying factors. These include:

  • Inherited features of one’s personality – also known as one’s temperament
  • The way the brain releases chemicals and hormones in response to stress
  • Inherited mental health risks, such as one’s family history of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression
  • One’s own history of stress – including the amount and severity of trauma one has gone through in their lifetime (The Mayo Clinic)

The fact that these underlying factors each vary so widely from person to person makes treatment of PTSD that much more complex. It is easy to see why finding an effective treatment is often a difficult and lengthy task.

Risk Factors for PTSD

While it is unknown what mechanism causes PTSD, there are several risk factors associated with its development. These factors include:

  • Having experienced a trauma earlier in life
  • The length and severity of the exposure trauma
  • A poor outside support system of family and friends
  • Having other mental health problems such as anxiety or depression
  • A stressful or demanding living environment (The Mayo Clinic).

A previous blog post introduced the complex relationship between intimate partner violence and trauma. It is clear from the risk factors listed above that relationship between the development of PTSD and domestic violence is equally complex. Most, if not all the above-listed risk factors, are experienced by domestic violence victims. It is time to stop limiting the research and treatment of PTSD around combat exposure. It is high time that domestic violence victims and combat victims come to be equals when it comes to the subject of PTSD. Only then will domestic violence victims get the help that many of them so desperately need.