When faced with a threat, the body activates into "fight or flight" mode, kicking the nervous system into overdrive and triggering a burst of hormones from the endocrine system.
For women in abusive relationships, the fight or flight response is activated more often than not. In the midst of danger, this stress response keeps you alert, energized, and focused, and provides you with extra strength to defend yourself or make spur of the moment decisions that could save your life.
As a result of chronic stress and unremitting abuse, long-term stimulation of the fight or flight response damages the body on a physiological level. In the words of board-certified internist, Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, “When your body is under stress, it’s like you trip a circuit-breaker or blow a fuse.”
As any abuse survivor will tell you, the pain doesn’t stop after the abuse ends. We asked 15 survivors about the physical symptoms of stress they developed as a result of long-term abuse. Here’s what they had to say:
"Before my abusive relationship, I had a razor sharp memory. For the first two months after I left, my brain was a foggy mess. I would struggle to remember the names of close acquaintances and forget what ordinary objects were called." - Allie, 28.
“I remember one week the emotional abuse was so bad that after a clash with my ex, the left side of my face went totally numb. I honestly thought I was having a stroke, so I took myself to the hospital. The brain scans were normal, but the numbness started to set in almost every time my ex was abusive. My lips would tingle, and sometimes my hands would go numb.” – Charlotte, 43.
“Throughout the relationship I would break out in stress-related hives, and no matter how I slept or what pillow I used, I would wake up with intense neck pain. After the relationship, I started to get these unfamiliar pinprick headaches on the top of my head that would wake me up in the middle of the night. That, and I was losing huge clumps of hair regularly.” – Dacia, 32.
“Once the abuse started, I gained a lot of weight and my hair started to fall out. In a matter of months, I looked like I had aged 10 years. I would have these panic attacks where I would I be vomiting and crying at the same time. The smallest things set me off. I was sleeping for 14 hours a night and still I was fatigued. My self-esteem was shot.” – Ayana, 25.
“I had a miscarriage at 15 weeks. I didn’t know I was pregnant because I had lost so much weight. I believe the miscarriage happened because of the amount of stress I was in. My hormones were all over the place. I’m out of the relationship now, thank God, but I’ve become a total recluse. I avoid people at all costs. I am stick thin and have to see a neurologist because my nerves are literally damaged.” – Jenna, 39.
"I developed stress-induced alopecia and had to shave my head. Severe anxiety, migraines, full-blown panic attacks, you name it. Since leaving the marriage, I have started to gain weight and I've gotten my blood pressure under control. My doctor says if I wouldn't have left, I would likely have had a heart attack within a few years." - Natasha, 34.
“The stress was slowly but surely killing me. In addition to the night terrors, I would tremble so hard that I couldn’t write and this would be triggered by the mere sight of my ex on social media. I never had anxiety until I met him. As the abuse intensified, so too did the anxiety. Eventually this led to chronic tinnitus.” – Seiko, 23.
“My memory is non-existent, I suffer from gut issues, and I’m always dizzy. I have frequent migraines and insomnia and was hospitalized twice for ulcers that were literally bleeding inside of me. I was diagnosed with PTSD, and all my hair is falling out. I have extreme adrenal fatigue and my cortisol levels are drained. He never laid a hand on me, but he almost killed me.” – Naz, 52.
“I was depressed and jumpy, I developed interstitial cystitis which worsens with stress, and I had to have my gallbladder removed.” – Rachel, 41.
“Where do I begin? Ovarian cysts, ulcers, hair loss and premature greying, depression, rashes, a sleep disorder, numbness, I’m tired all the time, I’m dizzy, my heart races when I see somebody who even looks like him, I don’t want to go outside, I don’t want to see people, and I can’t keep any weight on.” Morgan, 35.
"Fibromyalgia, and it's awful. It began during the relationship but went undiagnosed because I thought the symptoms were unrelated. Mood issues, chronic muscle aches, fatigue, irritable bladder, sleep disturbances. The symptoms got better after I left him, but stress causes flare-ups." - Kimani, 36.
“My immune system crashed. It’s like, I walk outside and I get sick. I shake a lot, I’ve lost a lot of weight, I feel like I’m balding, I’m up till 5AM every night, my mind is mush, and the PTSD is ongoing.” – Becca, 24.
“I suffered from something called, central serous retinopathy, and lost sight in my left eye. My doctor was surprised because it’s usually a stress-related condition that affects men in high pressure jobs who have to concentrate while under stress. My brain is also really foggy and I have trouble focusing due to adrenal fatigue.” – Nilima, 29.
“I have anxiety and my legs will randomly start wobbling- two things I never experienced before my relationship. Hair loss and fibromyalgia as well.” – Rachel, 34.
“Almost immediately after he would abuse me, my whole face would break out in a hideous rash and I would wake up with pain in my jaw from clenching my teeth while I slept. I suffer from gastritis and hormonal imbalances. He once gave me a concussion from slamming me into a wall.” – Marta, 50.
For many of these woman, the source of their ailments was blatantly clear: stress. Others become so accustomed to their symptoms that the source isn't clear until after they leave the relationship.
While migraines, hair loss, and insomnia are commonly associated with stress, it’s less often that we hear about stress-induced fibromyalgia, ulcers, rashes, numbness, lupus, and other disorders mentioned above. Victims of abuse often report a chronic sensation of feeling outside of their bodies. Throughout the recovery process, survivors tend to became more in-tune with their bodies’ various stress responses, and it becomes all the more clear just how toxic chronic stress is on the body as well as the mind.
Science validates the testaments of these women. One of the most common symptoms they experienced was hair loss- to the extent that one woman developed alopecia- a disorder wherein the immune system attacks hair follicles. It is well known that severe stress triggers telogen effluvium, a condition that is considered acute onset, non-scarring alopecia.
Two women mentioned that they experience hand tremors and wobbly legs. If you’ve ever had to read a speech from a piece of paper under immense stress, then you may have noticed your hands trembling. This is the fight or flight response. Under persistent emotional distress, intermittent tremors can evolve into a chronic nerve disorder called, essential tremor. Unfortunately, ET worsens with age.
Many women reported memory loss and generalized brain fog. We know that memory loss is linked to traumatic brain injuries (TBI), but while some survivors experienced TBIs after an episode of physical abuse, others reported similar cognitive impairments after ongoing emotional and psychological abuse. Abusers utilize a collection of highly manipulative tactics to confuse their victims and distort their perceptions. This emotional trauma causes damage to the hippocampus– the region of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
For the woman who miscarried at fifteen weeks, stress could very well have been the cause. A team of scientists from Tufts University in Greece found a connection between the peptide hormone, corticotropin (CRH), and both miscarriage and low-birth-weight. Under severe, obdurate stress, increased CRH levels trigger a reaction in uterine mast cells, causing them to erupt with chemicals that destroy fetal tissue, cease membrane production, sabotage the placenta, and ultimately terminate the pregnancy.
A growing body of research highlights the connection between the brain and the gut as well. Certain types of stress are found to correlate with certain types of ulcers. For instance, what are known as stress ulcers are most often caused by physical stress in the form of trauma that occurs to the brain or the body. On the other hand, peptic and gastric ulcers are significantly higher among individuals suffering from “concrete life stressors and perceived distress.”
Stress ulcers are more difficult to heal due to the release of the stress hormone, corticosteroid, which suppresses the immune system. Furthermore, the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, decreases the amount of mucous produced by the stomach, which in turn increases the likelihood that stomach acid will burn the stomach’s lining and lead to gastritis. High levels of cortisol are also associated with gallbladder dysfunction, which would explain why one survivor had to have hers removed.
Not surprisingly, prolonged emotional stress even ravages its way through the ovaries, causing ovarian dysfunction, polycystic ovary syndrome, and irregular or missed periods- a condition otherwise known as secondary amenorrhea. This condition is irreversible but it can be treated, whereas women who suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome are at an increased risk of infertility, metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea, endometrial cancer, and depression.
Finally, three women pinpointed stress as the cause of their fibromyalgia- a chronic neurological disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, mood issues, and cognitive difficulties. The disorder frequently co-exists with irritable bowel syndrome and interstitial cystitis, and is often triggered by a physically traumatic event or prolonged psychological stress, whereupon the adrenal gland secretes high levels of stress hormones like cortisol over an extended period of time. Meditation, acupuncture, and yoga are three alternative treatments for fibromyalgia that focus on one thing: relieving stress.
When survivors detail their escapes from abusive relationships, they speak as though their decisions to leave were life or death.
And that’s because they are. Statistically, 75% of all domestic violence homicides occur when the victim is attempting to leave or after they have ended the relationship. We talk a lot about the physical, emotional, and psychological abuse caused by the abuser directly. But what many women in abusive relationships aren’t aware of is just how much the prolonged stress they are experiencing is causing neurological and physiological damage. Damage that could very well stay with them for the rest of their lives.