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20 Surprising Physical Symptoms of Childhood Emotional Abuse

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When we think of the effects of childhood emotional abuse, we often think of the deep emotional scars it can leave. And while we should absolutely acknowledge and validate the ways it can affect someone’s mental health and well-being, we may not realize our bodies can carry trauma in a very physical way as well. 

Maybe your body seems to “shut down” when you try to talk about your past. Maybe you have trouble touching and being touched by others. Or maybe you have unexplained pain when you encounter a triggering situation that brings you right back to childhood.

Our bodies and minds are very intimately linked, and experiencing emotional abuse in childhood can leave physical “evidence” in adulthood. To learn some of the ways childhood emotional abuse not only affects your mind — but also your body — we asked people in our mental health community to describe what physical symptoms they experience as a result of their upbringing.


Here’s what they had to say:

1. Pain, all over. The more stressed, depressed or emotionally hurt, the more physical pain I feel. This started in childhood and worsened in adulthood when the emotional abuse shifted… Some days it’s so bad I can hardly move.” — Tina F.

2. “When I open up to someone about things I haven’t talked about, I have this weird shaking thing that happens. It feels like the organs in my ribcage are shaking and [it] makes it hard to breathe sometimes.” — Allie F.

3. “I have always had a very acidic stomach that is immediately triggered by emotions. I have carried this from childhood and as a result, have almost no appetite and eating is forced but not something I enjoy at all. Food was in very short supply and I believe I trained myself to eat only what I needed to survive in order to have enough. I still cannot eat the last piece of anything for fear that someone may want it.” — Bridgett L.

4. “Insomnia. [I’ve experienced] extreme insomnia since the emotional abuse started. I’m now 25 and it still is a nightly struggle.” — Satonia R.

5. “Extreme stomach pain and nausea when I hear parents berating their children. My whole body tenses and I can’t get away fast enough.” — Dani P.

6. “Dermatillomania. Even now I struggle with the urge to harm myself to relieve anxiety during trancelike triggers as a way to snap out of it. I have every reason to be happy. I have a happy family of my own and by having children repressed memories made it start up again. It’s one thing to hide dysfunction, but to hide it when it shows on you visibly is even harder to explain, let alone to justify… I feel like I will never stop fixing the damage that was done for me, if not for my own sake, but for my children’s, so they won’t ever need to deal with unlearning and relearning life how I have. ” — Ashley D.

7. “When I was a kid, it was nausea from being so angry that I couldn’t do anything — which lead to hopelessness.” — Lori B.

8. “For a very long time I wouldn’t let anyone touch me even for a hug. To me, that was a sign of affection that was awkward for me. As I got older, into my late 20s early 30s the thought of being sexual was never something I contemplated because of the fear that was gripping me. I found touching to be an intimate act given to someone I trusted and I didn’t trust anyone.” — Beth C.

9. “[I have a] lifelong sleep disorder that impacts [my] overall health daily. I used to have physical injuries all the time because I was so dissociative from my body and surroundings. Terrible memory and recall because of dissociative patterns. Painful muscle tension from persistent anxiety. Physical hives from anxiety. Searing chest pain when stressed. Energy crashes and fatigue after being around people because of hypertension and vigilance. Sensitive teeth and physical conditions from neglect and years without medical care. Anxiety that causes difficulty breathing for long periods of time, in which I have to focus exclusively on breathing and self-regulate. A general lack of hunger daily. I have to think about and regulate things that should be basic programming.” — Dominique M.

10. “I have migraines a lot, constantly flinching at loud noises and quick movement, bad social anxiety, depression, stress eating, undiagnosed C-PTSD. I have a fear of developing any sort of relationship with people, so I don’t have many friends. I have a constant fear of abandonment while also feeling like a burden on the ones that actually care about me. it’s gotten a lot better since I was a teenager, but it’s always a struggle.” — Ray W.


11. “Rapid heart beat [so] much of the time because I’m always anxious something will happen.” — Sarah Y.

12. “Whenever anyone raised their voice or if I am scared of conflict, my brain shuts down, I enter ‘trauma’ mode and I can’t communicate at all. I get chest pains, can’t breathe and cry. I can’t even tell anyone what is wrong until it passes.” — Lara C.

13. “I could go on and on about this topic, but the one that is the most strange to other people is that I’m really jumpy, easily startled and overreact. I’ve literally almost punched a friend for tapping me on the shoulder. Alternatively, I’ve screamed like I’m under attack for being tapped on the shoulder at work. It’s mortifyingly embarrassing.” — Krista D.

14. “I’m overweight. Some may think this is genetic, but I know it’s because I learned to eat my emotions as a child because I didn’t know how to express them.” — Christy S.

15. “Nausea. I get sick to my stomach when I feel someone is upset with me. It terrifies me to no end, not knowing if they’ll snap. To the point I literally get sick.” — Athena C.

16. “When I try to open up to someone about it, my whole body tenses up and I usually start shaking badly or twitching. It’s relentless pain.” — Madison B.

17. “Puking. My parents raised me to never argue with anyone and to ‘go with the flow’ when dad was being emotionally abusive. So I didn’t know how to stand up for myself or spot demeaning behavior — but my body knew. [I once] had a boyfriend [who] was mean and picked on me. I thought everything was fine, but I would throw up almost every time I saw him. Didn’t realize what it was until I met up with him when he came up to visit and after hugging and saying hi, I immediately threw up.” — Amanda W.

18. “Rashes on my legs. It doesn’t bother me as much anymore, my mom and I used to joke that I was allergic to life.” — Bailey N.

19. “A pain in my back, always carrying the burden of negative thoughts that pop into mind — especially when I mess something up.” — Tyler M.

20. “Muscle tension. Not just a little discomfort now and then, but deep, nearly unable to untangle tension, especially in my neck, shoulders and upper arms. It sometimes improves, but never goes away completely. Someone yelling or being overly aggressive still triggers it, even as an adult.” — Jackie L.

If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Thinkstock photo via Archv.

20 Surprising Physical Symptoms of Childhood Emotional Abuse
Originally published: July 13, 2017
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