Abuse is any action that intentionally harms, upsets or injures an individual or violates an individual’s human or civil rights.  Everyone is vulnerable to abuse regardless of sex, gender, age, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, or cultural identity. Abuse can take different forms and can have long-lasting effects. Abuse can severely impact on an individual’s physical and mental health affecting greatly day-to-day functioning.

There are different types of abuse: physical abuse, emotional / psychological abuse and sexual abuse.

Physical abuse

Any non-accidental act or behaviour that results in physical harm, injury, pain or impairment is characterised as ‘physical abuse’. Examples of physically abusive behaviour include but not limited to:

  • Physical restraint that can cause harm or injury
  • Kicking, slapping, punching, pinching, cutting, beating, chocking, shaking, pushing, burning.
  • Involuntary confinement
  • Withholding of food, force-feeding
  • Poisoning
  • Being denied sleep
  • Medication misuse (e.g., over-sedation)

Signs of physical abuse

Signs of physical abuse can range from minor injuries (bruises, bite-marks, etc.) to more severe injuries (broken bones, chronic injuries and scarring). There are also emotional/behavioural signs of physical abuse such as the below.

  • Increased anxiety
  • Sudden withdrawal
  • Sleeping problems
  • Self-harming and/or suicidal thoughts
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating problems

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is defined as any type of sexual activity that is forced upon someone against their will and without their consent. Sexual abuse can affect anyone, at any stage of their life, regardless of sex, gender, age, social status, race, and ethnicity. It can severely impact on a person’s mental health and emotional/physical well-being.

There are different types of sexual abuse. Any type of sexual act or contact that was not consensual is considered as sexual abuse, such as:

  • Indecent phone calls
  • Sexting
  • Exhibitionism
  • Voyeurism
  • Sexual harassment
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Inappropriate touching or fondling
  • Attempted rape
  • Rape – both by a person known or unknown to you
  • Date rape
  • Incest
  • Child sexual abuse
  • Female genital mutilation

There is no right or wrong way to feel about sexual abuse. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, you might be experiencing some or all of the following emotions:

  • Numbness –Feeling numb can be a response to the shock and trauma of the sexual abuse experience. Feeling strangely calm or not being able to process what has taken place can be a sign of numbness.
  • Depression – Feeling low, hopeless as if life has no meaning or there is nothing to look forward to.
  • Anxiety – Struggling day-to-day activities due to increased anxiety levels
  • Guilt –Assigning blame to yourself (for example, it was my fault), even though it was not.
  • Anger –Feeling angry towards the perpetrator or even towards yourself
  • Shame –Feeling ashamed and embarrassed about what happened, even though it was not within your control and your fault.
  • Sexual drive – Attitude towards sex might be affected or changed as a result of what happened (for example increased sexual drive or complete lack of it).

Emotional/psychological abuse

Emotional abuse, also known as psychological abuse, is any act that diminishes a person’s self-worth, dignity, and sense of identity. This includes acts of confinement, isolation, verbal aggression, intimidation, infantilisation and humiliation. Emotional abuse can affect anyone, at any stage in his/her life and can occur in any kind of relationship (e.g., friendship, colleagues, partners, family and couples).

Emotional abuse, as opposed to other types of abuse, is not visible hence it might be difficult to identify. However, it can severely impact on a mental  and emotional health with detrimental long-lasting effects such as depression, increased anxiety, low self-esteem, suicidality and personality changes.

Types of emotional abuse include but are not limited to:

  • Threats of violence or abandonment or intimidation
  • Yelling or swearing, name calling or insults, mocking, humiliating
  • Ignoring or excluding
  • Socially isolating an individual
  • Denial of the abuse and blaming of the victim
  • Criticism, undermining or belittling
  • Gaslighting
  • Guilt tripping
  • Withholding affection, sex, or money
  • Controlling behaviour
  • Infantilising

When to seek help

All forms of abuse could have long lasting detrimental effects on a person’s mental and emotional health. Abuse that was experienced during childhood, can be the underlying factor for mental health difficulties in adulthood, such as anxiety disorders – for example obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – dissociation issues, depression, low self-esteem, self-harm, eating disorders, addiction issues and personality changes. Abuse can also have a severe impact on a person’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships.

Dr Maria Pournara, Chartered Psychologist, offers online therapy / counselling to deal with the effects of abuse.