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Physical abuse is when someone hurts another person on purpose and is often seen in cases of domestic violence. It entails a vast spectrum of harmful behaviour, including slapping, burning, biting and kicking. Victims can be of any age and come from all walks of life, and although many survive their injuries, in some cases physical abuse can be fatal.
According to recent figures released by the Crime Survey for England and Wales, in 2013 more than 1.1 million women and 720,000 men were victims of some kind of domestic abuse. It is also believed that more people die worldwide from domestic physical abuse than of cancer, traffic accidents or wars.
Seeking professional support is essential for helping victims of physical abuse to overcome psychological difficulties that can stem from their traumatic experiences. In many cases physical abuse can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger and other challenges such as sexual issues and trouble trusting new people. Abuse counselling can help in a number of ways and this page will explore therapy in more detail, as well as taking a closer look at physical abuse and the warning signs to look out for.
On this page
- What is physical abuse?
- Living with physical abuse
- Signs of physical abuse
- Causes of physical abuse
- Effects of physical abuse
What is physical abuse?
Physical abuse is an intentional act of violence or force that causes bodily harm - typically in the form of physical discomfort, impairment, injury or pain. However a person doesn't have to show signs of an injury or bruises to have experienced physical abuse. Regardless of scale, physical abuse is unhealthy and can have long-lasting effects both physically and psychologically.
Physical abuse can affect both adults and children, and their abuser can be anyone within their environment, including family members, caregivers, a partner, friend or acquaintance. Generally the aim of an abuser is to cause fear and humiliate/intimidate the victim - usually as a means of asserting control. There are a variety of ways in which someone may inflict physical abuse, some examples include:
- pulling hair
- pushing or shoving
- forcibly carrying
- scratching or biting
- choking or strangling
- use of weapons such as a knife, gun or bat
- being forced to have sex or perform a sexual act
- grabbing of clothing
- throwing of objects such as a book, phone, shoe, plate, etc.
- any kind of physical restraint
- forced feeding or denial of food.
Living with physical abuse
Many people who have experienced physical abuse say that it starts off small - such as a one-off slap, the grabbing of a wrist or the occasional push - but that it becomes progressively more violent and frequent. For many, when the first assault occurs it can be a huge shock, but in retrospect they recognise that prior to any physical abuse there had been signs of verbal and emotional abuse.
In many cases, following a violent outburst the abuser will be apologetic, begging for forgiveness and promising never to be violent again. They may also resort to blaming the victim for their behaviour - claiming their violence was only a natural and inevitable progression of something started by the victim. This blame shifting and sudden show of remorse can make it difficult for a victim to leave an abusive situation - especially as they will be feeling very confused and worried that the abuse really is their fault. Often this means the victim will attempt to change their behaviour, but no matter how hard they try the abuse is likely to continue.
Another common claim physically abusive people may make for their actions is that violence is necessary to control the victim and ensure they do as they are told. They may also use the excuse that their behaviour was unintentional and that they simply 'lost it'. Drink and drugs are often involved in cases of physical abuse and abusive individuals may tell the victim that it was the drink/drugs making them act violent, not themselves.
Living with physical abuse can be extremely distressing, and victims will usually be in constant fear that the acts of violence - or worse - will happen again. Whatever the degree of physical abuse, there is always a risk of causing a permanent disability, injury or even death.
Signs of physical abuse
Signs of physical abuse vary - from visible indicators that show a violent act has occurred to behavioural indicators, which can be less noticeable. It is important to note that no single indicator of physical abuse can be seen as conclusive proof that someone is suffering. If you are concerned that a loved one is being physically abused, look for clusters or patterns of signs - both physical and behavioural - that suggest there is a problem.
Visible signs of physical abuse:
- broken bones, sprains, fractures or dislocations
- injuries to the head, chest, neck and stomach
- missing or chipped teeth
- injuries healing at different stages
- injuries that are healing without having received medical attention
- signs of traumatic hair loss
- black eyes
- difficulty walking or sitting
- abrasions on arms, legs or stomach that look like rope or strap marks
- bilateral bruising of the arms (suggests the person has been grabbed, restrained or shaken)
- bilateral bruising of the inner thighs (may indicate sexual abuse)
- multicoloured bruises - indicating continued abuse over a period of time.
Behavioural signs of physical abuse:
- unexplained or implausible explanations about how injuries were sustained
- family members providing contrasting explanations about how they were sustained
- a history of similar injuries or suspicious hospitalisations
- delay between getting the injury and seeking medical help
- tense interactions between the victim and the abuser.
Other signs of physical abuse that are typically less easy to identify include:
- withdrawal from regular activities and social situations
- low self-esteem and confidence
- strong feelings of inadequacy.
Causes of physical abuse
Of course there is no specific cause of physical abuse, and it is essential that people suffering at the hands of an abuser recognise they are not in any way responsible for what is happening to them. The fault of physical abuse lies solely with the abuser, however it is unknown what specifically triggers someone to threaten and carry out violent attacks on others. Generally it is thought that various risk factors influence the likelihood of someone becoming physically abusive towards another person.
In particular, many people who are physically abusive come from a dysfunctional family unit and are very likely to have experienced abuse - whether physical, emotional, verbal or sexual - as children or young adults. Individuals in this situation often begin to act out specific roles that include a type of abuse, and these are encouraged or validated by parents - unconsciously and somewhat subconsciously.
Both men and women are capable of inflicting physical abuse and some physical abusers may exhibit signs of personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder. These psychological conditions can explain why abusers feel an impulsive need to use violence and/or physical threats to assert control and act out their inner frustrations. Though it is important to note that not everyone with these disorders becomes abusive.
Generally, people who physically abuse others can come from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities, but all are considered to exhibit a set of common patterns. These include:
- low self-esteem
- extreme jealousy
- using threats to control another person
- an insatiable ego
- short temper
- making jokes about violent situations
- involved in alcohol or drug abuse
- fascination with violence and weapons
- exhibits cruelty towards animals
- seem emotionally dependent.
Effects of physical abuse
The effects of physical abuse are acute and tend to be far-reaching. While the immediate effect is emotionally traumatic and painful, with a visible injury such as a bruise or a cut forming, the long-term effects can be far more damaging - both psychologically and physically.
Long-term physical effects
If someone has sustained injuries from physical abuse over a long period of time, they could be at risk of developing serious medical conditions such as arthritis and chronic pain syndromes. Physical abuse can also cause illnesses such as heart disease and hypertension due to the stress of living with an abusive partner, and pregnancies can also be affected. Many pregnant women who are being physically abused will be unable to gain weight properly and this could lead to preterm labour, low infant birth weight and possibly even miscarriage. Children experiencing physical abuse may go on to develop lifelong disabilities such as brain damage or eye damage.
Long-term psychological effects
The psychological impact of physical abuse can be particularly long-lasting. A number of sufferers will go on to develop mental health problems such as depression, panic disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and may resort to self-harming or drug and alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism. It is also common for victims of physical abuse to experience repetitive nightmares and flashbacks and they may become increasingly isolated from others.
Physical abuse can also cause a number of lifelong psychological problems for children. Many will grow up to have emotional and behavioural issues such as anxiety, anger and hostility, as well as hyperactivity, self-destructive behaviour and poor social skills. Studies also show that physically abused children have very low self-esteem and can find it difficult to perform academically. Physical abuse may also cause children to run away from home and develop eating disorders.
Escaping physical abuse
If you are being physically abused you should strongly consider seeking help, either by making an appointment with your GP or contacting a dedicated helpline for support. If this feels like too big a step, try talking to someone you trust. Speaking for the first time about physical abuse can be difficult, so it might help to write down your feelings first or send a letter instead. You may be dealing with all kinds of intense emotions, but it is important to remember that being physically abused is not your fault. Finding the courage to open up and talk about your suffering is the first step to breaking away from the abuse and moving on.
For victims of physical abuse, escaping a violent relationship or situation is only the first hurdle. Many will need to attend abuse counselling sessions in order to recover their self-esteem and confidence, and ultimately regain control of their emotional well-being. The journey to overcoming physical abuse can be difficult, but abuse counselling offers non-judgmental support and guidance every step of the way.
Professional therapists will provide a supportive and safe environment where victims of physical abuse can start to explore painful memories and traumatic events in order to understand and change how they are affecting them in the present. Sessions will also involve teaching clients new skills and perspectives to promote healthier coping strategies and boost their confidence in dealing with any flashbacks or recurring nightmares that may be keeping the abuse fresh in their mind.
Counselling is particularly valuable for addressing some of the effects of physical abuse, including depression, anxiety, trouble trusting new people, sexual issues and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Medication can also be prescribed to support this recovery process. Ultimately, the main aim of abuse counselling is to help individuals come to terms with their feelings, reframe their abuse and regain control of their lives.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Whilst there are no official rules and regulations in position to stipulate what level of training and experience a counsellor dealing with physical abuse needs, we do recommend that you check your therapist is experienced in the area for which you are seeking help.
There are several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors that can improve their knowledge of a particular area, so for peace of mind you may wish to check to see if they have had further training in matters of physical abuse/domestic violence.
Another way to assure they have undergone specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation that represents abuse counsellors.
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What our experts say
- When abusive relationships end: a complex grief
Jo Baker1st March, 2018
- Supporting a friend or loved one who is experiencing intimate partner abuse
Jo Baker28th February, 2018
- Understanding domestic violence
Antonella Zottola MBACP, Dip. Counselling26th January, 2018
- Taking back the power
Sarah Fitzgerald Bsc Hons Counselling & Psychotherapy MBACP22nd October, 2017
- Emotional, psychological abuse – How your self-esteem can be affected
Balwinder Hunjan BSc (Hon) Dip Counselling Psychology Registered MBACP29th September, 2017
- Psychological abuse is still abuse
Roxana Trelia (MBACP)6th April, 2017
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