Increased stress with job loss, lack of finances, kids home from school, and social isolation can create an even more volatile home environment for victims and survivors of domestic violence.
COVID19 has changed the way we do business, how we finish out the school year, and how we engage with others. Unfortunately, changes in routines can also create conflict. The anxiety and uncertainties only compound to a sense of “new normal” many of us are figuring out as we find ourselves sharing a space, while practicing social distancing.
“The problem with verbal abuse is there is no evidence,” Marta shared. She came for help with a long-standing depression.
“What do you mean, lack of evidence?” I asked her.
“When people are physically or sexually abused, it’s concrete and real. But verbal abuse is amorphous. I feel like if I told someone I was verbally abused, they’d think I was just complaining about being yelled at,” Marta explained.
“It’s much more than that,” I validated.
“I wish I was beaten,” Marta shared on more than one occasion. “I’d feel more legitimate.”
Her statement was haunting and brought tears to my eyes.
Verbal abuse is so much more than getting scolded. Marta told me that there were many reasons her mother’s tirades were traumatizing:
- The loud volume of her voice
- The shrill tone of her voice
- The dead look in her eyes
- The critical, disdainful and scornful facial expression that made Marta feel hated
- The long duration—sometimes her mother yelled for hours
- The names and insults—you’re spoiled, disgusting and wretched
- The unpredictability of that “flip of the switch” that turned her mother into someone else
- And, perhaps worst of all, the abandonment
Being frequently yelled at changes the mind, brain and body in a multitude of ways including increasing the activity of the amygdala (the emotional brain), increasing stress hormones in the blood stream, increasing muscular tension and more. Being frequently yelled at as children changes how we think and feel about ourselves even after we become adults and leave home. That’s because the brain wires according to our experiences—we literally hear our parents’ voices yelling at us in our heads even when they’re not there.
Attachment and infant-mother research confirms what we all intuitively know: Humans do better when they feel safe and consistently loved, which means, among other things, being treated with respect. What is news to many of us is that we are born with fully matured, hard-wired, core emotions like sadness, fear and anger. And when fear, for example, is repeatedly triggered by a harsh environment, like one where there is a lot of yelling, automatic physical and emotional reactions occur that cause traumatic stress to a child. The stress in their little brains and bodies increases from anything that makes them feel attacked, including loud voices, angry voices, angry eyes, dismissive gestures and more.
Children do better when they are calm. The calmer and more connected the caregiver, the calmer and more secure the child. And the healthier it is for the child’s brain and body. Knowing this, here are some things all parents can remember to help young brains develop well, by ensuring our children feel safe and secure.
- Know that children have very real emotional needs that need proper tending. In general, the more these needs are met, the easier it will be for the child to be resilient in the face of life’s challenges.
- Learning about core emotions will help your child successfully manage emotions.
- You can affect your child’s self-esteem by being kind, compassionate and curious about their mind and world.
- When a break in the relationship occurs, as often happens during conflicts, try to repair the emotional connection with your child as soon as possible.
- You can help your child feel safe and secure by allowing them to separate from you and become their own person. Then welcoming them back with love and connection even when you are angry or disappointed in their behaviors.
When you’re a parent, it’s not easy to control your temper or realize when you’ve crossed the line into verbal abuse. There is a slippery slope between being a strict disciplinarian and traumatizing a young brain. A little awareness goes a long way. Being aware of one’s behavior, listening to our tone of voice and choice of words and watching our body language will keep us in check. Little children, who can act tough, defiant or even indifferent to our actions, are still vulnerable to trauma.
Our own childhood experiences—wonderful, horrible and everything in between—need to be remembered and honored. And we can all strive to help ourselves and our families evolve for the better: to increase the best, gentle experiences we received as children and reduce the painful ones. Marta, for example, worked hard to recover from her abuse. She strove to develop compassion for herself and self-soothe her distress, both necessary but challenging parts of healing.
Several years into our work together, Marta came in following a distressing weekend and shared an amazing experience. A fight with her mother had left her reeling: “I told myself, my distress will soon pass and I’ll be okay. I named, validated and felt the sadness in my body as I gave myself compassion. After I spent time with my feelings, I took a walk through the park and looked at nature. I felt better.”
Proud of the way she could now self-soothe, I said, “What a wonderful mother you were to yourself.”
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is the author of It’s Not Always Depression (Random House & Penguin UK), a book which teaches both the general public and psychotherapists about emotions and how to work with them to feel better. She received her BA in biochemistry from Wesleyan University and an MSW from Fordham University. She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. She has published articles in The New York Times and professional journals. Hendel was also the Mental Health Consultant on AMC’s Mad Men. She lives in New York City. For more information and free resources for mental health visit: https://www.hilaryjacobshendel.com/
I don’t recognize the bedroom. The walls are black and bare, except for a chaotic painting hanging in a random corner. From the doorway, I see two people laced together on a bed. I’m embarrassed, because they’re naked, but I don’t think they know I’m here. There’s a woman whose voluptuous silhouette is blurred by shadows — apart from her hair. Even against the dark contrast of the room, her cascade of long, black curls stand out. There’s a man too. I can see him clearly, but … that can’t be … oh, god.
For the past few months, I’ve had a vivid, recurring dream that I catch my husband being unfaithful with some mysterious woman, always the same one.
Every time, I wake up shaking, almost in tears, and immediately want to lash out at my husband — even though he is fast asleep, drooling away on one of our overpriced down-filled pillows. He’s done nothing wrong, but I still can’t help but hope that a stray feather drifts up his nose and makes him sneeze. The emotions I have in this dream are different — deeper, more painful — than anything I’ve felt in dreams past. And they linger.
The next morning, behind red, swollen eyes, I try to shake off the hurt and anger that have been plaguing me all night. But lately, things haven’t ended so well. While eating breakfast the other day, my husband mentioned running into a girl from high school at a local convenience store. An innocent story, except that I’d just had the dream again the night before. In my mind, I saw her face on the unidentified woman — and stormed off, leaving behind a man who was incredibly confused.
Later in the day, I apologized and we carried on — but somewhere deep inside, I continue to hold a tiny grudge. Yes, it’s unfair, and I know the whole thing makes me sound slightly unhinged. How can I stay mad at someone over a hypothetical situation? Besides, I’m not normally the jealous type, and I know my husband would never cheat. So, why is a dream affecting my reality so much?
“Typically, dreams that are troubling to us or that have particularly intense emotions tend to stick with us more than neutral or less intense dreams,” explains Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist based in New York. Most people dream at least four to six times per night — that’s generally about two hours total, adding up to a twelfth of our lives — but remember only a tiny sliver of what they’ve dreamed about. And most of the time, the dreams they remember are the emotionally shocking or difficult ones, filled with anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, helplessness, or confusion.
In part, the explanation is straightforward — negative experiences are generally more emotionally charged, and easier to remember, than positive ones. Timing also plays a role: The majority of our dreams — especially our most vivid dreams — happen during REM sleep, which is also when the limbic system, a collection of structures in the center of the brain that deals with emotion, is especially active.
While researchers still aren’t sure why we have nightmares, one theory is that they provide a safe, low-stakes space to work through difficult emotions or situations that might be troubling us in waking life. “Dreams are the number-one way in which we process emotions, particularly emotional tensions that we are experiencing in waking life,” said psychologist and dreaming expert Ian Wallace. “They are part of the same problem-solving processes that we use during the day.”
This might explain why I keep having the same recurring dream. “Generally speaking, we dream about whatever it is that is going on in our lives as we are falling asleep, or it’s the most prevalent stressful situation that’s going on in our world,” explains psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus. “If you have a situation where you are thinking about something that is very, very stressful on a fairly regular basis, then it will show up as a dream or in your unconscious.” And that same dream can replay over and over again during stressful periods.
That’s not to say that the dream scenario is a literal representation of what’s bothering you in waking life — it can just be an indication that something is wrong. Breus, for instance, has a recurring “stress” dream of his own: “I’m in high school, the bell rings, and I run to my locker to get my books for the next class,” he says, but “it’s a combination lock and I cannot remember the combination. I sit there and I spin the dial and I get more and more stressed out.” He wakes up in a cold sweat, he says, but understands it’s a sign that there’s something going on that he needs to think about.
Infidelity dreams, similarly, often have a lot to do with stress. “This has more to do with insecurity or self-esteem that’s going on with you personally than with your husband,” Breus says. And Wallace, who studies dream interpretation, suggests that I may conjure up the affair dream when I’m disappointed with myself. (Ironically, I’ve struggled with writing a novel this year, despite my husband’s support.)
And, as my husband unfortunately already knows, dreams can also impact our relationships. One 2013 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that the mood-altering effects of troubling dreams can last throughout the following day or even longer, negatively affecting intimacy and communication.
The good news, as Breus is quick to highlight, is that there’s no predictive value to dreams. And there are ways to stop the emotions of a bad dream from bleeding over into regular life: One approach is to give dreams better outcomes in our waking lives. “Prime your brain right before bed. And what that means, is to think about things that are positive before you go to sleep,” Breus recommended. Deep breathing and relaxation exercises can help. So can a technique called Image Rehearsal Therapy, in which a person writes out the entire content of their dream and then gives it a different ending. The idea, developed by sleep-disorder specialist Barry Krakow, is that over time, the exercise can alter the dream with the new outcome.
For now, I need to find a quiet corner and reflect on what stressors in my life could be causing my recurring nightmare. It might be the unfinished novel, or it might be something else. Until I find an answer, I’m hoping the mystery woman remains faceless and the pillows stay in one piece. And as far as my husband knows, my red eyes in the morning aren’t necessarily caused by the dream, anyway. I think I’m allergic to down.