Childhood Psychological Abuse As Harmful As Sexual Or Physical Abuse

Written by Jim Folk
Written by Jim Folk
Written by Jim Folk
Last updated June 23, 2021
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Experiencing psychological or emotional abuse as a child is just as, if not more harmful than experiencing sexual or physical abuse, study finds.

The state of being anxious (anxiety) results when we behave in an apprehensive manner. Therefore, anxiety is caused by behavior. We learn our behaviors when growing up. The people who raise us and the environment we are raised in greatly influence the types of behaviors we learn and then use.

We use the behaviors we learned as children for the rest of our lives unless we deliberately make behavioural change. However, it’s estimated that a small percentage of the population makes meaningful behavioural change. This means that the majority of adolescents and adults use the behaviors they learned as children, which is why behavioural disorders (commonly referred to as “mental illnesses”) are common.

Coming from an abusive background – physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse – is a common factor in the development of anxiety disorder – when anxiety interferes with a normal lifestyle.

Having an abusive background is one of the many underlying factors that set us up to behave in overly apprehensive ways, which can result in a struggle with problematic anxiety.

Recovery Support members can find more information about anxiety’s many underlying factors in the Underlying Factors section (chapter 7) in the Recovery Support area of our website.

We’ve known for some time that psychological and emotional abuse causes as much or more harm than physical or sexual abuse. But because there aren’t any outward marks (scares, bruises, damage) caused by psychological and emotional abuse, many people have dismissed psychological and emotional abuse as being truly harmful. A new study, however, clarifies the harms of psychological and emotional abuse.

A study published by the American Psychological Association found that children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused.

“Given the prevalence of childhood psychological abuse and the severity of harm to young victims, it should be at the forefront of mental health and social service training,” said study lead author Joseph Spinazzola, PhD, of The Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, Brookline, Massachusetts. The article appears in a special online issue of the APA journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy.

The study’s press release states, “Children who had been psychologically abused suffered from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and suicidality at the same rate and, in some cases, at a greater rate than children who were physically or sexually abused. Among the three types of abuse, psychological maltreatment was most strongly associated with depression, general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, attachment problems and substance abuse. Psychological maltreatment that occurred alongside physical or sexual abuse was associated with significantly more severe and far-ranging negative outcomes than when children were sexually and physically abused and not psychologically abused, the study found. Moreover, sexual and physical abuse had to occur at the same time to have the same effect as psychological abuse alone on behavioral issues at school, attachment problems and self-injurious behaviors, the research found.”

The study defined psychological maltreatment as care-giver inflicted bullying, terrorizing, coercive control, severe insults, debasement, threats, overwhelming demands, shunning and/or isolation.

Since 1987, I’ve been saying that anxiety disorder isn’t caused by a biological, chemical, or genetic problem, but by learned unhealthy behavior. This study is another example of how our backgrounds influence behavioural development, and then how those behaviors go on to cause mental health problems later in life.

Statistics have shown that three in five females and two in five males experience some form of abuse when growing up. We believe this is a main reason why mental health problems are so prevalent today. As the negative stigma is removed from mental illness, we can expect reported cases of mental illness to dramatically increase.

Nevertheless, anxiety disorder can be successfully overcome by addressing the underlying factors that cause problems with anxiety, such as those caused by psychological and emotional abuse.

Since these issues are complex, self-help materials generally aren’t sufficient to bring about meaningful or lasting relief. Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome anxiety problems caused by psychological and emotional abuse.

All of our recommended therapists are experienced in identifying and successfully addressing these types of underlying factors.

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The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources Information, support, and coaching/counseling/therapy for problematic anxiety and its sensations and symptoms, including Childhood Psychological Abuse As Harmful As Sexual Or Physical Abuse.


1. American Psychological Association (APA). "Childhood psychological abuse as harmful as sexual or physical abuse." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 October 2014.