Anxiety expert discusses effects of domestic abuse

In light of the new research published this week about the incidence of anxiety, PTSD and other mental illnesses in women who have suffered abuse, we look at why this is the case. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety affects around 16% of the population at any one time. However this percentage is significantly increased in those who are suffering, or who have survived domestic abuse.

Anxiety is our body’s response to a stressful situation. We all experience anxiety at one point or another. Anxiety becomes problematic, when we are not able to manage it, control it or harness it, when it gets in the way of us doing things that we want to do or when we spend our lives fearing it and avoiding it.

If you feel that anxiety is affecting you in this way, you are not alone and there is much that can be done. Let's start by understanding why we feel anxious.

The 'Flight or Fight' response

When our bodies feel danger (this maybe real or perceived) chemicals kick in to prepare us to face or flee the danger. This is an instinctive reaction and it is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. If there is no need to use the excess chemicals; adrenaline or the increased oxygen supply, then our bodies begin to act against us, the decreased carbon dioxide levels in our lungs and blood causes us to feel dizzy and disoriented, we can begin to hyperventilate and panic.

When we live in a higly stressful environment our body's response to danger will be constantly on high alert.

Domestic abuse and anxiety

We all have stressors in our lives, factors that have the ability to cause us stress. For each of us we will have different stressors, each affecting us in different proportions, but for most of us there will be:

  • Work,
  • Family
  • Social factors.

Within each of these components are situations that will provoke anxiety or cause us stress.

For each of us, the degree that these components create situations that result in us becoming anxious will vary. A teenager living on the street or a man or woman experiencing domestic abuse, is likely to have a high degree of anxiety about their situation with little control over what happens to them.

For someone in a partnership with a loving, considerate partner, the anxieties provoked by this situation are likely to be far fewer.  Part of us gaining control over anxiety would be to understand the things that make us anxious and try to deal with them – remove them altogether or, if not possible, look at ways of reducing the stress within the situation.

Sufferers and survivors of domestic abuse can experience significantly raised anxiety levels. Living in constant stress or fear can indeed create a constant raised level of anxiety. We obviously suggest if you are living in this environment that you get help - resources are available at the end of this article. Please also see our guide to treating anxiety.

The stress bucket

Some situations are simply stressful. Things like moving house, getting married, getting divorced, and starting a new job are all stressful life events. All are to do with change. These things happen to us all and are a normal part of life.

Each creates an element of uncertainty and, depending on how they occur, perhaps a lack of control. Uncertainty and lack of control can lead to insecurity, which, in turn, can provoke anxiety.

These events are essentially temporary, however, and most of us are able to cope with one of these on its own or perhaps two together. When stressful situations begin to build up on each other, however, we can begin to get irritated and annoyed with things that would not normally annoy us. We snap at people around us. We might feel on edge all the time, can’t settle, can’t concentrate, can’t sit still. We maybe get in a cold sweat worrying about going out for a meal with a few friends, or something else that could be unrelated to the actual stressor itself.

Our ability to cope with stress is like a bucket’s ability to hold water. It can only hold so much. If you keep pouring more in, it can’t cope. The water spills out over the sides. We either need a bigger bucket or less water.

Until we can learn to manage our response to situations better, we need to control the amount of anxious situations we are trying to deal with. Once we have learned to do this then we find we can begin to cope with more.

Constant high anxiety

When you are living in a constantly anxious environment your bucket never gets chance to unload, you live with a constant level of fear and a bucket that is always about to spill over.

Also once out of that environment the level of anxiety we have been accustomed to can remain, we have learned that life is 'dangerous' and our body reacts that way even if the stressor is gone. At this point we need to learn how to manage anxiety appropriate to our new situation.

For more information on anxiety 

Please click here

Further help and resources

If you feel you are being abused, you can contact various organisations including Refuge (see and Women’s Aid (see Both organisations are for women and can be called on 0808 2000 247. Men experiencing domestic violence can call ManKind on 01823 334244 or go to their website at

Information taken from Psychologist Colim Matthews article on 'anxiety and domestic abuse', commissioned by Fantelli Imprint for Uncovered magazine issue 2 December 2010, edits by Charlotte Fantelli 2011.

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