The connection between our mind and body is strong.
Sometimes physical symptoms can be a sign our emotional environment is toxic.
People in unhealthy relationships may experience pains, anxiety, and memory and speech problems.
It’s easy to dismiss your headache as a result of too much coffee, or your anxiety as nervous butterflies. But your body could be telling you more than you realize about your environment and the people in it.
Our bodies can sometimes show us what our subconscious has become aware of, but we’re yet to consciously realize.
Trauma therapist Shannon Thomas, the author of “Healing from Hidden Abuse” told Insider that many of her clients who were in abusive or toxic relationships ended up experiencing physical symptoms, with no obvious medical explanation.
“I don’t know of a client yet who hasn’t experienced some sort of body reaction to being in an abusive relationship,” Thomas said. “There are varying degrees, it’s a wide spectrum, but every single person had some physical manifestation of the abuse.”
Psychotherapist Lisa Lawless told Insider the toll that toxic relationships can take on the body is “surprisingly powerful.”
“It’s essential to understand that emotional stress can manifest in physical symptoms,” she said. “It’s vital to listen to our bodies and recognize when something is not right.”
Feeling worn down.
People often stay with abusive partners because of something called trauma bonding. This is essentially when the abuser sends their partner on a roller coaster, with punishment and then intermittent reinforcement of kindness when they “behave.” This means the body is going through its own turmoil, with high levels of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, paired with dopamine when given affection as a reward.
“When you have that combination of a chemical rush in the body, the body is going to react to it,” said Thomas.
One common symptom of this turbulence is feeling constantly tired. Usually this is the abuser’s goal, because a worn out victim is much less likely to have the energy for a fight.
“The high moments feel really good but when those downward spirals start, the gaslighting or the silent treatment, the body can go into a crash,” Thomas said. “And it’s that up and down and up and down that wears on survivors.”
She said when you look at before and after pictures, people go from having dark circles under their eyes and withdrawn facial features, to having a vibrancy again.
“Our environment really can poison us,” she said.
Over time, bad relationships can encourage symptoms like inflammation, body aches, and skin flareups. But Thomas said in about 95% of cases, when her clients went to doctors about these problems they came back with a clean bill of health.
While an all-clear from a physician is usually good news, it’s also distressing for the patient, because they know their symptoms are real — there just isn’t a medical explanation.
“Then we have to look at the environment that they’re in, and the relationships that they’re in, and if that’s creating symptoms of extreme anxiety,” Thomas said.
It can also play into the abuse and gaslighting, if their partner is constantly telling them they’re making things up for attention.
“In a hidden toxic environment, I always correlate it to clear poison in water, you don’t see it until you become sick,” said Thomas.
Digestive problems and hormonal changes.
People in bad relationships often find they have trouble with certain foods, when they used to be able to eat anything. Thomas said this is because of all the stress and the cortisol and adrenaline being held within the body.
Anxiety evolved in humans to help us with our fight-or-flight response — hormones spike to help us either run from danger or face it head on. But there are downsides if these hormones have nowhere to go.
Trouble with memories and speech.
When your mind is on high alert, always watching what you say in case it starts an argument, it doesn’t have much space for anything else — including memory and speech.
“I’ve seen a lot of clients that have a very difficult time reading books or processing new information or holding information or memories,” said Thomas. “When they’re in the middle of the abusive relationship, these functions are really hard.”
It’s because the mind is trying to process what’s going on, why their partner is being so cruel and manipulative, and working hard to find solutions. The problem is, the abuser isn’t looking for solutions.
“You think everyone wants harmony, and psychological abusers do not,” said Thomas. “They love the entertainment value of stringing someone along and creating drama, and even if they say they hate drama, they’re the ones that thrive off of it … You have two completely different goals.”
It can be the eureka moment for many victims, she said, when they work out the other person isn’t working with them, but against them.
“After the abuse is over, the person is learning again to feel confident in what they’re saying and what their thoughts are,” Thomas said.
“I think that may be part of the recovery process of finding their voice again, that things don’t have to be perfect, that they can just speak freely with people and have an ease to their conversation, whereas before they had to pick and choose their words carefully because they were walking on eggshells.”
Muscle tightness and tensing.
Muscle tightness is a huge indicator that someone is making us uneasy, Thomas said, but still we might rationalize it as nerves.
“I would encourage that you really stop and think ‘why is my body reacting this way around this person?'” she said. “Maybe there’s something that my subconscious is noticing about this person that hasn’t come into my cognitive mind, but my body is sensing it.”
Your gut knows better than you think.
We should trust our gut more, according to Thomas, because almost all the clients she has worked with or talked to about psychological abuse initially didn’t really like the person who became their abuser.
“Something just didn’t feel right but they rationalized it and kept spending time with that person, and that’s when the trauma bonding began,” she said. “But it’s really common that way before any attraction happened there was an initial kind of ‘no.’ I hear it over and over.”
Sometimes the abuser is so charismatic there’s an instant spark, but for others their gut was always telling them that this was a person they should steer clear of.
“I think that’s what happens when we see them with clear eyes,” she said. “The first reaction to them is something’s not right, then over time our eyes are distorted … But that first reaction is the most honest reaction, where they have no attachment to them at all.”
You’ll start to feel lonely.
Your social life is likely to take a hit if your romantic relationship is toxic. It may be because you are putting more time and effort than you should be into trying to make the relationship work, or it could be because your partner has manipulated you to cut off your friendships.
This can lead to feelings of immense loneliness that no romantic partner can solve. Although it may be hard, it’s really important to try and maintain those connections.
“It’s vital to prioritize your mental and physical well-being and recognize when a relationship is not serving you,” said Lawless, the psychotherapist.
“As difficult as it may be, addressing the relationship’s stress and seeking support from trusted friends, family, or a therapist can help alleviate the physical and emotional symptoms.”
Loneliness in a relationship may also come from a negatively impacted libido, Lawless added.
“Healthy physical intimacy is closely linked to emotional intimacy,” she said. “Couples who have a healthy sex life typically have effective communication and a solid emotional connection. Without this, one’s sex life can also be negatively impacted.”
Symptoms diminish over time, but sometimes they remain.
Often, the psychical symptoms from an abusive relationship diminish when the survivor leaves, but sometimes they can persist. For example, people may find they are more prone to anxiety than before, or their stomach is more sensitive than it used to be.
It varies from person to person, and depends on age, someone’s general health, and how long the abuse went on for.
“There’s recovery for everybody,” Thomas said. “It’s just a question of how much it has to be managed after that abusive relationship.”
Lawless said it’s important to remember that unhealthy relationships can take many forms and may not always involve physical violence.
“Emotional and psychological abuse can be just as damaging and should not be ignored,” she said. “Remember, you deserve to be in a relationship where you feel safe, respected, and valued.”