Research Highlights the Negative Health Effects of Verbal Abuse

I’ve long argued that verbal abuse, contrary to popular belief, can in some ways be as psychologically harmful as the physical kind. As high-functioning and emotional creatures who are fundamentally shaped by our social relations and environment, we can suffer terribly from this kind of mistreatment. It affects us in profound ways that can’t simply be resolved by “toughening up” or “getting over it” – that’s as effective as telling a victim of physical abuse to simply run away or fight back. Even if they were to do so, the damage from the violence will remain. Crippling mental afflictions PTSD usually occur even those who’s violence was defensive or just.

Now, an excellent piece in Patheos by Dan Ficke cites new research that has confirmed what many people already experience: that children who are mistreated in any way, even through verbal taunts, can eventually develop physical problems in their brain. The study, referenced from Psychology Today, notes the following:

Verbal abuse from peers during the middle school years had the greatest impact, presumably because this is a sensitive period when these brain connections are developing and becoming insulated with myelin. (Myelin is formed by non-neuronal cells, brain cells that are also known as “the other brain”, or glia.)

The environment that children are raised in molds not only their mind, but also their brain. This is something many long suspected, but now we have scientific instruments that show us how dramatically childhood experience alters the physical structure of the brain, and how sensitive we are as children to these environmental effects. Words–verbal harassment–from peers (and, as a previous study from these researchers showed, verbal abuse from a child’s parents) can cause far more than emotional harm.

Ficke adds much more to this study through his own personal and rational observations, so I highly recommend you read his musings. There’s not much more I can add that hasn’t already been eloquently stated by him.

The typical “solution” for the victim of abuse is to either cope with the subsequent anguish through unhealthy means (drugs, self-harm, etc) or, most commonly, to take their anger and self-loathing out on others. Known as displaced aggression, this shifting of abusive behavior is a sort of pay-it -forward approach to violence – as you were treated badly, so too will you treat others badly, and that person will in turn abuse others, and so on. It’s a horrific and vicious cycle – one notably observed among other primates as well – that is worsened by poverty, inequality, and other psychological stressors that manifest through abuse.

One comment on “Research Highlights the Negative Health Effects of Verbal Abuse

  1. Interesting stuff, seeing as it apparently has actual effects on parts of the brain, I wonder how those who defend bullying in the name of ‘free speech’ would react to this information? “All part of growing up” I guess, meh.

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