We return to our discussion with Alice Carleton, a woman whose search for answers about her own pain, especially the abuse she suffered, led her to a career in the field.
Tell us what sparked your interest in making verbal abuse the focus of your graduate research?
It began when I found the book which explained what was happening to me (verbal abuse), and it saved my mind and life: The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans.
I believe this book should be required reading for everyone on the planet. Without knowledge, we are helpless and the cycle will continue. Until, or unless we become educated to this horrific “soul murder” it will never end.
I began a 15 year journey of research, writing, and speaking to anyone who would listen. (As mentioned in the previous post with Alice Carleton, the Michigan Counseling Association invited Alice to present her paper, Society’s Hidden Pandemic: Verbal Abuse, Precursor to Physical Violence and a Form of Biochemical Assault at their Conference.)
Alice’s work has benefited from input of others such as…
Dr. Martin Teicher, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, shared his brain imaging with me, showing that the brain can physically change/re-wire itself from the effects of verbal abuse.
Also, Dr. Ben Reis, who is the Director of the Predictive Medicine Group at Harvard Medical School shared with me his work on his design of the EDScope and AEGIS (Automated Epidemiological Geotemporal Surveillance) Systems.
These are public health monitoring systems. These tools empower doctors who can review the results of data of hundreds of thousands of abuse cases. By entering a patient’s information, doctors may better assess who might be at risk for abuse.
The system gives a patient risk score; a pop-up window comes up or an alert box, based on statistical analysis. If the record places the patient at high-risk, then the doctor proceeds with a screening process. This is the first stage of abuse detection.
These and other tools contribute to research on the topic. What does research have to say about the impact of verbal abuse?
Verbal abuse can heighten levels of cholesterol. Every time we experience stress, cortisol is released into our blood system, and cortisol damages the immune system. Some long-term effects can be PTSD, numbing and suicidal thoughts.
C.R. and I have worked with people who have developed symptoms normally attributed to stress, but which may be further defined as “the stress of abuse.”
For example, some skin disorders, such as eczema, are linked to anxiety (as well as diet). A combination of factors may be causing these uncomfortable symptoms. But what we’ve noticed in some cases (and of course this is anecdotal and not scientifically proven) is that eczema, hives, stomach cramps and diarrhea, and other physical symptoms, especially symptoms associated with digestion and skin, appear to worsen within a few hours after heated verbal exchanges, which include verbal abuse.
What do you believe will prevent verbal abuse? Has education been proven to work?
We can educate the public; it all begins in the home. If a child is taught respect then he or she most likely won’t abuse anyone else. Unfortunately, if a child is living with abuse, quite frequently they will take that outside of the home and bully others…and the cycle will continue.
We want to add that while it’s true a non-abusive home environment is the primary place where abuse can begin, sometimes school and playgroup environments, especially where bullying by peers or abuse by teachers is allowed to occur, can lead to problems despite parents’ efforts.
Tell us what happens to a child when he or she is abused verbally? How do they experience it?
A child can have a whole host of psychological and physical responses: anger (lashing out at people), fear, frustration, sadness, withdrawal.
On a physical level, “chronic exposure to stressful circumstances has also been shown to increase vulnerability to upper respiratory infections in individuals exposed to a virus. Chronic exposure to distress can cause atrophy in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, resulting in memory loss.” (McEwen, 1998).
So you are saying that verbal abuse is extremely stressful and can lead to psychological and physical problems.
Yes. “Stress [such as that from abuse], can release a cascade of hormones (including glucocorticoids). Chronic depression is associated with a variety of nutrient deficiencies, including that of vitamin B6, B12, folate, choline, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Over a period of time, stress can also cause insulin resistance. It has been suggested that even cholesterol levels can be heightened.”(Dr. Si, 2009).
Extreme or repeated verbal abuse, of all kinds is very damaging. This includes the kind that negates the child’s being, such as telling a child, “I wish you were never born.”
In in our view, this kind of abuse damages the child’s mind, body, and soul. Even a momentary expression of anger of the type that questions or condemns the child’s mere existence can cause incredible amounts of grief. Even years later, some (not all) therapy patients say that this hurts worse than physical abuse—that this is harder to “get over.”
Thanks so much, Alice! We hope you’ll agree to another interview in future.
Please comment, below on your experiences with verbal abuse. If you would like to reach Alice Carleton, you can email her at katecarlson756 @ yahoo dot com.
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Last reviewed: 12 Dec 2012