The Pandemic: A Worst-Case Scenario for Domestic Violence
The threat of illness, job losses, social isolation—it’s a recipe for heightened stress, irritability, and anger. But it’s even worse for people who are trapped at home with a domestic abuser.
Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic has created a sort of perfect storm for domestic violence. Reports of increases in partner abuse, child abuse, and pet abuse are emerging across the nation and around the world. According to a study in Forensic Science International: Reports, incidences of domestic violence have risen 40-50% in Brazil and are up 30% in France. In the U.K., the BBC reported that calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline saw a 25% increase since the lockdown began. And in the U.S., hotlines are reporting a spike in calls.
Abusers often use tactics, such as isolation from friends and family, as a way to control their victims. Constant scrutiny, restrictions on behavior, and limiting access to necessities (like food and using the bathroom) are other common strategies. With the world on lockdown, this has given perpetrators a stronger weapon in their arsenal.
For victims, it’s made it more challenging to be able to reach out to friends or a support network for help without their abuser’s knowledge. And it’s preventing them from escaping the situation by leaving home when things turn violent. Going to a shelter may not be an option now for fear of infection from COVID-19.
This sad situation makes you wonder what makes some people violent? The answer lies in the brain.
Violence and the Brain
The added stressors of the coronavirus pandemic can be contributing to serious anger and violence issues. In some people, violent outbursts may be a sign of a mental health condition called intermittent explosive disorder (IED).
This condition is more commonly seen in people who grew up in an abusive home or in those who have suffered multiple emotional traumas. The likelihood of problems with anger or violent behavior is increased in people with other mental health problems, such as ADD/ADHD or personality disorders. In addition, conditions like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse are seen in over 80% of people who suffer from IED.
In a brain SPECT imaging study performed at Amen Clinics on people who had assaulted another person or damaged property, more than 70% had abnormalities in the left temporal lobe region of the brain. Brain imaging scans indicate that damage to the left temporal lobe or dysfunction in this area of the brain makes people more likely to struggle with irritability, anger, and violent thoughts and behavior.
The temporal lobes, situated on either side of the brain behind the eyes and underneath the temples, are involved with emotional stability, understanding and processing memories, and more. When there is abnormal activity in the temporal lobes, it can be associated with aggression (internally or externally directed), dark or violent thoughts, emotional instability, and other problems.
Temporal lobe problems can come from many sources, the most common being genetics, head injuries, and toxic or infectious exposure. Since the temporal lobes sit in a cavity surrounded by bone on 5 sides (front, back, right side, left side, and underside) they can be damaged by a blow to the head from almost any angle. In fact, the temporal lobes, along with the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus, are the parts of the brain most vulnerable to damage by virtue of their placement within the skull.
Childhood Trauma and the Brain
For children, being abused or witnessing intimate partner violence can have devastating, long-term effects on the brain and mental health.
In a typical year, an estimated 4.5 to 15 million children experience exposure to physical violence at home. It’s likely that there will be an uptick in these numbers as a result of families being cooped up at home due to the pandemic. This doesn’t bode well for the future generation.
Research in a 2018 issue of JAMA Network Open found that for children, witnessing domestic abuse can cause the same damaging effects as if they had endured the abuse themselves. In addition, brain imaging studies show that childhood trauma—including physical, verbal, and sexual abuse—causes structural changes in the brain that have been linked to a greater risk of mental illness and addictions. For example, a 2016 review of neuroimaging studies in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines found that youngsters exposed to abuse experience physical changes in the following areas of the brain:
- Hippocampus: Decreased size in this area that is involved in memory and learning
- Prefrontal cortex: Reduced volume in this region, which plays an important role in impulse control, judgment, planning, and follow-through
- Cerebellum: Less-than-normal volume in this region located at the back of the brain that helps coordinate physical movement and thoughts
- Amygdala: Heightened activity in this area, which is known as the brain’s “fear center”
These brain changes can lead to trouble in many areas of a person’s life, including at school, at work, and in relationships.
Damaged Brains Can Heal
Domestic violence can seem like a hopeless situation with no way out. But decades of brain imaging work and clinical practice at Amen Clinics have shown that there is hope for people in abusive relationships and for children who have suffered emotional trauma. Addressing underlying brain dysfunction is critical to treating IED, as well as for overcoming the lasting consequences of experiencing or witnessing abuse.
Note: If you or a loved one is in an unsafe domestic situation, also consider these resources:
- In an emergency: call 9-1-1
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
If you’re struggling with issues that stem from growing up in an abusive family or you’re experiencing domestic violence, Amen Clinics can help. At Amen Clinics, we can help you—and everyone in the family unit—achieve better brain health and a stronger, more fulfilling relationship. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever, and waiting to get treatment until the pandemic is over is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.
At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples, as well as in-clinic brain scanning to help our patients. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.