Don’t Forget the Brain in the Battle Against Domestic Violence

Every year, October ushers in Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time for us to reflect on this widespread concern, which impacts people from all cultures, races, genders, and socioeconomic groups. While many victims suffer in silence, make no mistake: This issue reverberates at every level of society. Stats published by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) are sobering:

  • In the United States, more than 10 million adults experience domestic violence annually. An incident of abuse happens far more frequently than every three seconds.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime and report “intimate partner violence-related impact,” such as being concerned for their safety, PTSD symptoms, injury, or needing victim services. Approximately 1 in 5 female victims and 1 in 20 male victims need medical care.
  • From 2016 through 2018, the number of intimate partner violence victimizations in the United States increased by 42%.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has made some of these numbers soar even higher—and now with added economic uncertainty as inflation levels soar, there seem to be even more outside stressors piling up to fuel the angry outbursts of potential abusers: the threat of illness, job loss, social isolation, and less economic stability. These factors have been further compounded when spouses and children are locked down at home with their abusers, as has often occurred in the times of COVID-19.

Sadly, the pandemic created a perfect storm for domestic violence. Reports of increases in partner abuse, child abuse, and pet abuse were emerging around the world in studies as early as 2020. Click To Tweet


Let’s step back a bit and look at the behaviors that characterize domestic violence. Many people believe that physical violence is the only manifestation of this issue, but that couldn’t be further from the truth—though physical abuse is an extremely serious form of this behavior.

According to the Domestic Violence Awareness Project, domestic violence should be viewed as “a pattern of abusive behaviors–including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion–used by one intimate partner against another (adult or adolescent) to gain, maintain, or regain power and control in the relationship. Batterers use of a range of tactics to frighten, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, often injure, and sometimes kill a current or former intimate partner.” Domestic violence can also be called intimate partner violence, and though it can impact anyone, it does disproportionately affect women and certain racial, ethnic, and sexual minority groups.

What causes abusers to act in such damaging ways? Violent outbursts may be a sign of a mental health condition called intermittent explosive disorder (IED), which is more commonly seen in people who grew up in abusive homes or who have suffered multiple emotional traumas. In addition, anger or violent behavior is more likely in those who have other mental health problems, such as ADD/ADHD or personality disorders, while conditions like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse are seen in more than 80% of people who also have IED.

There may also be underlying brain trauma at work. In one brain SPECT imaging study performed at Amen Clinics on people who had assaulted another person or damaged property, more than 70% showed abnormalities in the left temporal lobe region of the brain. Damage to or dysfunction in the left temporal lobe seems to make people more likely to exhibit irritability, anger, and violent thoughts and behavior. Temporal lobe problems can stem from genetics, head injuries, and toxic or infectious exposure. Conditions such as brain trauma or IED, of course, are only some possible causes of domestic violence, which remains a complicated issue, with many factors potentially contributing.


Sadly, the pandemic created a perfect storm for domestic violence. Reports of increases in pertner abuse, child abuse, and pet abuse were emerging around the world in studies as early as 2020. In the United States, hotlines were soon reporting a spike in calls. And The Harvard Gazette reported in 2022 that domestic violence cases rose by 25% to 33% globally, including an increase in the U.S. by just over 8% after pandemic-related lockdown orders started to take effect in 2020.

While victims often feel stuck in their abusive situations, factors like inflation and the pandemic can make them feel like there is no way out right now, with so much unknown in the world at large. After all, abusers often use tactics, such as isolation from friends and family, as a way to control their victims. Constant monitoring, restrictions on behavior, and limiting access to necessities (like food and using the bathroom) are common strategies—and under lockdown conditions, perpetrators may find it even easier to maintain a watchful eye.

At the same time, for victims, all of this upheaval and isolation can make it more challenging for them to reach out to friends or to a support network for help without their abuser’s knowledge. And it may prevent them from escaping the situation by leaving home when the situation turns violent. Even going to a shelter may trigger additional fears now, due to the risk of infection from COVID-19 in larger crowds and shared living spaces—a more serious concern if the victim has co-occurring illnesses.


Those who are being abused can and should reach out for help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The hotline can connect all callers, in all corners of the United States, with an advocate in their local area, and these calls are free and confidential. (The hotline also has access to interpreters, so they can provide help in more than 200 different languages.) As an alternate, its website offers live chat services for those who cannot make a phone call. Of course, in the case of an emergency, the best action to take is dialing 911.

After getting out of an abusive relationship, damage to mental health can remain. Working through lasting emotional pain with psychotherapy can be helpful.

CTA: To receive 8% off a FULL or PARTIAL evaluation with Amen Clinics, use code TASCAN8. To book directly or for more information, please call Amen Clinics at 888-288-9834. 

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