The coronavirus pandemic has taken over much of our lives, and the damage can be seen not only in hospital intensive care units but also in the uptick of calls to helplines. As people navigate uncertainty, as work and economic stressors take their toll, mental health experts are reporting an increase in domestic abuse cases.
As a result, a specific method of abuse, commonly known as gaslighting, may also be on the rise.
“One can expect this to be likely because of the situation we’re living through,” says Anthony Castro, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with the University of Miami Health System. “People are experiencing greater distress and irritability because of outside events. Add diminished social interaction, and that can maximize the degree of control of the perpetrator.”
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that makes a victim second-guess reality and sanity.
The person might feel delusional, disconnected from reality, at a loss to explain what may appear to be a series of inexplicable events and decisions. The perpetrator accomplishes this by accusing the victim of making things up or being confused by denying having said or done something that is verifiable and insisting the person is overreacting to legitimate concerns.
Over time, victims begin to doubt their judgment, thinking they’re being too sensitive or can’t do anything right. At some point, as the gaslighting reaches a peak, victims label themselves as “unstable” and make excuses for the abuser.
Gaslighting, Dr. Castro points out, is not a scientific term. “But we’ve come to accept it as a way of describing a kind of behavior. It caught on several years ago, and it’s now in common use.”
The label comes from a 1938 play and later a 1940s movie, “Gas Light,” in which a controlling husband manipulates his wife into believing that she’s imagining things. The film, starring Ingrid Bergman, features a diabolical plot to alter the woman’s sense of reality.
Since then, both mental health experts and patients have used “gaslighting” as shorthand for the process that ultimately distances victims from friends, family, and colleagues as they question their hold on reality. “It’s less of a condition and more of a behavior – an unhealthy behavior,” Dr. Castro says.
It’s not uncommon.
A March 2014 survey by the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health and the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that almost 86% of those surveyed said their abusive partner had accused them of being crazy and 50% reported their partner or ex threatened to report their “crazy” behavior to authorities. About 84% said the abuser had deliberately done things to make them feel as they were losing their mind.
Gaslighting is a gradual process of spreading misinformation and accusations, Dr. Castro adds. Gaslighting is typically just one of many signs of a troubled relationship.
“It’s best to look at it in a broader context,” he says. “It’s usually not done in isolation but as part of other toxic interactions. The goal is to obtain power over the other person.”
The severity varies, too.
In some relationships, one person may accuse the other of inventing facts in a heated argument or belittle another’s feelings. “That in itself may not constitute as gaslighting, and it may not describe the entirety of the relationship,” Dr. Castro explains. But if done repeatedly and with the intent to control, then such behavior is elevated to true gaslighting.
Though most think it’s limited to couples, he says gaslighting can occur in any kind of intimate relationship as well as more public and distant ones, such as those in the workplace.
Regardless of the setting, Dr. Castro suggests some solutions if you’re worried you’re a victim of gaslighting:
Keep your connection with friends, family, and co-workers. “The logic provided by others provides a lifeline,” he says. “It can confirm you’re not losing your mind and snap you back to reality.”
Seek help from support groups. Talking to others who have experienced a similar situation is often beneficial. It also cuts down on isolation.
Consider therapy. A mental health specialist can suggest ways to improve, change, or stop certain abusive behaviors while also providing a safe space for a victim to talk about the abuse. A therapist will, as Dr. Castro explains, help a victim look at the bigger picture.
Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Columnist
Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author, who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.
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