YANA Mental Health

What is Reactive Abuse? Everything You Need to Know

Instances of verbal, emotional, or physical abuse are extremely stressful and traumatic for victims. 

During an act of abusive violence, it is common for an abused person to lash out toward their abuser. They may scream, cry, use insults, or even physically defend themselves against the attack. In turn, an assailant may retaliate against them by claiming that the victim is in fact the abuser.

This is called reactive abuse, informally referred to as “gaslighting.” Reactive abuse is extremely dangerous for a victim of sexual assault, as it allows abusers to hold something against the them. However, reactive abuse can also occur in situations of verbal abuse, psychological abuse, or physical abuse.

*Content warning: this article contains information related to sexual and domestic violence.

Why Do Assailants Utilize Reactive Abuse?

Abusers rely on reactive abuse because it gives them “proof” that the victim is unstable, mentally ill, or delusional. Abusers may hold these reactions against an abused person indefinitely, possibly bringing up specific instances of self defense years after the event occurred.

A reaction to abuse might even be used by an assailant to go to police and file their own protective orders against a victim.It is a method of manipulation that attempts to make an abused person feel responsible for acts of violence. The longer this shifting of blame occurs, the longer a victim may experience feelings of shame, guilt, or blame for reactive outbursts to continued abuse. Also, this tactic forces a victim of violence to focus on their own response to the event rather than the event itself. This can give an oppressor the ability to continue their abuse without repercussion.

What Causes an Abused Person to Have Reactive Outbursts?

Having a physical, verbal, or expressive outburst during an abusive event is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a natural defense mechanism that the body deploys against danger.When confronted with danger, the body innately releases a number of stress hormones to enhance its ability to react to a threatening situation. This is called the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response. 

In circumstances where safety is threatened, the body prepares itself to flee the given situation or fight back against the stressor. This can result in screaming, punching, or kicking an individual who is being abusive.These actions are often automatic, so it can be hard to gain control of responses to abusive situations. Regardless, abusers may utilize these unconscious behaviors to gain power over an abused person.

What Causes an Assailant to Reactively Abuse?

Not everyone will experience a reactive outburst when confronted with abusive violence. Some individuals may experience shock, causing them to have seemingly no reaction during instances of abuse. Others may become extremely upset, but do not lash out against the assailant.

Abuse is abuse no matter what. In some circumstances, the tendency for an abuser to shift blame towards the victim might be a byproduct of a mental disorder. 

Narcissistic Abuse

Narcissistic personality disorder is one of many types of personality disorders that may affect an individual’s outward portrayal of themselves. Narcissism is a mental condition that is signified by an inflated sense of self-importance, deep need for attention, and lack of empathy for those around them.

Narcissists typically have difficulty engaging and maintaining healthy relationships. They often refuse to take responsibility for their actions, attempting to put the blame on those around them. 

A person with a narcissistic personality may be at a higher predisposition for engaging in abusive behavior. Likewise, they may be more likely to try to act like they are not responsible for the abuse. When a victim reacts accordingly to a given situation, narcissists may try to manipulate the situation to work in their favor.

Antisocial Personality Disorder

An abuser with antisocial personality disorder may be more inclined to use reactive abuse against others. Someone with antisocial personality may be deceitful and intimidating in relationships, often feeling no remorse for hurtful deeds or actions.

This leads to a tendency for antisocial individuals to exploit and manipulate those around them. They are often good at acting and lying, which can give them an upper hand in circumstances where reactive abuse may be used against victims, especially in police reports.

Effects of Reactive Abuse

The psychological toll that reactive assault can have on a victim is immense, and it can cause many people to become stuck in a cyclical, unsafe relationship with abusive individuals.

Those who may have had reactive outbursts in a dangerous relationship may be prone to trauma bonds. This occurs when an abused partner becomes emotionally attached to the abuser. These bonds may form after months or years of repeated assault, but they may also occur after just one instance.

Patterns of abuse followed by periods of remorse can lead to a trauma bond because this remorse can give false hope that the abuser will change their ways. Not to mention, if an abused person is made to think that they are actually the abuser, they may feel a responsibility to remain in the relationship in order to correct their mistakes.

Those who have experienced reactive abuse may also sustain large amounts of stress, anxiety, or depressive symptoms based on the severity and length of the assault. Additionally, instances of traumatic abuse may lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Preventing Reactive Abuse

If you see yourself reacting to abusive scenarios with verbal outbursts or physical defenses, this may allow room for an abuser to manipulate the situation against you. Before this happens, there are a few things you can try instead.

Firstly, if you start to notice that a given individual makes you react in these expressive manners, this is a red flag that something is wrong with the relationship. If you safely can do so, try to physically and emotionally remove yourself from the abusive person.

Abusers rely on negative reactions from others in order to gain an upper hand. But when you start thinking about how you respond back, you can reclaim power. This can be challenging, as it will require careful consideration of thoughts and behaviors. As hard as it may be, try to keep a calm and collected presence so that the abuser will have difficulty manipulating the situation. 

If an abuser does try to use reactive outbursts against you, recognize that you are not at fault. Proving that you see right through an abuser’s manipulative tactics can make them realize they have little control over your feelings.

If continual or isolated instances of abuse are causing you to fear for your physical or emotional wellbeing, contact a domestic violence hotline to safely seek assistance on how to exit your given situation. Ensure that you are in a safe place to talk. You can also use these hotlines if you have concerns about a loved one who may be stuck in an abusive relationship.

In Summary

When confronted with an abusive scenario, it is normal to physically fight back, use verbal expressions, or emotionally react in intense manners. This is called reactive abuse, and it is a powerful tool that a manipulative abuser may use against an abused person.

Assailants may use reactive abuse to “gaslight” an abused person into thinking they are actually the abusers. This can cause immense feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and stress.

Reactive outbursts are often innate stress responses that are uncontrollable. Abusers may be more inclined to use these outbursts against an individual if they have a personality disorder, like narcissism or antisocial personality. With that said, there is no excuse for abusive behavior.

Reactive abuse can be prevented or managed by trying to consciously think about responses to abusive behavior. This can be difficult, but domestic violence hotlines are a valuable tool if you are safely able to contact them.

Abuse can cause inundating inner turmoil, often leading to depression, anxiety, or PTSD. You are not alone in your feelings, and help is always available.

YANA is a virtual mental healthcare clinic that works on your terms. You’ll be paired with a doctor that understands your specific circumstances, and a tailored treatment plan will be created just for you. On top of that, medications can be shipped right to your door if you and your doctor feel it will be beneficial to your mental wellbeing.

You deserve a sound mind and body. See how YANA can help you achieve that.


“Understanding the stress response,” — Harvard Health Publishing

Narcissistic personality disorder — Mayo Clinic 

Antisocial Personality Disorder — Harvard Health

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