March to end the violence against women
According to World Bank, globally, 30 per cent of women have experienced intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence – that's around 736 million women around the world. Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters

Tragically, gender-based violence affects between 20 and 30 per cent of women in Europe and North America. It was estimated by ActionAid that one in three women over the age of 16 in the United Kingdom were subjected to at least one form of harassment in 2021.

On a more global scale, approximately 736 million women across the globe have been subjected to either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.

The female victims of these heinous acts are left with continual stress which can last for years, decades and potentially the rest of their lives. It is well known for women who have experienced violence to be at a higher risk of developing depression, crippling anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder, even years after the end of a violent relationship.

Although, the exact reason for this increased risk has remained relatively unknown.

However, in a new study conducted in Barcelona, researchers analysed the deeper consequences of what sustained stress over time can have on the brain, particularly how it impacts mental health and the ability to detect threatening situations.

The study was led by Dr Ximena Goldberg from the Parc Taulí Hospital and Professor Antonio Armario from the University of Barcelona. Both medical experts evaluated the consequences of chronic stress on physiological responses to stressful situations, aswell as the ability to detect threatening facial expressions.

To conduct the study, a total of 105 women were gathered – 69 of these women were victims of gender-based violence themselves, whilst 36 were control participants – and they were asked to complete two tests.

The first test involved participants being confronted with stressful situations ranging from a job interview to a mathematical calculation. Afterwards, saliva samples were collected to measure their physiological response to stress.

In the second test, all of the women were shown emotionally neutral faces or faces with threatening expressions on a screen, whilst their reactions and attention were closely monitored.

During the second test, researchers couldn't help but notice that one group of women were far more attentive to the threatening faces and followed a vigilant attitude pattern, while another group completely avoided them. The victims of gender-based violence who followed such a pattern had a higher stress response, particularly with cortisol, than the control group.

In contrast, female victims of gender-based violence with an "avoidance" pattern tended to have much lower cortisol, a steroid hormone released through your adrenal and endocrine glands that helps your body to cope with feelings of stress.

Professor Armario commented on the findings, writing: "The results indicate that chronic exposure to stress has an impact on biological stress response systems (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system), which is conditioned by the way they respond to danger signals (threatening faces). Both aspects could be related to an increased risk of mental illness."

Dr Goldberg also explains that the results of the study have allowed them to advance in the knowledge of the brain processes experienced by victims of violence, subsequently leading them to develop better action protocols and minimise the consequences of poor mental health.