How Does Narcissistic Abuse Effect Our Brain?

by | Feb 17, 2021

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When we’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist, our brain has been altered, possibly injured, by their manipulative behaviours to access what they need from us.

They throw “salt on our wounds” that are already in us with their despicable behaviours.  They leave us feeling like we’ve “lost our minds.” We feel exhausted, depleted almost like an empty shell.  They have had us in a constant state of stress response from the day we met them, ultimately messing with our brain.

The neuroscience of narcissistic abuse recovery reveals fascinating research about how you can literally repair your “injured” brain.

And Brainspotting can really help to speed up the process!

But first, it’s important to understand how trauma impacts your brain in the first place. This information can help you understand the true magnitude of this dangerous kind of abuse.

Understanding Our Brain

The human brain consists of 3 main parts:

  • The brain stem: the “oldest” part of the brain. This part controls our primary responses for survival like breathing, sleep, and hunger.
  • The limbic system: the part that developed after the brain stem, which includes both the amygdala (stress response ie. “fight or flight”, fear, memory) and hippocampus (regulates emotion, motivation, learning and memory). The hippocampus is on the posterior (back) part of the limbic lobe, and the anterior (front) part is the amygdala.
  • The prefrontal cortex: the newest part of the brain associated with executive functioning ie. planning, decision making, short term memory, emotiona, thoughts and behaviours.

We rely on the oldest part of our brain for our survival. For example, as babies we are born with a fully-developed brain stem – our primal need to eat, sleep and cry is innate.

The other parts of our brain require more time to mature and develop. In fact, we don’t fully develop our prefrontal cortex until our mid-twenties.

How Narcissistic Abuse Impacts Our Amygdala

The amygdala helps with our emotional regulation, memory, and it detects fear. When we talk about the classic fight-or-flight-freeze-fawn stress response, we’re referring to the amygdala in action.  Researchers are still learning how humans interpret fear, but many studies show that trauma can profoundly impact this process.

If you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse, you know exactly how danger feels, both consciously and unconsciously. You know those feelings of dread and uncertainty when your partner walks through the door. You also recognize the painful feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and hopelessness.  You feel your body strangely wanting to run away, or become ready to fight, or freeze in its place, or fawn, ie. revert to people pleasing to diffuse conflict and reestablish a sense of safety.

When we are constantly subject to toxic behaviours from our partner we are in a constant state of flight, fight, freeze or fawn. Overtime and because we’ve become so attuned to danger and threat to our basic survival (even well after we have left the toxic relationship) everyone and every thing may still trigger us into a stress response.

This is why many of us continue to struggle with:

  • Ongoing trust issues
  • Ruminating and obsessive thoughts
  • Body pain
  • Panic and Dread attacks
  • Recurring flashbacks
  • Withdrawal from friends and family.
  • Substance abuse or disordered eating

How Narcissistic Abuse Impacts Our Hippocampus

This area of the brain is associated with learning and memory. It is as complex as it is fragile. Damage to the hippocampus can cause serious psychological distress.  The hippocampus supports primal desires like hunger, sex, mood, pleasure, and pain.

In addition to learning and memory, the hippocampus also supports regulating:

  • Spatial navigation
  • Emotional behaviour
  • Motor behaviour

Research shows that trauma can physically alter the hippocampus. Those with complex-PTSD have a reduction in size of the hippocampus and this can impact memory recall.  Hence, you may be unable to remember certain events that happened in the past.

While this may sound preferable to some, it isn’t. Because the body still stores the trauma in time orientation ie. the time it happened, and you may still experience the trauma through symptoms like anxiety in the chest, panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, nightmares, or a constant feeling that something “about me is off.”

Some of us experience continuous ruminating thoughts about the relationship or the toxic person. Our brain is trying to “figure it out.” Not only can you not forget what happened but your mind seems to obsess on every detail. It’s unpredictable what might trigger us, and our hyper vigilance can cause ongoing distress in our daily life.

How Narcissistic Abuse Affects Our Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is what essentially differentiates humans from other animals. It’s the newest and most advanced part of the brain and is associated with planning, emotion, predicting, and other executive functions.

Basically, the prefrontal cortex helps us think. And the trauma from the constant, manipulative behaviours of the narcissist makes it really hard to think clearly. When they have us in their constant cycle of abuse – love bombing, devalue, discard, while also gaslighting, triangulating and smearing us – we feel overwhelmed, we feel constantly under pressure, we get distracted easily and we become overly emotional about ordinary events.

As a result, our judgment becomes impaired. We may feel more vulnerable and hence we make impulsive decisions. We might also become more forgetful and scattered. The process can happen slowly, we might not notice how much we’ve changed until we become conscious of it.

The Brain Science Of Why We Keep Going Back

You logically know that the narcissist is bad news. But going fully no contact, leaving a relationship or ending a marriage feels utterly impossible and you’re not exactly sure why.

Is it the daunting fear of being alone, being single again, breaking up a family? Is their excessive and confusing hoovering wearing you down? Or, are you weak-minded, is it your fault, could you have done better?

As it turns out, the answer isn’t so straightforward. Trauma affects the brain in ways that seemingly work against us.  To recognize this impact, we need to understand how the following brain systems work.

HPA System:   The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA) modulates the brain-body connection. When we experience stress from narcissistic abuse, our body releases hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. This is a normal reaction, but if the HPA system is activated too frequently, it can result in adrenal fatigue and other physical manifestations. When recovering from narcissistic abuse, we may feel extra run down and overtired. We may become physically sick or experience sinus infections, headaches and body aches.

Locus Coeruleus Norepinephrine System:  Better known as the “attention-related” system, the hormones in this system are responsible for giving us that sense of foreboding that something bad will happen. After leaving the narcissist, this system may become overstimulated and cause panic and dread attacks. We want to feel safe, but we feel afraid of what lies ahead. We may worry about the narcissist sabotaging us, smearing us or trying to seek revenge us.

Social Stress System:  Oxytocin (commonly known as the love hormone) primarily runs this system. We feel oxytocin when we connect with another person, and women produce it in high quantities during child labor and breastfeeding.  An oxytocin crash may occur during narcissistic abuse recovery. We may find ourself missing and longing after the narcissist, our perceived “love source”.

Are Withdrawals Real and What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

Yes! The brain can trigger withdrawal symptoms that can feel just as real as any addiction withdrawal. That’s one of the reasons why leaving the narcissist can feel so challenging.

Like drug addiction recovery, it’s common for people to experience euphoric recall addiction after the relationship. Euphoric recall refers to feeling flooded by all the positive, happy parts of the relationship. These memories can make us question why we ended things in the first place. They can send us right back to the narcissist, who essentially becomes our “drug dealer.”

We may also experience cognitive dissonance which has us believe two competing thoughts at the same time. For example, we might logically know the narcissist has despicable behaviours and does awful things to us. Simultaneously, we might also think that they have good intentions and don’t mean to hurt us. In the end, this cognitive dissonance works against us when we fall back into the relationship.

How can we help our Brains?

To resolve these issues, we need to remind ourself of the nature of the pathology of narcissism. The pathological PART of the narcissistic person that protects them from their severe low self esteem, low self-worth and toxic shame that has them:

  • Believing they DON’T have a problem,
  • With NO intention to change their behaviour,
  • NOT caring about how their actions or beliefs affect you,
  • NOT wanting to make things better unless it benefits them,
  • Keeping you in their game for supply
  • NOT caring about you or your feelings.

You may need to remind yourself of these truths often. Maybe writing them down so when feeling emotional you can refer to the list and engage your rational brain.  And yes, the reality can be excruciating, especially if you are “in love”.

But loving a narcissist isn’t true love unfortunately, it’s a distorted form of trauma bonding designed to keep you subservient and weak and filling the needs of the narcissist.

Remember, real love doesn’t hurt, degrade, or deteriorate you. It isn’t confusing, leaving you uncertain or feeling unsafe in the relationship. Remember, wrongful actions and despicable behaviours are louder than words when it comes to the Narcissist.

Healing Your Brain for a Brighter Future?

Now that you understand what happens to your brain when having been a target of narcissistic abuse, you might feel discouraged or pessimistic when it comes to your recovery. “After all, if the abuse impacted my brain, is there any hope for my future happiness?”

Yes! Your brain is changeable and it’s real and possible to reverse the effects of trauma. These changes require time and effort. More than that, they also require that you go NO CONTACT with the narcissist.

Brainspotting is a relatively new and liberating modality that allows us to regulate on the inside so we feel better on the outside.  Where we look effects how we feel.  Our brain and body know how to heal when engaging mindfully in the Brainspotting process.  Over time, we can process trauma out of the body with Brainspotting and build new neural pathways with enhanced tools and boundaries for ourself for a brighter future!

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