What comes to mind when you think about narcissistic abuse recovery?
Do you believe you will have complete freedom from the confusion of your toxic relationship? Can you see yourself letting go of all the pain that once held you in what seemed like a prison?
You may be aware or not but your healing isn’t just an emotional process. The neuroscience of narcissistic abuse recovery shows fascinating research about how you can repair your brain.
To know how we heal it’s crucial first to understand how exactly trauma impacts the brain. This information can help you realize the true consequences of this dangerous kind of abuse.
Understanding the Brain: The Basics
The human brain consists of three parts:
- The prefrontal cortex: the newest part of the brain associated with higher levels of cognition, concentration, and thinking.
- The brain stem: the oldest part of the brain. This part controls our primary responses for survival like breathing, sleep, and hunger.
- The limbic region: the part that developed after the brain stem, which includes both the hippocampus and amygdala.
The brain works together to support you throughout life. However, we rely on the oldest parts first. So babies are born with fully-developed brain stems, they know to sleep, eat, and cry without preparation.
The other parts require more maturity and more time, and people don’t fully develop their prefrontal cortexes until their mid-twenties.
How Narcissistic Abuse Affects the Amygdala
The amygdala helps with basic survival instincts, emotional regulation, and memory. When people talk about the classic fight-or-flight response, they’re referring to the amygdala in action.
The amygdala also detects and integrates fear. Researchers are still learning how human beings interpret fear, but many studies show that trauma can profoundly impact this process.
If you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse, you know exactly what danger feels like. You know those feelings of uncertainty and dread when your partner walks through the door. You also recognize the painful feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
Knowing that there are changes in the amygdala can profoundly affect you long after the relationship ends. Why? Because your body and mind are so used to danger that everyone or everything may feel this way like a trigger.
This reasoning can explain why many narcissistic abuse survivors struggle with:
- Unexplained feelings of fear and dread
- Prevailing trust issues.
- Unexplained muscle or body aches (likely due to holding onto stress).
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Recurrent flashbacks.
- Withdrawal from family and friends.
- Dysfunctional coping using disordered eating or substance abuse.
How Narcissistic Abuse Impacts the Hippocampus
The hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with memory and learning. This brain structure is as complex as well as fragile. In other words, it’s easy to damage the hippocampus, causing serious psychological distress.
The hippocampus is part of the limbic system, which supports primal desires like pain, pleasure, hunger, sex, and mood. The hippocampus is on the posterior (back) part of the limbic lobe, and the anterior (front) part is the amygdala.
In addition to memory and learning, the hippocampus also supports regulating:
- Emotional behavior
- Spatial navigation
- Motor behavior
Research shows that trauma can physically modify the hippocampus. People with PTSD have a smaller hippocampus compared to their counterparts. Memory recall is impacted by the size and structure of the hippocampus.
Some people may be unable to remember the events that happened to them. While this may sound like a good idea, it isn’t. The body will store the trauma if it is not worked through, and many times, people still reexperience the past through symptoms like anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, or a constant feeling that something is off.
Some people experience continuous rumination. You find yourself not only remembering what happened but obsessing about every detail. Almost anything can trigger you, and your hypervigilance can cause ongoing distress in your daily life.
How Narcissistic Abuse Affects the Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex is what essentially differentiates humans from other animals. It’s the most advanced part of the brain, the region associated with predicting, planning, emotion, and other executive functions.
The prefrontal cortex helps us think but trauma makes it hard to think clearly. You may feel overwhelmed, and like you’re constantly under pressure. You may get distracted easily and find yourself becoming upset over ordinary events.
As a result of this, your judgment becomes impaired. You may be more vulnerable to impulsive decisions or become more scattered and forgetful.
Some people may see this as it’s happening however, it’s not always that straightforward. The process can happen so gradually that you might not notice how much you’ve changed until you start reflecting on it.
Unfortunately, this damage is to the narcissist’s benefit. They love the idea of wearing you down, making you weaker and more susceptible to their manipulation. They want you to break. They don’t want a partner who can think independently rather they want someone who will accommodate their needs.
The Neuroscience Of Why You Keep Going Back
There is a part of you that logically knows that the narcissist is bad news. You might not be in place yet that you feel you can leave but you are unclear as to why.
Perhaps they told you that you could not live without them? Or was it because of the love-bombing and excessive hovering? Did you believe you were too weak?
As it turns out, the answer is neither straightforward nor simple. Trauma affects the brain in ways that seem to work against you.
To see this, it is important to understand how the brain systems work.
Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal System (HPA)
The HPA modulates the mind-body connection. When you experience stress, your body releases hormones cortisol and epinephrine. This is a normal reaction, but if the HPA system is activated too often, it can result in physical ailments as well as emotional issues.
Usually, this system feels like it’s in overdrive in the beginning stages of narcissistic abuse recovery. Your body may feel completely exhausted and you become physically sick.
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 also produce it in high quantities during child labor and breastfeeding.
An oxytocin crash may occur during narcissistic abuse recovery. You may find yourself missing and longing after the narcissist. Your brain may even try to convince you that you need the other person to feel safe and loved.
Locus Ceruleus Norepinephrine System
This system may be better known as the fear system. The hormones in this system are responsible for giving us that sense of panic and dread that something bad will happen.
After leaving the narcissist, this system may become overstimulated. You want to feel safe, but you feel afraid of what lies next. You may worry about the narcissist sabotaging you or even seeking revenge.
What Is Cognitive Dissonance and Are Withdrawals Real?
The brain can trigger withdrawal symptoms that can feel just as real as a physical drug 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 something called euphoric recall after the relationship. Euphoric recall refers to feeling flooded by all the happy positive parts of your time together. These memories can make you wonder why you ended things in the first place. They can send you right back into the vicious cycle.
You may also experience cognitive dissonance, which means that you believe two competing thoughts simultaneously. This means you might know that the narcissist does awful things, but at the same time, you might also think that their intentions are good and they didn’t mean to hurt you.
This cognitive dissonance, of course, can also work against you.
Narcissists spend a great deal of time trying to manipulate and gaslight you into believing their lies. The more you entertain their lies and see them as their truth, the more likely you are to fall back into the relationship.
To resolve these issues, you need to understand the nature of narcissism. In general, narcissists do not:
- Intend to change their behavior.
- Believe they have a problem.
- Want to make things better unless it benefits them.
- Care about how their actions or beliefs affect you.
You may need to frequently remind yourself about ” narcissism.” It may feel excruciating, especially if you were in love. This relationship is based on loving their false self and it is not true love. This is sad and heartbreaking.
It’s easy to mistake narcissistic victim syndrome for love, but real love does not hurt, disrespect, or degrade you.
What Does The Neuroscience of Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Say About Your Future?
Now that you understand the neuroscience of narcissistic abuse recovery, you might feel sad, pessimistic, and discouraged. It would seem there is no hope for you knowing that abuse and trauma affect your brain and even changes it.
But, your brain is flexible, and it’s possible to reverse the effects of trauma. These changes require time, effort, and healing. One of the steps you need to heal is to end your relationship with the narcissist. If you are required to maintain some form of contact due to child custody issues you can still heal yourself and see how it changes you in ways that will astound you. You will heal and see that your narcissistic partner no longer has any power over and more importantly, he never did. It was all an illusion based on a fake relationship with a fake person.
Breaking Free From Narcissistic Abuse
Even if you’re struggling with narcissistic abuse, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to this destiny forever. You can reestablish your sense of control and embrace a healthier way of loving and living.
Whether you’re just figuring out that you are dealing with narcissistic abuse or are trying to heal from a narcissistic relationship, here are some helpful tips and resources:
1 – https://debbianderson.com/free-ebook/ is a free resource that includes everything you need to get started on healing your life after narcissistic abuse.
3 –https://debbianderson.com/sessions/ work with me. You can get a free consultation with me to see if this healing is a good fit for you.
We all can heal. But, I found I needed to get outside help and support to heal the traumas I suffered while I was in a relationship with my ex-partner. Then I learned how to heal others.
I have healed and I can help you heal as well.⠀
Contact me. I know that may seem hard and overwhelming but I can help you. There are lots of free resources, information, and posts here on the website.
Much love to you