The effects of psychological and narcissistic abuse come with many devastating consequences, but there are two that almost no one knows about–unless they’re a doctor or neuroscientist.
In fact, these two outcomes may be the most destructive result of emotional trauma over the long-term and is an added reason why–if you have children with a narcissistic partner–you should try to leave as soon as reasonably possible.
By now, most of us know that repeated emotional trauma leads to both PTSD and C-PTSD, which should be reason enough to leave an abusive narcissist. But, what many people don’t realize is that over time, these repeated emotional injuries shrink the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning, while enlarging the amygdala, which houses primitive emotions such as fear, grief, guilt, envy, and shame.
The hippocampus, which is Greek for “seahorse,” is a paired structure tucked inside each temporal lobe and shaped, in fact, like a pair of seahorses. It helps to store and release memory. The hippocampus is especially vital to short-term memory, the retaining in mind of a piece of data for a few moments, after which it either gets transferred to permanent memory or is immediately forgotten. Learning depends on short-term memory.
Further, among the many analyses that have been conducted, one in particular shows very disturbing results. In a study conducted by a team of University of New Orleans and Stanford University researchers, patients with the highest baseline cortisol (a stress hormone) and greater number of PTSD symptoms had the greatest decreases in hippocampal volume over time.
In other words, the longer you stay with an emotionally abusive partner, the more deterioration you can expect of your hippocampus. It can be easily understood how this neurological process may enhance feelings of confusion, cognitive dissonance, and abuse amnesia in victims of narcissistic and psychopathic abuse.
Narcissists keep their victims in a constant state of anxiety and fear, which in turn causes their victims to react from his or her amygdala (or “reptilian” brain). The amygdala controls life functions such as breathing and heart rate and the basic emotions of love, hate, fear, and lust (all of which are considered “primal emotions”).
It’s also responsible for the fight or flight reaction. Victims of narcissistic abuse live in this state almost daily. Over time, the amygdalae remember the things we felt, saw, and heard each time we had a painful experience. Subliminal hints of such stressful events (even photos) will set off the organ’s attack or escape routines–triggering avoiding behaviors or internal turmoil (another good reason to refrain from stalking your ex on social media).
Even after the toxic relationship has ended, victims suffer PTSD, C-PTSD, panic attacks, phobias, and more… due to the triggering of their primal fears by their overactive amygdalae. Out of these fears, targets of narcissistic abuse often engage in primitive defense mechanisms including (but not limited to):
- Denial – Victims use denial to escape dealing with painful feelings or areas of their life they don’t want to admit.
- Compartmentalization – Victims pigeonhole the abusive aspects of the relationship in order to focus on the positive aspects.
- Projection – Victims project their traits of compassion, empathy, caring, and understanding onto their abuser, when in fact, narcissists and other emotional abusers possess none of those traits.
Narcissistic Abuse Changes the Brain
According to Goleman (2006), everything we learn, everything we read, everything we do, everything we understand, and everything we experience count on the hippocampus to function correctly. “The continual retention of memories demands a large amount of neuronal activity.
In fact, the brain’s production of new neurons and laying down connections to others takes place in the hippocampus” (Goleman, 2006, p. 273). Goleman also stated, “The hippocampus is especially vulnerable to ongoing emotional distress, because of the damaging effects of cortisol” (p. 273). When the body endures ongoing stress, cortisol affects the rate at which neurons are either added or subtracted from the hippocampus. This can have grave results on learning. When the neurons are attacked by cortisol, the hippocampus loses neurons and is reduced in size. In fact, duration of stress is almost as destructive as extreme stress. Goleman explained, “Cortisol stimulates the amygdala while it impairs the hippocampus, forcing our attention onto the emotions we feel, while restricting our ability to take in new information” (pp. 273-274). Goleman adds,
The neural highway for dysphoria runs from the amygdala to the right side of the prefrontal cortex. As this circuitry activates, our thoughts fixate on what has triggered the distress. And as we become preoccupied, say, with worry or resentment, our mental agility sputters. Likewise, when we are sad activity levels in the prefrontal cortex drop and we generate fewer thoughts. Extremes of anxiety and anger on the one hand and sadness on the other push brain activity beyond its zones of effectiveness. (p. 268)
But, there is hope. There are reparative activities you can do to restore and rebuild your hippocampus and stop the hijacking of your psyche by your amygdala.
What to do
Luckily, as brain scans have now shown (thanks to the magic of neuroplasticity), it is possible for the hippocampus to regrow. An effective method includes the use of EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). One recent study showed that 8 to 12 sessions of EMDR for patients with PTSD showed an average of a 6% increase in the volume of their hippocampi.
EMDR is also beneficial for counteracting the hyperarousal of the amygdala, allowing the brain to more appropriately direct what needs to happen rather than remain stuck and unnecessarily trigger problematic emotions.
Other methods that have been shown to repair both the hippocampus and amygdala include:
- Guided meditation – Recent studies from Harvard University show that daily meditation can help repair the brain by actually rebuilding the brain’s gray matter. Study participants who spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing “mindfulness” exercises showed a major increase in the density of the hippocampus and amygdala and associated reductions in stress, compared to a control group.
- Aromatherapy and essential oils –Article: AROMATHERAPY AND MEDITATION: ESSENTIAL STEPS IN RECOVERING FROM NARCISSISTIC ABUSE
- Performing acts of kindness – simple, daily practice of altruism can dramatically alter your outlook on the world.
- EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) – helps correct the biochemical short-circuiting that occurs with chronic anxiety.
Of course, the first course of action would be to plan and implement an exit strategy. It takes time to recover from narcissistic abuse and one short encounter can set you back enormously.
How Do You Stop The Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse?
Now that you have identified some key patterns, what do you do next? How do you change the cycle in your life?
First, learning how to recognize narcissistic patterns is essential.
Even if you feel tempted to “move on,” you probably haven’t developed a strong radar for detecting narcissism. Insight is the best step for moving forward. Are you truly aware of your triggers? Do you recognize yourself in any of the reasons mentioned above? If so, spend some time reflecting on how you can improve those pain points.
Personally, when I left my last toxic relationship several years ago, I forced myself to be alone for a long time. During this period, I did lots of healing work that I outline in Break Free. I surrendered and accepted that I hadn’t been willing to walk away when red flags began popping up. I learned my coping schemas and discovered how to overcome my triggers. I did energy healing, both alone at home and also through energy healing practitioners. I overcame the financial PTSD that I’d developed from losing my finances and being forced to start over.
These are the same steps you can take.
Then, once I’d integrated all the initial healing work, I went further into rebuilding my inner identity, learned how to be comfortable setting boundaries and saying ‘no’, and finally began to honor myself enough so that if red flags were to pop up in the future, I could walk away and mean it. (This is how my THRIVE program was born).
With this work, I watched old beliefs and negative energies melt away as I witnessed all my deepest wishes manifest into real life. I finally felt motivated to embark on new adventures, allowing my story to unfold instead of just dreaming about it. I learned to love who I am, allowing myself to attract the most caring people into my life while walking away from drama lovers – and feeling quite alright about it.
And I promise you that even if you’ve experienced horrific trauma and abuse, you can still heal your life. You can learn to stop betraying yourself and acting out of alignment with your own integrity. You can learn to get comfortable setting boundaries without feeling guilty. Like you, I once felt hopeless and afraid that I was doomed, but once I did the inner work and implemented everything I’d learned, my life began to transform in ways I never thought possible.
This can happen for you, too.
As always, I truly look forward to answering your questions and comments below.
 Goleman, D. (1995, July 31). Severe Trauma May Damage The Brain as Well as the Psyche. Retrieved January 17, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/1995/08/01/science/severe-trauma-may-damage-the-brain-as-well-as-the-psyche.html?pagewanted=all
 Stressing the Hippocampus: Why It Matters. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2016, from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/news-blog/stressing-the-hippocampus-why-it-ma/
 Thomas, E. (n.d.). The Amygdala & Emotions. Retrieved January 17, 2016, from http://www.effective-mind-control.com/amygdala.html
 Dysphoria. (2015, November 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:36, January 17, 2016, fromhttps://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dysphoria&oldid=692983709
 Effects of Stress on the Hippocampus. (2013, March 19). Retrieved January 17, 2016, from http://drgailgross.com/academia/effects-of-stress-on-the-hippocampus/
 Shapiro, F. (2012). Getting past your past: Take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR therapy. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Books.