When you think about narcissistic abuse recovery, what comes to mind? Do you imagine complete freedom from the chaos of your toxic relationship? Do you anticipate letting go of all the pain that once held you hostage?
As it turns out, your healing isn’t just an emotional process. The neuroscience of narcissistic abuse recovery reveals fascinating research about how you can literally repair the brain.
But before we get into the healing, it’s crucial to understand how exactly trauma impacts the brain in the first place. This information can help you understand the true magnitude of this dangerous kind of abuse.
Understanding the Brain: The Basics
The human brain consists of three 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 region: the part that developed after the brain stem, which includes both the amygdala and hippocampus.
- The prefrontal cortex: the newest part of the brain associated with higher levels of cognition, concentration, and thinking.
The brain all works and collaborates to support you throughout life. However, we rely on the oldest parts first. For example, babies are born with fully-developed brain stems- they know to eat, sleep, and cry without instruction.
The other parts require more time and maturation, and people don’t fully develop their prefrontal cortexes until their mid-twenties.
How Narcissistic Abuse Impacts the Amygdala
The amygdala helps with emotional regulation, memory, and basic survival instincts. 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 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. You know those feelings of dread and uncertainty when your partner walks through the door. You also recognize the painful feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
With that in mind, changes in the amygdala can profoundly affect you long after the relationship ends. Why? Because your mind and body are so attuned to danger that everyone or everything may feel like a trigger.
This reasoning can explain why many narcissistic abuse survivors struggle with:
- Prevailing trust issues.
- Unexplained muscle or body aches (likely due to holding onto stress).
- Panic attacks.
- Recurrent flashbacks.
- Withdrawal from friends and family.
- “Escape behaviors” like substance abuse or disordered eating.
How Narcissistic Abuse Impacts the Hippocampus
The hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with learning and memory. This brain structure is as complex as it is 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 hunger, sex, mood, pleasure, and pain. The hippocampus is on the posterior (back) part of the limbic lobe, and the anterior (front) part is the amygdala.
In addition to learning and memory, the hippocampus also supports regulating:
- Spatial navigation
- Emotional behavior
- Motor behavior
Research shows that trauma can physically alter the hippocampus. People with PTSD have a smaller hippocampus compared to their counterparts. If you’re wondering why size matters, it’s because the overall structure impacts memory recall.
For example, some people may be unable to remember the events that happened to them. While this may sound preferable, it isn’t. The body still stores the trauma, and many times, people still reexperience the past through symptoms like panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, or a constant feeling that something is “off.”
Other people experience continuous rumination. Not only can you not forget what happened, but your mind seems to obsess on every detail all the time. Nearly 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 planning, emotion, predicting, and other executive functions.
Basically, the prefrontal cortex helps us think. And as you know, trauma makes it really hard to think clearly. You feel overwhelmed, and like you’re constantly under pressure. You may get distracted really easily and find yourself becoming emotional over ordinary events.
As a result, your judgment becomes impaired. You may be more vulnerable to impulsive decisions. You might also become more forgetful and scattered.
Some people recognize this as it’s happening. But it’s not always that straightforward. The process can happen slowly- you might not notice how much you’ve changed until you really start reflecting on it.
Unfortunately, this damage benefits the narcissist. They love the idea of “breaking you down,” of making you weaker and more susceptible to their manipulation. They don’t want someone who can think independently- they want someone who will adapt to their needs.
The Neuroscience Of Why You Keep Going Back
You logically know that the narcissist is terrible news. But leaving altogether feels impossible, and you’re not exactly sure why.
Is it the daunting fear of being alone? Is it their excessive hoovering and love bombs wearing you down? Or, are you just weak-minded?
As it turns out, the answer isn’t so simple or straightforward. Trauma affects the brain in ways that seemingly work against you.
To recognize this impact, you need to understand how the following brain systems work.
The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis modulates the mind-body connection. When you experience stress, your body releases hormones like epinephrine and cortisol. This is a normal reaction, but if the HPA system is activated too frequently, it can result in physical ailments.
Usually, this system feels like it’s in overdrive in the initial stages of narcissistic abuse recovery. Your body may feel run down and tired. You also may become physically sick.
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 trying to seek revenge.
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 try to convince you that you need the other person to feel safe and loved.
Are Withdrawals Real and What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
Yes! 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 euphoric recall after the relationship. Euphoric recall refers to feeling flooded by all the positive, happy parts of your time together. These memories can make you question 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. For example, you might know that the narcissist does awful things. But at the same time, you might also think that they have good intentions and don’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 truth. The more you entertain this truth, the more likely you are to fall back into the relationship.
To resolve these issues, you need to remind yourself of the nature of narcissism. In general, narcissists do not:
- Believe they have a problem.
- Intend to change their behavior.
- Care about how their actions or beliefs affect you.
- Want to make things better unless it benefits them.
You may need to remind yourself of these truths often. 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.
It’s easy to mistake narcissistic victim syndrome for love. But real love doesn’t hurt, degrade, or deteriorate 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 discouraged or pessimistic. After all, if the abuse impacted the brain, is there any hope for future happiness?
Yes! Your brain is flexible, and it’s absolutely possible to reverse the effects of trauma. These changes require time and effort. More than that, they also require that you ultimately end your relationship with the narcissist. If you share custody, the Extreme Modified Contact approach is the next best thing.
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 restore your sense of control. You can embrace a healthier way of living and loving.
Whether you’re just discovering you are dealing with narcissistic abuse or are trying to heal from a narcissistic relationship, here are some helpful tips and resources:
1 – The Beginner’s Healing Toolkit is a free resource that includes everything you need to get started on healing your life after narcissistic abuse.
2 – How to Use Neuroscience to Accelerate Recovery – A Comprehensive Research-Based Neuropsychological Program to Care for the Brain After Psychological Abuse. Disclosure: This link is an affiliate link, which means I may receive a commission if you click the link and enroll in this program. I only promote products or services that I have used and truly feel deliver value to you.
3 – The THRIVE program – Rediscover your lost self after narcissistic abuse (and prepare yourself for true love).
The Bottom Line
Everyone has the innate capacity to heal themselves. But, it’s likely you will need external support to heal the traumas that get in the way of your ability to tune into this gift.⠀Helpful tools and resources can assist you in developing effective ways to break free from narcissistic abuse.