Neuroscience: The shocking impact narcissistic abuse has on the brain

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Narcissistic abuse is one of the worse types of psychological abuse that one person can do to another, but unfortunately, many people are stuck in these types of relationships.

Whether it’s a child and an emotionally abusive parent, or an adult with a narcissistic partner, the effect is the same—narcissistic abuse that can leave much more than just emotional damage.

Because according to recent studies, neuroscientists have discovered that long-term narcissistic abuse can lead to actual physical brain damage.

(Below we also talk about 7 ways to handle narcissistic abuse.)

Long-Term Narcissistic Abuse: Effects on the Brain

It’s common knowledge these days that consistent emotional trauma over a long period of time can cause victims to develop both PTSD and C-PTSD.

This is why anyone in a destructive relationship with a partner who cares little for the emotional well-being of their family should leave immediately, especially when children are involved.

However, some people do not take this warning too seriously, because of its emotional basis. What many fail to realize is that emotional and psychological distress is only one side of the coin that victims of long-term narcissistic abuse experience.

There is also a physical aspect of brain damage involved—when suffering consistent emotional abuse, victims experience a shrinking of the hippocampus and a swelling of the amygdala; both of these circumstances lead to devastating effects.

The hippocampus is crucial in learning and developing memories, while the amygdala is where negative emotions like shame, guilt, fear, and envy come to life.

Understanding the Hippocampus

Hippocampus is the Greek word for “seahorse”, and it is the part of the brain that Is hidden inside each temporal lobe, shaped distinctly like two seahorses.

One of the most important functions the hippocampus is responsible for is our short-term memory, which is the first step to learning. Information is first stored in short-term memory before it can be converted to permanent memory.

Without short-term memory, there can be no learning.

And damage to the hippocampus is a lot more disturbing than scientists initially thought. In a study from Stanford University and the University of New Orleans, they found that there was a strict correlation between high levels of cortisol (a hormone caused by stress) and decreased volume in the hippocampus.

The more stressed people were, the smaller their hippocampus became.

Understanding the Amygdala

The amygdala is known as the reptilian brain, because it controls our primal emotions and functions, including lust, fear, hate, as well as heart rate and breathing.

When triggered, the amygdala is where the fight or flight response is made. Narcissists keep their victims in a state where their amygdala is constantly on alert.

Eventually, these victims fall into a permanent state of anxiety or fear, with the amygdala reacting to the slightest signs of abuse.

Long after the victim has escaped the destructive relationship, they will continue to live with PTSD symptoms, increased phobias, and panic attacks, due to an enlarged amygdala that has become used to living in a state of fear. To protect themselves from their reality, these victims often use reality-bending defense mechanisms that make it easier to cope, such as:

Projection: Victims convince themselves that their narcissist abuser has positive traits and intentions such as compassion and understanding, when in reality this may not be the case

Compartmentalization: Victims focus on the positive parts of the relationship, separating them from the abusive parts and thus ignoring them

Denial: Victims end up believing that their situation is not as bad as they feel, as it is easier to live with it rather than to confront it

A Damaged Hippocampus: Crippling Everything We Know

The hippocampus is perhaps the most crucial part of the brain when it comes to knowledge and function. Everything we do, understand, read, and learn, rests solely on the hippocampus functioning properly.

This is because the hippocampus is involved in the formation of new memories and is also associated with learning and emotions

But the hippocampus is damaged when the body releases cortisol, the hormone released during times of stress. Cortisol effectively attacks neurons in the hippocampus, causing it to shrink.

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The amygdala is then stimulated by the cortisol, which turns our thoughts and neural activity from increasing our mental acuity to worries and stress.

When these distressing emotions are pushed to the extreme, our brain activity is pushed “beyond its zones of effectiveness”.

But remember: extended durations of average stress can be just as damaging if not worse than short-term extreme stress. Even if a narcissistic abuser never takes it “too far”, it could definitely still be causing destruction to the victim’s brain.

[Not only does Buddhism provide a spiritual outlet for many people, it can also improve the quality of our personal relationships. Check out my new no-nonsense guide to using Buddhism for a better life here].

Rebuilding Your Hippocampus and Calming Your Amygdala

But there is always a way back to a normal functioning brain. Through certain methods like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, victims exhibiting signs of PTSD can regrow 6% of their hippocampus in just a few sessions.

EMDR can also calm the amygdala at the same time, allowing your brain to react more rationally to situations.

Some other proven methods include aromatherapy and essential oils, guided meditation, acts of altruism, and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is useful for normalizing biochemical short-circuiting, which is usually observed in chronic anxiety.

But the first step is ultimately the most important one: getting out of the destructive and abusive relationship. Before any progress can be made towards recovery, the victim must acknowledge the situation and accept his or her reality.

So if you’re looking for ways to deal with narcissistic abuse, check the below 7 tips:

[Not only does Buddhism provide a spiritual outlet for many people, it can also improve the quality of our personal relationships. Check out my new no-nonsense guide to using Buddhism for a better life here].

7 Ways To Deal With Narcissistic Abuse

Image credit: Shutterstock – By Dmytro Zinkevych

Abuse in a relationship is never an easy topic. We tend to protect our partners out of love and hope that their behavior can change, even if it means sacrificing our own happiness and self-worth.

And out of all kinds of abuse, narcissistic abuse might be the most difficult to deal with.

This type of abuse isn’t just about anger or other emotions; rather, it’s about power.

This abuse can manifest at the physical, spiritual, emotional, mental, financial, and even sexual level.

And in many cases, the victim isn’t even fully aware of the abusive dynamic of their relationship.

This is because narcissists understand the art of manipulation more than most, and can convince even the most abused partners that the fault of every fight is on their hands.

Before we tackle the 7 ways to deal with narcissistic abuse, it’s crucial that we understand the wrong ways in which we think we’re handling it, but actually enabling the behavior.

Here are the most common mistakes in dealing with narcissists:

Blaming Yourself: When fighting with a narcissist, we tend to blame ourselves due to their cunning manipulation. We end up trying harder and pushing ourselves more, simply because we believe that we are the cause for all the fighting.

Threats: When pushed too far, we might threaten our abusive partner. This can backfire easily—if you don’t push through with the threat, you lose all your power.

Trying to be Understood: A narcissist will spin words to always make themselves right, even if it makes no sense at all. A loving partner won’t understand this, and will keep trying to make the narcissist understand their point of view. Here’s the truth: they understand you; they just don’t care.

Withdrawal: We give up. All the fighting takes a toll on us and we just let them win, every single time. While this saves your energy, it doesn’t save you from the situation.

Denial: We deny and excuse the abusive behavior of our partner out of love or loyalty. If you continue to enable their behavior and show them that you will keep their abuse a secret, this will only strengthen their resolve.

Instead, here are the 7 ways to effectively deal with the abuse:

1) Educate

Narcissists often do not truly understand what they are doing, because so much of it has been naturally honed their entire life.

According to Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT in Psychology Today, you might be able to educate them; teach them the way you would teach a child, by being direct and explaining the consequences of their behavior.

2) Respect Your Boundaries

A narcissist will often push you just to see how far you will let him push you. They might not be fully aware of it, but in many cases, it’s not about the day-to-day fighting; it’s about power, and having the power in the relationship.

So talk to your partner: tell them what your boundaries are. They will try to cross it and they will watch what you do—if you respect your boundaries and hold them up, they’ll learn to respect you. If you don’t, it will just get worse.

Karyl McBride, Ph.D., LMFT in Huffington Post gives some advice on setting your boundaries with a narcissist:

“The key to setting boundaries with a narcissist is to stick to them. You will want to communicate clearly and directly each time. If you make a mistake and find that you “lose it” or say something wrong, just keep practicing and be accountable for your behavior.”

3) Assert Yourself

Know what you want and fight for what you want. Being with a narcissist is a constant powerplay, and if you give up that powerplay, you give up all your own freedom in the relationship.

According to Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT, you need to fight against their power and assert your own area and needs. Use verbal put-downs that demand respect and push your mind to the forefront, such as:

“I won’t talk to you if you…”
“Maybe. I’ll consider it.”
“I don’t agree with you.”
“What did you say to me?”
“Stop or I will leave.”

4) Confront It Face First

Don’t run away from a fight; you might think you’re saving yourself from a bad night, but the narcissist will just see it as another win.

Stand up, look them in the eye and speak up. Be a fuller person and show them that they can’t drown you out with shouting and bullying.

According to Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT this doesn’t mean to fight and argue, but “it means standing your ground and speaking up for yourself clearly and calmly, and having boundaries to protect your mind, emotions, and body.”

(To stop toxic people taking advantage of you, check out my eBook on the art of resilience here)

5) Worsen Your Consequences

After you’ve set boundaries and your partner has crossed it, it’s time to show them that you’re going to stick to your consequences.

But they have to see the consequences worsen; there needs to be a gradual worsening of their punishment, so they can see that they are slowly losing you from their behavior.

According to Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP in Health Line, consequences start to matter with a narcissist when things start affecting them personally:

“Why would the consequences matter to them? Because someone with a narcissistic personality typically starts to pay attention when things start affecting them personally.

Just make sure it’s not an idle threat. Talk about consequences only if you’re ready to carry them out as stated. Otherwise, they won’t believe you the next time.”

6) Strategize

Remember: when you’re with a narcissist, you’re playing a constant war for power until one of you wins.

And to beat a narcissist, you have to understand the way they think—every interaction is just another battle for power.

According to Darlene Lancer JD LMFT, it’s important to understand your limits, their limits, and make the most out of every interaction.

“Know what you want specifically, what the narcissist wants, what your limits are, and where you have power in the relationship.”

7) Know When Enough Is Enough

And finally, it’s important to know when it’s time to quit. You are a person, and your narcissist partner will do everything to convince you that you are not.

Get support, seek therapy, and figure out how to move forward with your life without your current partner involved. You don’t need to stick it out with him or her; it’s your life, and they don’t own it.

According to licensed clinical psychologist Dianne Grande, Ph.D., a narcissist “will only change if it serves his or her purpose.”

So save yourself the trouble and prioritize your own happiness and sanity. In many cases, you might not have a choice, so when you do – get out, now.

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Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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