The Effects Emotional Abuse Has on the Brain

emotional abuse mental health narcissist relationships toxic relationships May 27, 2021

The Effects Emotional Abuse Has on the Brain   

Narcissistic abuse is one of the worse types of psychological abuse that one person can do to another. Whether it’s a child with 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. 


Long-Term Narcissistic Abuse: Effects on the Brain 

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. 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. When both of these are physically affected, it changes how our brains process things. 


Understanding the Hippocampus 

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.  

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. The more abuse and emotional stress is put on us, the more it affects your brain. 


Understanding the Amygdala 

The amygdala 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.  

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 still be causing destruction to the victim’s brain. 


Rebuilding Your Hippocampus and Calming Your Amygdala 

Good news: there is always a way back to a normal functioning brain.   

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: 


7 Ways To Deal With Narcissistic Abuse  

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 are 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. 

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. 

3) Assert Yourself 

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

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. 

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 must 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. 

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 must understand the way they think—every interaction is just another battle for power. 

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. 


So, save yourself the trouble and prioritize your own happiness and sanity. Recognize the abuse patterns, and leave. You can heal and create the live that you deserve to live!