If you’ve ever been in a relationship with a narcissistic abuser, you may have concerns about long-term effects on your brain – and you have a very good reason to.
Anyone who has had experience with narcissistic abusers, whether they were a partner, parent, friend, or sibling, is most likely more than familiar with the emotional and sometimes financial impacts.
But does narcissistic abuse really change your brain?
Another big cause for concern is gaslighting, a technique used by narcissistic abusers to convince their victims that they are going crazy.
If you’ve ever experienced this, you may really have felt like you were indeed going crazy except for one small problem: you never had a history of mental illness until you entered the relationship.
Is it just you or can narcissistic abuse actually cause mental illness?
Long-term narcissistic abuse can cause changes in the amygdala and hippocampus areas of your brain, inhibiting learning and memory, while increasing primitive emotional responses.
You may also develop PTSD, C-PTSD, or Stockholm Syndrome as a result of narcissistic abuse.
If nothing else, narcissistic abuse will affect your thinking, which will in turn influence your feelings and behaviors.
So, maybe you really are going crazy – at least on some level. But it’s actually your abuser who is making you go crazy.
While long-term narcissistic abuse can cause changes in your brain and lead to the development of trauma-related diseases, it certainly won’t make you psychotic. And healing is possible.
Narcissistic abuse can cause changes in brain chemistry
If you’re afraid of narcissistic abuse having long-term effects on your brain, your fear is certainly valid.
Scientists have discovered that narcissistic abuse can indeed cause changes in brain structure and chemistry, which can lead to chronic mental health conditions.
Shrinking of the hippocampus
When your body becomes conditioned to a stress response, your brain will start to produce higher levels of the hormone, cortisol, and you may begin to experience symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD.
Studies have found a link between higher cortisol levels, PTSD symptoms, and long-term narcissistic abuse, and brain scans have shown that people with a combination of these factors experience a shrinkage in the size of their hippocampus.
Since the hippocampus controls learning and memory, you may selectively recall parts of the relationship, while blocking out others.
Additionally, your overall cognitive function and ability to think rationally will be impacted by long-term narcissistic abuse.
Enlargement of the amygdala
The amygdala area of your brain controls emotions, and while the rational part of your brain will deteriorate as a result of narcissistic abuse, your emotional capacity will become heightened due to an enlargement of your amygdala.
This can lead to an increase in feelings of anxiety and depression. You may become emotionally sensitive and triggered by minor events.
An enlarged amygdala can even increase primitive emotional responses, such as fight or flight, which ties into the development of PTSD.
Narcissistic abuse can lead to the development of psychiatric disorders
While you can certainly develop psychiatric disorders as a result of narcissistic abuse, let’s be clear: you aren’t the crazy one.
Many narcissists suffer from a serious psychological condition known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
However, you’ll be wasting your breath if you try to encourage your abuser to seek help.
A person can’t possibly address a problem if they’re incapable of recognizing that a problem exists.
So, even if you develop generalized anxiety, major depression, or one of the following disorders as a result of long-term narcissistic abuse, your prognosis is much better than that of your abuser.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with war veterans, anyone who has suffered any type of long-term trauma can potentially develop PTSD.
Scientists have discovered that people with PTSD have abnormalities in the hippocampus and amygdala areas of their brain, which may have been genetically inherited, subsequently predisposing them to the disorder.
This may explain why some trauma survivors are resilient while others develop PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, hypervigilance, nightmares, anxiety, and avoidance. These symptoms may be acute or chronic.
But you should never attempt to diagnose yourself through web sources. If you believe you may be suffering from PTSD, you should seek professional help.
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder
Complex Post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is a relatively new diagnosis that includes the standard symptoms of PTSD combined with other symptoms, some of which resemble that of borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Those who suffer from C-PTSD may isolate, engage in risky and self-destructive behavior, have trouble concentrating, experience physical symptoms, such as headaches, and may even have thoughts of suicide.
Once again, if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, consult a physician, psychiatrist, or therapist for treatment.
While the term “Stockholm Syndrome” may be overused and sound extreme, it is actually very common for victims of narcissistic abuse to develop trauma bonds with their abusers.
Maybe you find yourself making excuses for your abuser or bailing them out of jail.
Or maybe you and your abuser have experienced similar childhood trauma or endured hard times together, which resulted in a bond being established.
Sadly, it’s common for abuse victims to insist that they love their abusers in spite of the way they’re being treated.
Narcissistic abuse changes your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
If you’re repeatedly told that you’re worthless, eventually you’ll begin to believe it, which will affect how you feel about yourself and how you behave.
This is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which operates under the idea that thoughts lead to feelings, which in turn, lead to actions.
Since your thoughts initiate in your brain, the changes in your thought patterns are one of the most common ways that narcissistic abuse affects your brain.
Thinking becomes more negative
Although narcissistic abuse can very well include physical violence, often the abuse is verbal, psychological, and emotional in nature.
If you’re constantly being called names, blamed, and gaslighted, eventually you’ll develop a negative mindset.
You may begin to believe that you’re really the problem or that you can’t do anything right.
You may even become dependent upon your abuser and lose your sense of self-worth.
The messages that you believe and tell yourself can have a huge impact on your life.
Anxiety and depression increase
If your abuser recently screamed at you and called you lazy because you didn’t wash the dishes in a timely manner, your anxiety level may increase as you rush to get the dishes done before they come home from work.
And if your feelings are invalidated and you begin to neglect your own needs in favor of pleasing your abuser, you may eventually begin to feel depressed, worthless, and unfulfilled.
You may even begin to resent your abuser but hopelessly can’t think of any way out of the relationship.
Development of new behaviors
Eventually, your entire routine will change as your life begins to revolve around your abuser’s wants, needs, and feelings.
In extreme cases, you may even lose your own identity in the process.
Every day, you’ll feel like you’re walking on eggshells never knowing if your abuser will be pleased with you that day or what mood they’ll be in.
Narcissistic abuse affects more than just your brain. It affects every aspect of your life.
If you feel as though you’re in danger and want to leave, you should reach out to law enforcement or a local domestic violence shelter for assistance.
Of course, it’s your choice as to whether you want to stay or leave and how you want to live your life.
But remember that you are worth something and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.