May 24, 2018

Abusive Relationships and How They Alter The Brain

by Lisa A. Romano

abuse abusive relationships emotional abuse and impact on the brain toxic relationship

Those of us who have been marked by the scars of emotional and physical abuse in childhood or as adults know how deep the trauma can penetrate. Our bodies heal, we grow and we cast off many of the superficial appearances that marked us as victims, but the emotional aftershocks remain long afterwards.

Since the early days of psychiatry we’ve known that abuse can put sufferers at risk of depression, self-harm, addiction and PTSD but it’s only recently that the effects it has on the very development of our brain became clear.

The Physiology of the Brain

Our brain’s reactions to any stimuli are an exercise in constant communication between two parts. The cool, rational outer brain which comprises our cortex and deals with problem-solving and learning, and the instinctive limbic system which controls our emotions and base urges including the instinct to survive. Here you find the amygdala and hippocampus.

Far before the rational reasoning of our cortex kicks in, our brains are processing emotionally arousing events through the amygdala – identifying the necessary instinctual response to the input. Figuring out whether it perceives danger or safety and comfort. When our amygdala learns that a certain input, such as the voice of a partner, or a certain phrase is cause to feel threatened it remembers this information encoding its meaning into our instinctual responses. These responses remain whether we can clearly remember the events themselves or not.

The hippocampus is responsible for processing information, it helps us give context and meaning to current and past events. When the hippocampus is affected we lose the ability to differentiate threats and non-threats.

What Abuse Does

MRI based images of the brains of children who have dealt with abuse at a young age reveal on average a smaller hippocampus and amygdala. This shows us that abuse suffered in the all-important formative years of our development can significantly alter our ability to process stress healthily as well as learn and make progress. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the underdevelopment of these areas mirrors the brain images of combat veterans. The younger you are affected by these traumas the greater the effects are.

When we experience acute stress our body sounds an alarm signal that floods our brains with hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. The chemicals are part of our body’s fight or flight response, priming us to react to perceived dangers. When an adult lives with the constant toxic realities of an abusive relationship, these otherwise short-lived responses, are constantly occurring in our brains and we feel the effects of it intensely. If this goes on long enough our neurons die, and our hippocampus ceases to function properly. This impairment affects our ability to create short-term memories and respond adequately to social stimuli. This is what causes the PTSD, depression, despair and anxiety you might deal with on a daily basis.

While the short-term effects of stress can be reverse, at this point you should ask how long were you exposed to abuse? What were your experiences like growing up?

How We Can Heal

Acknowledging the effects of the trauma you have faced may be unpleasant but facing the task and taking control of your own destiny is the biggest step you can take towards a healthy future. At this point what your brain needs is healing and kindness above all. Some medications, meditation, exercise and focused stress reduction techniques and therapy can all heal our damaged neurons and bring us along on the path to recuperation. Research has confirmed that through emotional nourishment and the right support, we can dramatically alter our brains and learn to live and grow again.

It's not you-it's only your programming.