Like me, some of you probably remember when neuroscientists thought we were born with most all the neurons we’d ever have. While we might gain a few more during childhood, they believed that after that, all we could anticipate was the death of brain cells. Fortunately, now we know this is not the case. We've become aware of neurogenesis, a process whereby new neurons are birthed in a part of the brain known as the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is part of the limbic system--also known as the "emotional brain." Why is this the case? Because it controls most of the involuntary aspects of emotional behavior that are related to survival. These include feelings that fall into the painful categories of fear and anger as well as the more pleasurable ones such as affection. Furthermore, the hippocampus is involved in the processes of learning and memory.
Yes, the fact that is such a thing as neurogenesis is the good news. But there is also some bad news to share if you're living in a toxic environment filled with your partner’s narcissism, addictions, and abuse.
How an Emotionally Toxic Environment Affects Your Brain
I probably don’t have to tell you that when you’re living with a narcissistic man who engages in verbal abuse and emotional abuse regularly, your life is stressful. In fact, you might also find yourself ridden with anxiety, as well as feeling depressed, while you strive to deal with everything you face. We now know, through magnetic resonance imaging, that stress-related disorders such as recurrent depressive illness, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Cushing's disease are all associated with atrophy of the hippocampus. But stress also decrease the capacity for the production of new neurons.
I mentioned already that the hippocampus is involved with memory. In fact, it plays a particularly important role in the memory of "context." Thiis refers to the time and place of events that have a strong emotional bias. Thus, memories associated with strong emotions--such as fear—are marked in such a way that the memory retains its vividness in a very persistent way. And in reality, this is what happens with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Many of us have become aware in more recent years that PTSD can afflict soldiers who've been in combat zones. But did you realize that women who’ve been in abusive relationships can suffer from PTSD as well? Indeed, like those former soldiers, they often end up with brains that are hyper-vigilant, In other words, their brains are always scanning the environment for patterns similar to those in memories associated with strong negative emotions. But then, this is the way this part of the brain strives to ensure the individual’s survival. The problem is, the brain responds or overreacts to things that are not dangerous. The situation does not truly call for a fight or flight response, but that is what the brain might end up triggering nonetheless.
That all said, have you always believed that whatever it is your senses take in, that those stimuli are delivered first to the part of your brain that is most rational? Oh, and have you also believed that once it is there, it's logically evaluated? If so, you've probably believed that you can count on your brain to trigger a reasonable or appropriate reaction for the situation. And thinking thusly, you might have consciously chosen to engage in either fight or flight behavior because you t truly believe that your safety was threatened. Yes indeed, this type of immediate action was required.
In reality, it doesn’t always work this way. Instead, that more rational part of the brain might be bypassed. As a result, the automatic fight or flight reaction is triggered. Only after this has happened, however, will the more rational part of the brain have an opportunity to decide, through conscious choice, what reaction is truly appropriate to the current situation.
Some have referred to this type of event, where the more primitive part of the brain is initially triggered as opposed to the more rational part, as a hijacking of the brain. Furthermore, such a hijacking of the brain is most apt to occur in people who’ve experienced traumatic events.
And yes, when you're being constantly abused by a narcissistic partner, you're ensuring ongoing trauma.
The trauma of verbal abuse as well as the other forms of abuse you suffer can result in cognitive impairment or memory problems. In fact, when I was married to an abusive narcissist and suffering the onslaught of his regular verbal abuse and emotional abuse, I suffered a decline in my cognitive abilities. I not only had more difficulty remembering things, but I also found it challenging to talk in complete sentences. Oh sure, the latter problem was worse when I was around my husband. Sadly, though, this did come to occur when I was with caring friends, too.
Awaken to what You Might be Doing to Yourself
Truthfully, I was unaware at the time that was living in an environment that was probably killing off my brain neurons as well as keeping new ones from generating. Hopefully, you'll be willing to acknowledge the fact if you're living in an environment likely causing harm to your brain. Sure, this might not be a pleasant reality to have to face. But since many people won’t change until they’re awakened by something rather traumatic, perhaps realizing that you’re likely causing your brain to deteriorate might be the wake-up call you need?
Besides writing on narcissism, addictions, and abuse, Diane England also writes on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. If you know of someone whose partner is displaying PTSD, addictions, and abuse--since we often see this trio exist together, too--do that person a favor and buy him or her The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Relationship." It was designated one of the "Best Books of 2009" by the Library Journal.