It wasn’t that long ago that most neuroscientists thought we were born with most all of the neurons we’d ever have. While we might gain a few more during childhood, they believed that after that, all we could look forward to was the death of brain cells. Now we know differently. We are 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? Well, because it controls most of the involuntary aspects of emotional behavior that are related to survival. These include feelings that fall into the painful category such as fear and anger, as well as more pleasurable such as affection. Furthermore, the hippocampus is involved in the processes of learning and memory.
The fact that is such a thing as neurogenesis is the good news. But there is also some bad news to share if you are 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, that your life is stressful. You might also find yourself ridden with anxiety and feeling depressed as you strive to deal with all 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. Furthermore, stress appears to decrease capacity for production of new neurons, too.
The hippocampus is involved with memory. While it participates in verbal memory, it plays a particularly important in the memory of "context," or the time and place of events that have a strong emotional bias. 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. This is what happens in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
We typically associate PTSD with soldiers who have been in a combat zone. But women who’ve been in abusive relationships can suffer from PTSD as well. Like those former soldiers, they will often end up having brains that are hyper-vigilant, In other words, the brain is always scanning the environment for patterns similar to those in the memories associated with those strong emotions. This is the way this part of the brain is striving to ensure the individual’s survival. But it becomes overreact or responds to things that are not dangerous. The situation does not truly call for a fight or flight response that the brain ends up triggering.
You might believe that whatever it is that your senses take in, that the stimuli is first delivered to the part of your brain that is most rational. Then, once it is there, it is logically evaluated. As a result, the brain triggers a reasonable or appropriate reaction for the situation. In other words, you might consciously choose to engage in fight or flight behavior because your safety is threatened and this type of immediate action is required. Then again, if this rational part of the brain realizes that the pattern might have spelled danger in the past, but there is no imminent danger this time around, your body won’t react with the fight or flight reaction. However, it doesn’t always work this way. Instead, that more rational part of the brain is bypassed so that the automatic fight or flight reaction is triggered. Only after this has happened will the more rational part of the brain have an opportunity to decide, through conscious choice, what is a reaction truly appropriate to the situation.
Some have referred to this type of event, where the more primitive part of the brain is initially triggered versus the more rational part of the brain instead, as a hijacking of the brain. And in truth, this hijacking of the brain is most apt to occur in people who’ve experienced traumatic events in their lives. And remember, when you are being constantly abused by a narcissist spouse, you are ensuring ongoing trauma.
The trauma of the verbal abuse and the other forms of abuse you suffer may also 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 know 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. Certainly, it was the worst around him. Was that because I was fearful of stating a complete idea because I knew he’d likely attack it as soon as I’d spoken it? Perhaps that had something to do with it. Nonetheless, I came to realize that this happened more often than just when I was with him. It came to occur when I was with caring friends, too.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was living in an environment that was resulting in the death of neurons and, of course, ensuring that new ones weren’t developed through the process of neurogenesis, either. Fortunately I did maintain enough cognitive functioning to realize that this was indeed a toxic environment in which to live and furthermore, things were probably going to continue to grow worse rather than better. I felt the environment was destroying my spirit and strangling my soul. I didn’t know to be concerned about the well-being of my brain. But then, we didn’t know about all this at that time, either.
Hopefully, you will be willing to acknowledge if you are living in an environment that is likely causing harm to your brain. This might not be a pleasant reality to have to face and accept. However, since many people won’t change until they’re awakened by something rather traumatic, perhaps realizing how you’re causing your brain to deteriorate just might be the wake-up call you need, don’t you imagine?
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 today. It has been designated one of the "Best Books of 2009" by theLibrary Journal.
Universities, nonprofit organizations, churches, psychotherapists, physicians, support groups, and others seeking to purchase quantities of this book at a discount should contact Customer Service at F&W Media at 800-289-0963.