78: Abusive Relationships and the Brain

There is nothing that irritates me more than when someone looks at a victim of abuse and says “you should’ve just left.” Not only is this a ridiculously insensitive comment, but it also reflects their ignorance to the subject.

Victims don’t stay in abusive relationships because we like the abuse. What we go through actually alters the brain and changes the way that it functions.

So in this post I’m going to share some excerpts from articles that give information on this subject.

This is only the very top tip of the iceberg, but it gives a solid overview and understanding of why victims respond the way that they do to abuse.

Unfortunately the research on the brains of survivors is very new, so we don’t know the intricacies of it yet. But I’m so happy it’s finally happening. We’re going to finally have answers and begin to change the narrative around abuse recovery.

Let’s go.

Prefer to watch? Here’s the video!

The following excerpt comes from Psychologytoday.com . Any emphasis is my own and my explanations will be in brackets [].

Several important ingredients contribute to someone’s addiction to their abuser

Several important ingredients that contribute to someone’s “addiction” to their abuser are oxytocin (bonding), endogenous opioids (pleasure, pain, withdrawal, dependence), corticotropin-releasing factor (withdrawal, stress), and dopamine (craving, seeking, wanting). With such strong neurochemistry in dysregulated states, it will be extremely difficult to manage emotions or make logical decisions.

What happens neurobiologically in a toxic union is not much different from what happens in a normal relationship. The main difference is that given that our brain is extremely responsive to what is happening in our environment, it releases chemicals in reaction to the toxic partner’s behavior. If he/she pulls away or behaves poorly, there is a reaction that someone in a “normal relationship” would not experience. This is also true of neurochemistry such as endogenous opioids, dopamine, and corticotropin releasing factor.

Normal partners do not create the same emotionally charged climate as an abuser.

Context is everything when it comes to the brain.

When our brain’s attempt to make sense out of conflicting information [the abuse coming from someone that we love], a process of reasoning and rationalization is common.

Resolving cognitive dissonance is a form of self-regulation and self-calming enacted by the brain (associated with the right prefrontal cortex, insula, ventral striatum, and fronto-parietal regions). The victim’s rationalization of their dysfunctional, possibly dangerous situation reflects a form of cognitive reappraisal. [This means that the brain is trying to rationalize the information to pull itself out of the stress.]

In the presence of such an addiction, there will be intense craving, a heightened value attributed to the abuser. [i.e. trauma bonding]

In the presence of such an addiction, there will be intense craving, a heightened value attributed to the abuser, and a hyperfocus on the relationship and conflict resolution. The victim’s thoughts will often follow to make sense of these feelings. Her or his brain usually turns to self-deception and rationalizations to resolve the cognitive dissonance. 

Maintaining social connections is not only good from a safety standpoint (because other eyes should be watching when there is an abuser around), but compassionate, genuine, loving people help our brain to function optimally. (End of excerpt.)

The following article comes from STW Newspress.

Domestic Violence impacts the brain and behavior

Domestic Violence impacts the brain and behavior. It causes trauma for the victim, and she (or he) may experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including hyperarousal, reexperiencing, avoidance and numbing.

Dr. Bessel VanDerKolk states, “Traumatized people often have enormous difficulty telling other people what has happened. Their bodies experience terror, rage and helplessness, as well as impulse to fight or flee, but these feelings are impossible to articulate.” Therefore, traumatized people tend to respond differently, thereby causing others to assume that they weren’t truly victimized.

Once a person has been traumatized, it may become extremely challenging to truly express the full impact this incident has had on her life. They become fearful of reliving the experience. Dr. VanDerKolk states, “Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling…their own sensations become the enemy. Even though the trauma is a thing of the past, the emotional brain keeps generating sensations that make the sufferer feel scared and helpless.”

“Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling…their own sensations become the enemy. Even though the trauma is a thing of the past, the emotional brain keeps generating sensations that make the sufferer feel scared and helpless.”

Dr. Bessel VanDerKolk

Domestic Violence is about power and control, not anger.

It is one person’s use of abusive tactics to gain power and control over another. According to researcher, Lundy Bancroft, “Whether because of the abuser’s manipulativeness, his popularity, or simply the mind-bending contrast between his professions of love and his vicious psychological or physical assaults, every abused women finds herself fighting to make sense out of what is happening.” The abusive person thrives on utilizing such techniques to intimidate and confuse the victim. (End of excerpt.)

The following excerpt from a Medical News Today article shares the short and long term effects of abuse.

SHORT TERM

Emotional abuse can be difficult for the person on the receiving end to accept. At first, they may be in denial that the person they are in a relationship with is engaging in emotionally abusive behavior. For example, they may start to feel:

shame
hopelessness
fear
confusion

As they deal with emotional effects of this, they may also start to feel some physiological effects of the abuse. These effects can include:

moodiness-aches and pains
difficulty concentrating
muscle tension

The longer the emotional abuse continues, the more prolonged these effects can become.

LONG TERM

Emotional abuse, like physical abuse, can have long-term effects on the brain and body. In fact, according to one study, severe emotional abuse can be as damaging as physical abuse and contribute to depression and low self-esteem.

The study also suggested that emotional abuse may contribute to the development of chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

In addition, a person may experience:

insomnia
chronic pain
social withdrawal or loneliness
guilt
anxiety
eventual feelings that their partner or parent is correct, and that they are “no good” or ugly, for example

[I’m including the following because I have found that many children who have been abused end up in abusive relationships when they get older. This could shed some light as to why.]

Children experiencing emotional abuse may develop effects such as:

a core feeling of worthlessness
difficulty regulating emotions
difficulty establishing trust
regression
sleep disorders
trouble developing relationships with others (end of excerpt)

This is just the beginning.

To dig deeper into the articles, which I highly encourage you to do, click any of the links above.

The more we understand the mind of the victim, the more we’ll be able to sit with them and help them heal.

If this resonated with you and you’re ready to take your power back, then you should check out the Worthy of Recovery printable journal. Every day for 30 days you’ll complete a journal prompt and document your gratitude and your daily victories. Worried that you don’t have the time? Included with the journal is a course that teaches you how to journal your way to freedom in less than 15 minutes a day. As an added bonus, you also get over 45 printable affirmation cards. It has all the pieces that helped me on my recovery journey and I know it’ll help you, too. Click here to grab yours!

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