Foggy and anxious? Here's how abuse affects the brain
The brain is a fantastic organ, as it continuously evolves as we grow, learn, and have new experiences. Many things affect the state and structure of our brain, and abuse is one of them.
Every experience we have, every memory we form, creates new pathways. As our brain is rewired, our thoughts, actions, and how we experience the world changes. Positive experiences influence the creation of positive pathways, which can result in confidence, self-assurance, and a feeling of strength. However, experiences such as domestic violence (emotional, physical abuse, or sexual abuse) cause changes in the amygdala, prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which can lead to anxiety, fear, self-doubt, depression, as well as physical illness.
An abusive person thrives on power and control over their victim. Tactics include continuous criticism, gaslighting, love-bombing and the threat of withholding love/affection, along with other passive aggressive and/or physical/sexually aggressive actions. It is not a surprise that this kind of intimidation results in an ongoing sense of anxiety, fear and confusion in victims. And it's a relief to know that the brain is malleable and these effects can be reversed.
Although I'm far from an expert, here's how I've understood the affect of trauma on the brain, according to my research. Please consult my list of resources below for a more expert-oriented explanation!
The amygdala is our emotions' control centre. It is where our survival instincts are stored and where we process our memories. When someone experiences a traumatic event such as domestic violence, the brain responds by trying to protect them from harm. The amygdala lights up and tells us whether we should hide, run, or fight.
When a person spends years in an abusive relationship, the amygdala can become hyperactive, leaving a person hyper-alert in most situations, rather than only in dangerous situations. Associated symptoms include anxiety, a lack of trust, sleeplessness, and difficulty finding joy in everyday activities.
The prefrontal cortex
The prefrontal cortex is a bit like our amygdala's manager. It regulates our emotions and informs our amygdala about how to proceed. The prefrontal cortex also controls our higher-level thinking and helps us with reasoning. When the amygdala lights up with a "fight or flight" reaction, the prefrontal cortex helps better interpret the situation and calm a person down when necessary.
In survivors of domestic violence, the ability to rationalize through the prefrontal cortex can become less effective, making it hard to regulate emotional responses. Our "fear" response can become overreactive, causing panic and "fight or flight" responses in situations where there is no real danger or risk of harm. Reactions such as these can be hard for survivors to overcome without professional guidance through therapy.
The hippocampus helps us process learning experiences and memory. Studies show that the hippocampus shrinks when people experience trauma such as domestic violence. When someone experiences reoccurring high levels of stress, hormones are released that kill cells in the hippocampus, which can result in difficulties forming new memories while memories of trauma remain solid and prevalent. Symptoms include anxiety, fear, panic, and a foggy brain.
!The Good News!
Although domestic violence can wreak havoc on our brains, causing frustrating challenges in everyday situations, these effects can be reversed! Step 1: remove yourself from the relationship (see helplines below). Step 2: go to therapy - cognitive behavioural therapy is my recommendation - ask your doctor, local counselling centre or women's centre for resources and referrals.
If you think that you or someone you know is being abused, call (in Canada):
BC: VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808 AB: Family Violence Information Line: 1-780-310-1818 SK: Mobile Crisis 24/7 Helpline: 306-757-0127 MB: Domestic Abuse Crisis Line: 1-877-977-0007 ON: Victim 24/7 Support Line: 1-888-579-2888 QC: SOS violence conjugale 24/7: 1-800-363-9010 (bilingual service available) NB: Chimo Helpline: 1-800-667-5005 PEI: Island Help Line: 1-800-218-2885 NS: Neighbours, Friends and Families (Abuse and Violence Support Line): 1-855-225-0220 NL: NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre 24/7 Support and Information Line: 1-800-726-2743 Nunavut: Kamatsiaqut Nunavut Helpline: 1-800-265-3333 NWT: NWT Help Line: 1-800-661-0844 YK: VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808
Domestic Violence Network
Shoreline Recovery Centre
Family Justice Centre
The National Library of Medicine (also discusses the role of cortisol)