This is your brain on abuse

Dr. Jim Pfaus wrote “love is actually a habit that is formed from sexual desire as desire is a reward. It works the same in the brain as when people become addicted to drugs”

This quote is misleading because not every intimate relationship could be considered an addiction. There are very specific points that can create an addictive/toxic style relationship. Then there is also the point that not all “addictive” relationships turn toxic which is great. For this post, we will focus on the toxicity and the outcomes for the brain in toxic relationships.

In an abusive or toxic relationship, there is a biochemical response to the situation. The brain is producing a message that is interpreted as a survival tool: to survive the extreme discomfort, the brain has to help by numbing out while solidifying the trauma bond. Trauma bonding is sometimes similar to Stockholm Syndrome where the captive person can rationalize the motivations of the captor. They are then able to understand, justify and rationalize the treatment they receive.

There are two primary parts of the brain that are impacted when we are in or are recovering from an abusive or toxic relationship.

These are primal parts of the brain like the Limbic system, which runs automatically in the background. The Limbic system is the survival part of the brain which looks out for threats. This area of the brain is sensitive to discomfort and doesn’t really like it. It would rather pleasure and therefore will do what it can to avoid pain.

Pleasure Please!

The other area that plays a role is the Prefrontal Cortex. This section is the rational consciousness, the logical reasoning where behavior regulation and abstract thinking occur.  

When we find ourselves in toxic relationships regardless if we stay or leave there are natural consequences to the brain, particularly within these two systems.

An abusive or toxic relationship produces hormonal responses in the brain. The four hormones (Oxytocin, Endogenous Opioids, Corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF), and Dopamine) pay a particular role in how we respond to abuse.  

Oxytocin is often described as the “love hormone”. It is produced when we hug, when we kiss or hold hands and even when we think fondly about that loved one (romantic or not). Its entire purpose is to create bonds so we often feel flushed with it in new relationships.

Endogenous Opioids naturally occur in the brain and are created to register pleasure, pain, withdrawal and dependence. You can thank this hormone for its gift of ‘forgetting the pain” when in an abusive relationship. This hormone plays a part in that selective memory process to help us “numb” the pain.  

Corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) is the hormone that is produced during stress periods. People often know this better as the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response to stress. When this hormone is released it helps habituate to a defensive withdrawal. What does that mean? When you respond by freezing, it usually indicates that you feel you can’t win either by fighting or running. The fawn response can happen when you can’t fight or run. Instead, you choose to go along, trying to win over a person who is abusing you. When we talk about how it relates to abusive or toxic relationships the unconscious mind is better able to manipulate, deny or distort the reality to prevent the negative feelings that produced the hormone. It helps the recipient rationalize or justify the motives of their partner.

Dopamine is the last hormone and a commonly known one. However, many people do not understand the impacts of dopamine and how it participates in trauma bonding. Dopamine is in control of motivational aspects of the central nervous systems. It provided energy and focus to activities. It is often produced to resolve the challenge that is being presented. This hormone is actively trying to keep the body stable, in a good mood and attempting to prevent pain.

So what happens to Dopamine when when you are in an abusive or toxic relationship?  In a situation such as this, there is an inadequate production of Dopamine, increasing negative side effects such as increased cortisol: the stress hormone. Dysregulation of Dopamine production can impact the experience of feeling pleasure in your life. This can extend to the point of struggling with being able to find pleasure even in the things that once brought happiness.

With these biochemical reactions it makes sense how cognitive dissonance occurs. Cognitive dissonance is the ability to hold two conflicting belief systems. Using an abusive or toxic relationship the cognitive dissonance would look like:

  • He cheats on me, violates my trust, he is intentionally cruel and is a damaged person.
  • He is a good man that does not deal well with his stress, he does not intentionally mean to harm me, when he says he loves me he really means it

Moving on from this however, is an altogether different post. Healing from trauma bonding is a slow process that starts with creating safety from within, accessing personal resources such as your safe people or even self-care time. It takes time.. so the more that you are in contact, the longer it will take you to heal.

That being said not everyone is able to walk away, block and ignore their abusive partner. Sometimes there are co-parenting responsibilities in which case safety is paramount.

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