Emotional abuse is devastating and can often be more traumatic than physical wounds. Bruises and broken bones eventually heal and may leave scars, but emotional trauma stays with you and shapes who you are as a person. It can also leave its own scar, one that is not as visible, but physically affects brain development and the ability to process emotions and stress.
If you’ve listened to episode 5 of More to the Story and seen any of our blogs through January, you’ve seen our recurring theme of self-care. The reason self-care is so important is because it helps relieve stress that can ultimately change how your mind works or even threaten your life. According to the New York University Medical Center, chronic stress resulting from emotional abuse or any other kind of trauma releases cortisol, a stress hormone which can damage and affect the growth of the hippocampus, the main area of the brain associated with learning and memory. This leads to mental diagnoses like depression, anxiety and something that 94% of women who are raped suffer from—PTSD. A study by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke indicated that individuals who endured childhood trauma showed similar underdevelopment in this area of the brain to that of combat veterans. The earlier in life trauma happens, the more devastating the effects. Participants in The Grady Trauma Project whose trauma occurred in childhood showed a “12-fold higher [level]” difference in the physical structure of their DNA than those who were abused as adults. This is said to explain how emotional trauma can be passed down through generations.
Abuse comes in many forms, but there is always an emotional element that remains, whether or not the survivor remembers every detail or completely dissociates. In an Atlanta study of women who had been sexually abused as children, changes were found in the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that processes physical sensations and perception for different parts of the body. Our brain and body have a way of storing memories and sensations even if we don’t consciously remember them ourselves. Sexual abuse survivors often recall “zoning out” during their assault or even block out the memory completely. These are built-in defense mechanisms for dealing with things we may not be able to emotionally handle. The emotional aspects of the sexual abuse are what damages these parts of the mind and effects responses in the rest of the body. In the same study, the women who endured emotional abuse showed similar thinning in sections of the brain that have to do with self-awareness and processing emotions—the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe. The inability to experience feelings in a healthy way leaves survivors susceptible to emotional outbursts or “dulled” responses. Both forms of abuse resulted in less connection between different parts of the brain, possibly indicating an effort of self-preservation, but at the same time interfering with the ability to emote and respond in healthy ways.
A Harvard Medical School study of young adults who had never experienced or even witnessed domestic violence, physical abuse or sexual trauma but had been bullied in their adolescence showed a lack of connection between the right and left sides of the brain. Failing to develop these connections in the brain increases the chances of “anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, dissociation and drug abuse.” Yelling, name calling and humiliation can be just as detrimental to the brain as physical violence, especially in formative years. When examining all facets of childhood abuse in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Core Data Set, researchers discovered “psychological maltreatment was most strongly associated with depression, general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, attachment problems and substance abuse.”
In all cases where emotional abuse is inflicted, the brain is actually attempting to protect itself by re-routing abundant levels of stress and pain to avoid overload. This can interfere with the ability to have a healthy response even when there is no longer a present threat or traumatic situation. Fortunately, our brains are resilient and have a remarkable ability to recover and with the right support and therapy it is possible to strengthen and repair the damage. New neural connections can be created and cathartic coping mechanisms can be learned. Meditation, conversation, art, music,exercise and all other forms of self-care that A Voice for the Innocent has reported on through the month of January are also great ways to rebuild and restore a healthy mind. Whether you’re too busy, too broke, or too far away, there’s a way to take care of yourself. And if you need additional support we are always here to listen.