Brain diagrams

Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse

Most everyone would agree that breaking up up sucks and finding out you’ve been cheated on hurts. Being psychologically and emotionally abused by a narcissist isn’t the same as a bad break up. It’s not just an indiscretion or incompatibility. Unless you’ve experienced it, it may be difficult to fully grasp, but the trauma suffered by a narcissistic abuse victim can be just as damaging to the psyche as any physical, violent or sexual abuse. Even more so.

The symptoms of narcissistic abuse (victims) syndrome I experienced persisted acutely for several months and even after a year of no contact and conscious effort toward recovery, hadn’t fully abated.

While many of the symptoms might seem obvious, some were initially hard to understand. Jumpiness is a symptom I experienced and found the oddest. At first, I couldn’t understand the mechanism that made me wake with a start, flinch at sudden sounds, nearly jump out of my skin if I encountered another person when I rounded a corner or opened a door. After a lot of research, I finally understood the reason.

Name it PTSD, Complex PTSD or Narcissistic Abuse (Victims) Syndrome, it’s all pretty much the same, with some slight nuance. These conditions aren’t purely psychological. There is a significant physiological component.

Along with hyperarousal (the jumpiness), common symptoms include:

  • Anger issues and rage
  • Low self-esteem, loss of confidence, self-loathing
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Depression, thoughts of suicide
  • Denial, dissociation, memory loss
  • Confusion / mental fog
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Flashbacks and rumination
  • Loss of faith in humanity, distrust, self-isolation, difficulty forming close relationships
  • Shame and guilt
  • Desire for revenge
  • Eating disorders, substance abuse, alcoholism, hypersexuality
  • Chronic pain, migraines
  • Cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems

To some extent, I experienced all of the above symptoms throughout the course of my relationship with Tina. I had quit drinking a year before, but aside from chemical abuse, the symptoms were the most pronounced after the grand finale discard. Without Tina’s manipulative influence, reality and awareness of how sick I’d become began to set in.

The trauma bond formed to one’s abuser is like a potent addiction that’s been compared to heroin and nicotine. Once a victim is separated by no contact a physically and emotionally brutal period of literal chemical withdrawals begins. I had a bit of an advantage in dealing with this aspect of recovery because I’d already experienced chemical withdrawals before. I recognized the symptoms and I could reason my way through it, knowing that this particular kind of suffering was necessary to begin healing.

Some symptoms are psychological, some physical and some are a combination. The physical and chemical changes that occur in the brain are a result of an excess of stress hormones, like cortisol. This physical brain damage is insidious because in a vicious cycle, it makes a person even more susceptible to narcissistic abuse. At the same time, it amplifies and prolongs the detrimental symptoms of that abuse.

The fight-or-flight response built into humans and all other animals is designed to operate in short bursts. Adrenaline pumps into the blood stream, senses and reactions are heightened and the primitive “lizard brain” amygdala asserts control over higher functions. That helps us defend our territory from a neighboring tribe or run from a pride of lions that would otherwise surely kill us. When that system ends up being engaged for prolonged periods, however, our brains begin to physically change to adapt. Marinading in cortisol triggered by abuse, the brain’s amygdala physically changes and becomes more dominant, while the logical, mapping, boundary-defining and memory-forming hippocampus region shrinks and weakens. Accustomed to the stress response, the body develops a hair-trigger to produce more cortisol until a person is almost continually aroused into that fight-or-flight state. The resulting vicious cycle is like a feedback loop: stress causes physical changes and the changes make it easier to trigger stress.

Coming to understand that process finally explained why I was so jumpy, even though I’d never had reason to feel physically afraid. Hurt is hurt and my amygdala wasn’t making any distinction between physical and emotional pain. It was all a threat. Understanding that helped me develop some new strategies to address the physical brain damage on my own.

Aside from depression and anxiety that may be near-debilitating, another very common complaint of narcissistic abuse victims is rumination. Memories of certain instances, conversations or discoveries play over and over again, relentlessly. This can be accompanied by intense emotional flashbacks that exactly replicate the feelings of the original moment. Reliving some trauma over and over again, is if it were happening fresh is a torture most victims suffer to at least some degree. It’s a PTSD-related response that can have any number of triggers. Identifying and avoiding those triggers is one way to begin reducing the occurrences and learning to distract yourself into another train of thought can help, but therapy (see below) might be needed.

Of all the psychological fallout that comes from narcissistic abuse, the loss of faith, trust and ability to be open to others might be the cruelest. For myself, I felt like the part of me that was designed to love was nothing but a burned-out shell. There was a loss of innocence involved in breaking free from and waking up to narcissistic abuse. I found that forming close bonds with other people was no longer possible. Everyone stays at arm’s length.

There is a lot of damage that needs repair after narcissistic abuse. People who haven’t been through it may not understand and may be dismissive of the real harm and ongoing suffering that victims endure, but it’s very real and excruciating to live with. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming and hopeless, but healing is possible. The most important thing I’ve learned about it is that healing the wounds of narcissistic abuse requires intervention. You can’t just wait for these wounds to heal. It takes work and it probably requires some degree of help.

There are a number of psychological treatments for Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome or PTSD. For clinical therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) are typically recommended. See “Get Help for Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome” for more about treatment options.

Previous: Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder  |  Read next: Healing Strategies After Narcissistic Abuse

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5 comments

  • misti casinger

    Hi Dan,

    The things I have noticed greatly in me are my heart feels like its is going to explode. I remember telling my ex that. This was when I didnt understand narcissism. I would ask him “is this normal for my heart to do this?” “I feel like I might have a heart attack one day”
    He is a cerebral narcissist. It’s only been a few weeks no contact. I have thought about suicide a lot because of how much anxiety I have. But I had anxiety before I met him. I made an appt with my psychiatrist to be seen about cptsd. I was diagnosed years ago with bipolar disorder. However a year ago i doubted that to be my diagnoses. I just think i am highly sensitive. My concerns are that they will not say it is cptsd since I have a long history with a mental disorder. Do you know anything about how they diagnose or distinguish between the two? They wanted to see if it was cptsd or bipolar or both. And I’m worried that they wont say anything about cptsd and I’ll feel like I’m not believed. 🙁 my heart is racing again…ugh

    • Dan

      I think there’s a fair amount of ground between C-PTSD and bipolar disorder They aren’t really in the same sphere, though there can be overlap and similarities between any number of psychological disorders. I don’t know you and I’m not in the diagnosing business. I’d leave that to the professionals (as well as examining your own symptoms and discovering what works for you). If you want to dive deep on your own, check out the DSM. https://amzn.to/2RLfPNd

      I sympathize with what you’re experiencing. I know anxiety and panic attacks all too well. I’d suggest you keep working with your mental health professionals. If you don’t feel well-served, find a new therapist and/or psychiatrist. Ideally, find someone with experience in narcissistic abuse. Here’s a handy tool for that: https://danmc888.wixsite.com/narcabuseresources/home/find-a-therapist-for-narcissistic-abuse

  • I was in a 12 year relationship with a narcissist. And during that time I gained weight and aged about 2 years for every year. I went from being slim and looking younger than my age to looking pale, sickly, and overweight.

    It’s been 4 years since I’ve split from her. I’ve lost most of the weight, have colour in my skin, and look the age I should be.

    When I left her, I immediately felt a weight being lifted from my shoulders. Literally as I was walking to my car. Within weeks, everyone I bumped into were commenting on how well I was looking.

    It’s amazing how much their behaviours affect your mental AND physical health. Luckily it can be turned round!

    • Dan

      I had a similar experience. My appearance changed dramatically. Everyone was commenting on how healthy I looked. I hadn’t realized how sickly I’d become. Looking back at pictures from the narcissistic relationship, I look 20 years older!

      A big surprise came when some of my hair, which had gone completely white began growing in black, again and I returned to a salt and pepper look. I thought once hair turned white, there was no going back, but apparently, when under enough stress, the skin actually produces peroxide that bleaches the hair. Remove the stress, the peroxide stops!

      Thanks for sharing and I’m glad you’re doing better!

  • Erin

    I am still in recovery from a four year relationship. Jesse Lefever incited me to kill myself. “Just kill yourself. No one cares about you and your stupid problems. DIE, Just DIE” he wrote me when I was struggling. Thank God 🙏 and my inner strength, I did not end my precious Life. This is the depth of despair these damaged souls are capable of brining you to.
    I am NC now and doing my best to repair the insidious and hateful damage this monster levied upon me.
    Thank you for your guidance as I do my best to recover from this diabolical emotional abuse.

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