Narcissistic Abuse and Childhood Stress Trauma
Childhood stress trauma affects an individual’s health across their lifetime. In high doses, stress trauma releases stress hormones (i.e. the three major stress hormones are adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine). These stress hormones can affect the child’s brain development, their immune system, hormonal system, physical development, and even how the persons DNA is read and transcribed.
Furthermore, Prenatal Stress Trauma in the mother can affect the unborn child’s development while in the womb. For a pregnant woman and her fetus, high stress levels pose special risks. For example, I personally knew a pregnant woman who was living with a very violent psychopathic partner. His violence continued throughout her pregnancies.
Even during her pregnancy, he had no mercy for either her or her unborn child. When her baby boy was delivered, he was born with hypospadias, which is a congenital malformation of the baby’s genital organs. This condition, which results from an incomplete fusion of the urethral folds between the eighth and 14th weeks of gestation, can be caused by the stress hormones being released in the mother as a response to the stress levels she is under.
Another woman, also living with a psychopathic partner, experienced at least two early miscarriages before giving birth to a son. When this child was born, he suffered some form of intellectual disability. Research shows that elevated cortisol in a pregnant woman (due to stress) is associated with early miscarriages. The intellectual disability of her baby may have been due to a beating she suffered from her partner when she was eight months pregnant (when her partner kicked her in the stomach).
Also, many children today are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). When these children’s history is gathered, many are known to have been exposed to adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s), yet nobody is asking the question, “what has happened to you?”
In our therapy room, when working with co-narcissistic victims, we should be asking these clients to tell their stories about their childhood adverse experiences (i.e. physical, emotional, psychological, sexual abuse, neglect, parental mental illness, substance abuse, incarceration, domestic violence etc.). Some experiences are so stressful that they can alter brain development as well as the person’s immune system.
The more ACE’s someone has experienced, the greater their risk for a poor outcome. Naturally, this increases their risk of lifelong health and social problems in adulthood. For example, one study carried out in 1990 on 17,000 people by Dr. Kaiser Permanente, of the Centre of Disease Control, San Diego showed how common ACEs are. For example, 21% of those interviewed had experienced sexual abuse as children, 19% grew up with someone suffering from mental illness, 28% had been physically abused.
The more ACEs, the greater the risk of poor outcomes. Someone with an ACE’s score of four had twice the risk of heart diseases and cancer. Someone with an ACE score of five had an eight times greater chance of being an alcoholic, and those with an ACE score of six on average died 20 years younger.
Validating the clients narcissistic abuse: –
Regarding the co-narcissist (victim) client, the telling of their story and the building of the narrative is an important part of the healing process. It is through the story that the therapist can validate what has really happened to them. Confirm that, having been in a relationship with someone with a narcissistic personality disorder that they were indeed a victim of narcissistic abuse.
They can now process their story and shed their victim identity by externalising their experience, and this is so powerful that it can actually change the client’s brain. We now know that there is a correlation between ACE scores and health-related outcomes. According to Doctor Nadine Burke Harris, an American paediatrician who has linked adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress with harmful effects to health later in life. In her TED Talks, “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime”, she says: –
Early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children. It affects areas like the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward centre of the brain that is implicated in substance dependence. It inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which is necessary for impulse control and executive function, a critical area for learning. And on MRI scans, we see measurable differences in the amygdala, the brain’s fear response centre.
So, there are real neurological reasons why folks exposed to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviour, and that’s important to know… The reason for this has to do with the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, the brain’s and body’s stress response system that governs our fight-or-flight response.
How does it work? Well, imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, “Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!” And so, your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. (Laughter)
But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging. Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation because their brains and bodies are just developing.
Frequently, illness in childhood (or later in adulthood) is a direct result of the victim’s continuous fluctuating emotional state that is inflicted by a narcissist in the toxic environment. The constant stress of living under such harsh conditions with a fledgling psychopath played havoc with my physical body, fortunately, my thought processes and my focus for keeping one step ahead of the posse kept my mind strong and sharp.
Unfortunately, unlike an adult, a child has no means of escape from the ongoing pathological abuse until they are independent enough to leave the family home. Sometimes illness (or dis-ease) may show itself in the following symptoms of PTSD at various levels of the self: On an Emotional Level for example, the victim may present with fear, low self-esteem, self-mutilation (self-harming), bulimia and anorexia (weight loss or gain), anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, suicidal thoughts, chronic pain, guilt, shame, and anger. Although, often I have found that anger is absent, especially where the victim feared retribution for expressing their anger, such as happened to me.
On a Biological Level, the client may present with somatisations. Somatisations are a variety of physical symptoms that the victim may experience throughout their life. For example, these somatic disturbances cause headaches, ulcers, asthma, eczema, gastrointestinal disturbances, menstrual problems, etc.
Usually, the first place the victim goes is to their doctor in the hope of getting relief from their symptoms. Very often doctors are unable to give a true diagnosis of what is really happening, as they cannot classify the symptoms as they don’t have any identifiable physical origins. When there is no detectable organic pathology evident, the person is often diagnosed as having ‘psychosomatic illnesses’ (a physical disease that is thought to be caused or made worse, by mental or emotional stress factors).
On a Behavioural Level, there may be suicidal ideation, and in some instances, there could be suicidal behaviour or even personality disorders. On an Interpersonal Level, there may be sexual and relationship problems where the victim finds it hard to trust, or they may fear getting close to someone ever again. Some of these symptoms the victims may be displaying could be mistaken for a “mental disorder”, however, I see them as healthy survival strategies in response to their unhealthy environment, where subordination was crucial.
Living under such tyranny, where the individual is dominated through threats of punishment and violence, their chronic abuse and trauma scripts send their cortisol levels soaring. Cortisol plays havoc on the immune system, leaving the victim vulnerable to disease, physical ailments, and somatisations.
Her books, “The Three Faces of Evil: Unmasking the Full Spectrum of Narcissistic Abuse” and “When Shame Begets Shame: How Narcissists hurt and shame their victims” set out to to help those who have been affected by a narcissist and also to address the shortfalls in a therapist’s education, so that they become better equipped to work with survivors of narcissistic abuse.Much of her knowledge has come from her post-grad studies in Criminology and Forensic Psychology, and it is through these disciplines that she has gained her understanding of “The Dark Triad”, (Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy).
These three faces of evil are vital information for understanding the full spectrum of narcissistic abuse and the dire effects on the victims.It is her vision that narcissistic abuse becomes part of the curriculum of all Mental Health clinicians.