Anxiety is a normal human response to threat. If we didn’t feel fear when we are in danger, we wouldn’t have lasted very long as a species.
However, some of us are significantly more anxious than others. Anxiety that has a significant, negative impact on your quality of life isn’t adaptive.
It can cause serious psychological distress and make working, studying, or taking care of a family difficult.
So, why are some of us seemingly predisposed towards anxiety?
Psychologists believe that the answer lies, at least in part, in childhood experiences. Researchers have found that adults abused as children are more likely to report symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses.
If you suffered emotional or psychological abuse in your early years, you are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder as an adult.
What is psychological abuse?
The term “psychological abuse” refers to aggressive, abusive treatment that causes mental distress.
An abuser might call their victim names, yell at them, isolate them from their friends and family, mock them, threaten them, or ignore them for prolonged periods of time.
Research suggests that psychological and physical abuse can be equally harmful. Both increase the victim’s risk of anxiety and depression.
What is narcissistic abuse?
Narcissistic abuse refers to abuse at the hands of an person with narcissistic traits. Examples include gaslighting, intimidation, and emotional blackmail.
Narcissistic abuse can involve physical violence, but it is more common for a narcissist to use psychological aggression to maintain control over their victim.
For instance, by trying to impose their own version of reality and making the victim feel as though they are going crazy, a narcissist erodes the victim’s self-confidence and trust in themselves.
Emotional blackmail is another common form of narcissistic abuse.
A narcissist will often try to trigger fear, obligation, and guilt (sometimes known as “FOG”) in their victims so that they will comply with their requests.
Narcissists excel at honing in on other people’s weaknesses and exploiting them for their personal gain.
How experiencing narcissistic abuse shapes your brain
The human brain is highly malleable at every stage of life, especially in childhood. Our thoughts and experiences change our neural pathways, and make it more likely that we will behave in a particular way in the future.
This phenomenon is known as “neuroplasticity.”
For example, if you live in a frightening environment and repeatedly experience fear, your brain will be quicker to react to anxiety-provoking stimuli than someone who grew up in a calm home.
If you were raised by or with a narcissist, their abusive tendencies will almost certainly leave a mark.
Research shows that children subjected to abuse may have hypersensitive central nervous systems, and be more vulnerable to various mental illnesses including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and bipolar disorder.
However, narcissistic abuse can have devastating effects at any age.
Narcissists usually choose their targets with care. They select kind, empathic individuals who are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Their victims may be lured in by the narcissist’s superficial charm, or they may make it their mission to help the narcissist heal from past hurts. Unfortunately, it’s only a matter of time before narcissists turn against those who care for them.
What should you do if you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse?
Learning about narcissistic abuse and its effects can be enough to help you move on from the past. However, you may want to think about getting some professional help if past abuse still affects your day to day life.
For example, if you get frequent flashbacks, have problems trusting others, or find yourself anxious for no discernible reason, it makes sense to consult a doctor or psychotherapist for treatment.
Narcissistic abuse can leave you reluctant to form relationships for fear of being hurt. It can rob you of the ability to trust your own judgment.
If you are in an abusive situation, you might need help to end the relationship and move to a place of safety. A therapist with training in domestic violence can work with you to formulate a plan of action. Your local domestic violence shelter will also be able to help.
These services aren’t just for those who have suffered physical abuse. Mental health professionals and counsellors recognize that emotional abuse is equally serious.
Remember, abuse is never the victim’s fault. The fault lies entirely with the person who mistreated you, even if they try to convince you otherwise.
You deserve to recover from your anxiety and depression, and to lead a rich, full life.