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Your brain literally changes when trauma bonding

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

As human beings, we are wired to seek connections with others, but not all relationships we form are healthy or nurturing. Trauma bonding is so common and yet so misunderstood or mislabelled. If you've experienced an intense emotional attachment with someone who caused you significant pain, it is likely that you were in a trauma bonded relationship. In this blog post, we will explore what trauma bonding is, how it develops, and most importantly, how it affects your brain. Understanding this phenomenon can help shed light on the journey towards healing and recovery.

What is Trauma Bonding, and How Did You Get Here? Trauma bonding is a complicated web of emotions that form between two people in a relationship that involves both love and abuse. You might feel emotionally bound to your partner who has been abusive towards you, and despite their abuse towards you, you continue seeking their love and validation. The relationship almost feels like a drug that you can't let go of, and attempting to end the abusive relationship / leaving your partner leaves you with withdrawal symptoms.

You see, trauma bonding starts with a rollercoaster of emotions. Your partner might alternate between being kind and affectionate and showing intense criticism and judgement, with the threat of abandoning you. These emotional highs and lows create confusion and instability, making you rely on them for emotional support and stability - which when speaking about it on a rational level may appear illogical, but my friend - humans are not logical.

Your Brain on Trauma Bonding Your brain undergoes significant changes when caught in a trauma bond. Chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin come into play, making the emotional attachment even stronger. Dopamine creates a sense of pleasure and reward when your abusive partner shows affection, reinforcing the bond you have with them. You endure the abusive behaviors in the hope that you will get the 'good hit' at some point. Oxytocin, the "bonding hormone," fosters feelings of closeness and trust, leading you to seek comfort and safety with your partner.

The prolonged exposure to trauma can alter the structure and function of your brain. The amygdala, which processes emotions like fear and anxiety, may become overactive, causing you to experience heightened emotional responses and constant hypervigilance. Your baseline stress response is heightened, and is hoping to be calmed by 'a sense of safety' (which can sometimes become skewed and mean you look for safety in the unsafe relationship).

Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making, problem solving, and impulse control, goes "offline" and is less and less active, making it harder for you to see clearly why you remain in this toxic relationship and thus break free.

Corticotrophin releasing hormones, along with adrenaline, oxytocin and dopamine are skewed in their production and physiological sensitivity. Ultimately this creates a neurological environment wherein oxytocin is associated with stress = meaning that "love cannot be love if it does not involve stress" or "for me to have love/closeness, it must involve stress". The brain, through behaviours, then seeks to maintain this 'homeostatic state' as this is the "new norm". This also means that your brain may counterintuitively seek to have relationships and maintain relationships that involves stress and traumas, because that is all it knows as 'normal relationships'.

Emotional Dependence and Cognitive Dissonance You might find yourself emotionally dependent on your partner, seeking validation and a sense of identity from them. Despite knowing the harm they cause, you fear being abandoned and can't imagine life without them.

I understand the internal struggle you face—the cognitive dissonance between recognizing the abusive nature of the relationship and the attachment you feel for your partner. It can be confusing, and you may feel guilty and ashamed for not being able to walk away easily.

A Journey of Healing and Freedom Breaking free from a trauma bond is a courageous and challenging journey. Please know that there is hope and support available to you. Recognizing the toxicity of the relationship is the first step towards reclaiming your life.

Seeking professional help can provide a safe space for you to process your emotions, address trauma, and rebuild your sense of self-worth (which often gets shattered in the process of a trauma bond).

Remember, recovery involves rewiring your brain and learning healthier coping mechanisms. I often use techniques that relate to neuro-rewiring, involving processing subconscious beliefs and memories while creating new templates. Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion can also be powerful tools in this process that you can practice on your own or with me! Setting boundaries and surrounding yourself with a supportive network of friends and family will help you regain a sense of belonging and safety.

Please be gentle with yourself throughout this journey, and remember that you deserve to experience love, safety, and freedom. As you begin to unravel the connection that held you captive, may you find the strength and resilience to embrace a life of empowerment and self-love.

If you found this useful, please do me 2 favours. Please have a look at my free e-book here which can help you improve your relationship and heal trauma bonding. Second, please share with other people who you feel would benefit from this - because the more people supported, the better our community can survive and heal.

As always, if you ever want to connect and gain support - I'm here.

All my love, Dr Sarah

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