Intrusive thoughts can take a couple of forms after a narcissistic relationship; they can be either positive or negative. In this article, I’m going to focus on the negative intrusive thoughts. These are the painful, distressing, involuntary memories associated with the trauma of the relationship.
I find intrusive thoughts particularly tough, because they do not require any triggers for them to occur. You could be watching a funny movie, reading a book, completing reports at work – and all of a sudden a painful memory takes over your thoughts and emotions.
Watch this 60" neuroscience clip
Trauma & Intrusive Thoughts
As discussed in the clip, traumatic experiences causes our brain to shift into an imbalanced state. Suddenly, components of the emotional system (e.g., limbic) are taking the lead. For a brain to function optimally, the regulation system (e.g., prefrontal cortex) should take lead.
A traumatized brain (e.g., PTSD) has an emotional system that is within a highly overactive state.
Unfortunately, we cannot ‘think‘ this system back into balance. We cannot say, “alright – enough of this, I need to get back to my normal self.”
Why? Because a brain changed by trauma now has a powerful emotional system reacting to the world around it. It also has a powerful generator of involuntary thoughts and feelings that suddenly seem to take over (i.e., intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, intense pain).
The brain is both reacting to outside AND inside (generating its own distress) stimuli.
A traumatized brain cannot simply bounce back to the way it was before the narcissistic relationship. Some survivors refer to this as “brain damage.”
My choice of words would be different; it is a traumatized brain that has dysruption of several key neuronetworks. These neuronetworks, when operating properly, allow our brain to function in a harmonious manner.
Trauma, abuse, and betrayal, throws those systems out of balance. And they can remain out of balance until addressed through a healing process.
Brain Regions Associated with Intrusive Thoughts
- Anterior Cingulate Cortex
- Anterior Cingulate Cortex
- Prefrontal Cortex (several areas)
The above areas are involved in the brain’s creation of intrusive thoughts. Some of those brain areas are on a low responsive level (e.g., prefrontal cortex). While some of those regions are on overdrive (e.g., amygdala).
You’ll notice the anterior cingulate appears under both the hypo and hyperresponsive columns. That is because different regions (sections) of the anterior cingulate responds in different ways.
But what’s also important to the neuroscience of intrusive thoughts are the 1) neuropathways or neurocircuitry involved in the communication of those brain regions and 2) the neurochemistry.
What Can we do About Traumatic Intrusive Thoughts?
- Consult with a psychiatrist (e.g., medication | Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation TMS)
- Consult with a psychologist (e.g., Cognitive behavioral Therapy, EMDR).
- Consult with a neuropsychologist (e.g., Brain training | Neurofeedback)
- Boost Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA)* GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter within the brain. It can inhibit and calm neurons.
- Executive function brain training games.
- Mindfulness Exercises
The Bottom Line with Neuroscience
We have a memory suppression system primarily run by a portion of the prefrontal cortex. It is our inhibitory control system. It functions automatically in the background to prevent unwanted, painful thoughts or feelings from taking over. This system ceases to function optimally for those who are suffering with daily intrusive thoughts or a trauma related condition.
Be Patient & Make a Plan to Tackle Your Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are one of the most difficult symptoms of trauma to manage because they are usually not ‘triggered memories‘, but rather can appear out of nowhere.
Traumatic intrusive thoughts reflect systems (neurocircuitry / chemistry) and regions of the brain that are responding in a dysregulated manner.
For this particular symptom of trauma (intrusive thoughts), it is my opinion that you have to develop a plan. It is possible for intrusive thoughts to remain for quite a while, even after you are feeling ‘healed’ from the narcissistic relationship.
That plan for you might include a mixture of the approaches I listed in the Professional / Self Care table.
Get professional help if you need it. This is one of those symptoms that tend to warrant assistance.
Be wise in choosing a mental health professional. Make sure they know what they are doing and understand that PTSD and trauma symptoms are a heterogeneous set of symptoms. You can be re-traumatized if the practitioner uses the wrong approach with you.
For those who are struggling with narcissistic abuse and would like to add neuroscience to their batch of self-care tools, join me in my course.
Rhonda Freeman, PhD