Healing the brain after abuse

Healing the Brain from Stress after Abuse

The brain is the most complex organ in our body. It tries to keep us safe when we’re experiencing trauma, such as Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). But these safety mechanisms can sometimes result in long-term changes to the brain that can actually prolong stress. The good news is that the brain can rewire itself and heal through a variety of activities, some of which can be done for free and, better yet, at home. 

Fortunately, just as the brain can change in response to stress, it can also heal itself with the right tools

How the brain reacts to abuse

How does the body and brain respond to trauma in the first place? Two important brain structures play a role: the amygdala and the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for processing short-term memories and storing them as long-term ones. The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions like fear. It produces the “flight, fight, or freeze” response when we experience danger, such as partner abuse and violence. 

The hippocampus’ ability to process memories is hindered when the amygdala takes over. This is why some people who experience partner abuse may undergo “abuse amnesia,” or the forgetting of details surrounding the abuse event itself. Another change involves the stress hormone cortisol, which can increase whenever we recall past abuse and put us back into a state of stress. 

These responses to stress by the brain aren’t inherently bad – they are simply the tools our brain uses to keep us safe. And fortunately, just as the brain can change in response to stress, it can also heal itself with the right tools.

What can be done

First and foremost, those who have lived through partner abuse and violence deserve professional help. Guidance from a healthcare provider can be the best tool for recovery. This resource by Women and Gender Equality Canada provides a list of support services for Canadians affected by gender-based violence. The list can be filtered by area and support type, including health services.

Mental health professionals, such as psychologists, therapists or counselors may suggest cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) as a way to help to reframe thoughts. This can be an effective way to cope with the anxiety and depression that often follows partner violence. Best of all, it is a skill that can be practiced at home after receiving guidance from an expert.

Meditation can also be a brain health promoting activity. Studies show that some meditators experience the growth of gray-matter, the outermost region of the brain that helps to process information. And, like CBT, meditation can be practiced at home.

Amazingly, another way to promote brain health is by performing random acts of kindness. This can increase feelings of well-being and can be done informally in our day-to-day lives. What this looks like in practice will depend on the individual, but even small acts count.

Some researchers have even found that playing Tetris, the shape-stacking video game, can help those who experience flashbacks. By playing Tetris after a flashback – up to four days after in their particular study – participants reported fewer flashbacks in the following days and weeks. 

Healing happens in safe homes

These are just a few of the tools that can encourage mental wellness after partner abuse. In all cases, a safe space away from one’s abuser is the best environment to practice these activities which is why having a robust network of IPV services is so important. Shelter Movers provides survivors free moving and storage services, meaning our clients can more easily access the safety of a new home. Not only does this help protect a client’s physical and psychological safety, it also means they have a space for healing. 

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