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Emotional abandonment is a subjective emotional state in which people feel undesired, left behind, insecure, or discarded. People experiencing emotional abandonment may feel at loss, cut off from a crucial source of sustenance that has been withdrawn either suddenly or through a process of erosion. In a classic abandonment scenario, the severance of the emotional bond is unilateral, that is, it is the object of one’s attachment that has chosen to break the connection. Feeling rejected, a significant component of emotional abandonment, has a biological impact in that it activates the physical pain centers in the brain and can leave an emotional imprint in the brain’s warning system. Abandonment has been a staple of poetry and literature since ancient times. According to Roy Baumeister, unrequited love is a common experience, particularly in youth, but affects people throughout their life.
Separation anxiety, a substrate of emotional abandonment, is recognized as a primary source of human distress and dysfunction. When we experience a threat to or disconnection in a primary attachment, it triggers a fear response referred to as separation stress or separation anxiety. Separation stress has been the subject of extensive research in psychological and neurobiological fields, and has been shown to be a universal response to separation in the animal world of which human beings are a part. When laboratory rat pups are separated from their mothers for periods of time, researchers measure their distress vocalizations and stress hormones to determine varying conditions of the separation response. As the rats mature, their subsequent reactive behaviors and stress hormones are reexamined and are shown to bear a striking resemblance to the depression, anxiety, avoidance behaviors, and self defeated posturing displayed by human beings known to have suffered earlier separation traumas.
Owing to the neocortical component of human functioning, when human beings lose a primary relationship, they grasp its potential repercussions (i.e. they may feel uncertain about the future or fear being unable to climb out of an abyss), thus encumbering an additional layer of separation stress. To abandon is "to withdraw one's support or help from, especially in spite of duty, allegiance, or responsibility; desert: abandon a friend in trouble." When the loss is due to the object’s voluntary withdrawal, a common response is to feel unworthy of love. This indicates the tendency for people to blame the rejection on themselves. "Am I unworthy of love, destined to grow old and die all alone, bereft of human connection or caring?" Questioning one’s desirability as a mate and fearing eternal isolation are among the additional anxieties incurred in abandonment scenarios. The concurrence of self devaluation and primal fear distinguish abandonment grief from most other types of bereavement.
Abandonment grief process
Grief is defined as a "keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret. [To] come to grief is to suffer disappointment, misfortune, or other trouble; fail." Kubler Ross outlined the grief process of people facing their own deaths. Her framework, consisting of five phases: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, has been applied to grief over the death of a loved one.
According to Susan Anderson, what sets abandonment grief apart from other types of bereavement is its ability to leave residual damages in self-esteem. Feeling left behind, excluded, or deemed unworthy by a loved one precipitates a collapse of self-confidence. During the mid phase of the abandonment grief cycle, as people grapple with the personal implications of 'being left', they may turn their rage about the rejection toward themselves. This contributes to the intense depression and narcissistic wounding that accompanies rejection grief. The process of self-attack can range from mild self-doubt to scathing self recrimination and leave a lasting imprint on individuals’ self-worth, causing them to doubt their lovability, personality-efficacy, and attachment worthiness going forward.
Five phases of recovery
A framework describing abandonment recovery breaks it down into five phases: Shattering, Withdrawal, Internalizing, Rage and Lifting (SWIRL). The acronym is designed to depict the cyclonic nature of the grief. As with Kubler Ross’s bereavement framework, abandonment’s grief and recovery phases are overlapping and cyclical, representing one cyclonic process rather than distinct stages.
Elements of abandonment's grief cycle, such as 'feeling deserted' and a sense of personal diminishment, can be aroused by many types of loss, including when a decision to separate has been mutual rather than unilateral or when one’s mate has died. These elements can also be precipitated by being fired from a job, rejected by a friend, or losing one’s home, health, sense of purpose, or identity. For example, a 'stay at home mom' can feel the personal diminishment, separation anxiety, and depressed mood of abandonment grief when her children leave the nest.
Grief and depression
Losing a loved one can lead to an emotional crisis severe enough to resemble a full blown major depression. Freud made a distinction between this reactive type of depression and a true clinical picture of endogenous depression. A significant component of grieving is what John Bowlby called, ‘searching for the lost object’ – an innate mental process which manifests as expectant anxiety, mounting frustration as the object remains lost, frequent sifting through memories of the departed, and perhaps fleeting perceptions of spectral visitations by the lost object. When the loss involves 'being left' or 'unrequited love', in addition to the above, this mental searching is accompanied by obsessive thoughts about factors leading to the breakup, and possibilities for reuniting with the lost object.
When rejection is involved, another significant factor in abandonment depression is shame – the painful feeling of being inherently unacceptable, disposable, unworthy. Depending on the circumstances of the loss, shame can be accompanied by other abandonment feelings including feeling discarded, rejected, replaced, betrayed, helpless, impotent, self-blaming, and worthless.
As a trauma
The depression of abandonment grief creates a sustained type of stress that constitutes an emotional trauma which can be severe enough to leave an emotional imprint on individuals' psychobiological functioning, affecting future choices and responses to rejection, loss, or disconnection. A contributing factor to the trauma-producing event is that 'being left' triggers primal separation fear, also referred to as primal abandonment fear – the fear of being left with no one to take care of one’s vital needs. Our first anxiety is a response to separation from Mother. This sensation is stored in the amygdala – a structure set deep into the brain’s emotional memory system responsible for conditioning the fight/freeze/flight response to fear. Primal fear may have been initiated by birth trauma and even have some prenatal antecedents. The emotional memory system is fairly intact at or before birth and lays down traces of the sensations and feelings of the infant’s separation experiences. These primitive feelings are reawakened by later events, especially those reminiscent of unwanted or abrupt separations from a source of sustenance.
In adulthood, being left arouses primal fear along with other primitive sensations which contribute to feelings of terror and outright panic. Infantile needs and urgencies reemerge and can precipitate a symbiotic regression in which individuals feel, at least momentarily, unable to survive without the lost object. People may also experience the intense stress of helplessness. When they make repeated attempts to compel their loved one to return and are unsuccessful, they feel helpless and inadequate to the task. This helplessness causes people to feel possessed of what Michael Balint calls “a limited capacity to perform the work of conquest – the work necessary to transform an indifferent object into a participating partner.” According to Balint, feeling one’s ‘limited capacity’ is traumatic in that it produces a fault line in the psyche which renders the person vulnerable heightened emotional responses within primary relationships.
Another factor contributing to the traumatic conditions is the stress of losing one’s background object. A background object is someone on whom individuals have come to rely in ways they did not realize until the object is no longer present. For instance, the relationship served as a mutual regulatory system. Multiple psychobiological systems helped to maintain individuals’ equilibrium. As members of a couple, they became external regulators for one another. They were attuned on many levels: their pupils dilated in synchrony, they echoed one another’s speech patterns, movements, and even cardiac and EEG rhythms. As a couple, they functioned like a mutual bio-feedback system, stimulating and modulating each other’s bio rhythms, responding to one another’s pheromones, and addicting to the steady trickle of endogenous opiates induced by the relationship. When the relationship ends, the many processes it helped to regulate go into disarray. As the emotional and bio-physiological effects mount, the stressful process is heightened by the knowledge that it was not you, but your loved one who chose withdraw from the bond. This knowledge may cause people to interpret their intense emotional responses to the disconnection as evidence of their putative weakness and ‘limited capacity to perform the work of conquest’.
Post traumatic stress disorder
Some people who experience the traumatic stress of abandonment go on to develop post traumatic symptoms. Post traumatic symptoms associated with abandonment include a sequela of heightened emotional reactions (ranging from mild to severe) and habituated defense mechanisms (many of which have become maladaptive) to perceived threats or disruptions to one’s sense of self or to one’s connections.
There are various predisposing psycho-biological and environmental factors that go into determining whether one’s earlier emotional trauma might lead to the development of a true clinical picture of post-traumatic stress disorder. One factor has to do with variation in certain brain structures. According to Jerome Kagan, some people are born with a locus coeruleus that tends to produce higher concentrations of norepinephrine, a brain chemical involved in arousal of your body's self-defense response. This would lower their threshold for becoming aroused and make them more likely to become anxious when they encounter stresses in life that are reminiscent of childhood separations and fears, hence more prone to becoming posttraumatic.
Another factor is that insecure attachments in childhood have shown to predispose the individuals to difficulties in forming secure attachments in adulthood and to having heightened responses to rejection and loss. There is also variation in individuals’ neurochemical systems that govern the stress regulation. Depending on the severity of the stress response induced in an individual by an event (i.e. a romantic breakup), certain concentrations of stress hormones including CRF, ACTH, and cortisol work to intensify the imprinting of an emotional memory of the event, indelibly inscribing its fears and other sensations in the amygdala (to serve as a warning for future events), while the same stress hormones can act to impede the storage of the facts surrounding the event into the hippocampus – another limbic structure that records, not the emotions, but the contextual facts of an event. Individuals can pick up emotional baggage without corresponding memories of the actual events which caused it, thus setting up the conditions for the memory block component of post traumatic stress disorder.
Abandonment syndrome is not a diagnosis of a disorder, but a description of typical human responses to abandonment triggers. For instance, people going through the loss of a primary relationship experience some degree of emotional overlay of earlier losses which can intensify their current grief, whether or not they are considered to have post traumatic stress disorder. Almost universally, people exhibit some level of emotional response to abandonment triggers. While some are more sensitive to it than others, seemingly minor events can arouse abandonment feelings. Anderson suggests, “The raw human nerve of abandonment can jangle if in the course of the day we feel slighted, criticized, excluded, misunderstood, dismissed, overlooked, unappreciated, condescended to, taken for granted, ignored, or belittled. These responses are within the normal range. [They] can be remediated through abandonment recovery.”
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