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Abandonment Trauma and Grief – How Abandonment Issues Dramatically Affect Adult Functioning and Relationships

By: Richard Boyd Copyright © 2023 June 10, 2015 no comments

Abandonment Trauma and Grief – How Abandonment Issues Dramatically Affect Adult Functioning and Relationships

Everyone of us is abandoned all the time in some small way. As the Buddha once said “at first there is collection (coming together) and then there is dispersal (parting or separating)”. In the ebb and flow of life we are constantly coming together and then later parting ways with many people and objects and this is a suffering we all experience in life.

For many of us this normally does not create much anxiety or suffering of loss. We may have feelings about the breakdown and loss of an object such as a car, or the conflict and loss of a friend, but over time we grieve the loss and move on.

Interestingly it is sometimes the loss of emotional mementos and objects that are touchstones to loved ones, dead parents, ancestors(photo album), that can dramatically affect people and make it hard for them to accept the loss and move on. The horror of the recent bushfires in the hills of Perth are an illustration of this point.

When one reads of the tragedy in the newspapers we notice stories of survivors who can come to terms with the loss of buildings and homes but often they highlight the loss of personal mementos, photos, and inherited family relics as the most regretted part of the loss. No insurance company can replace such memories.

For most of us though the necessary cycle of life and death will start to touch us all with abandonment through death of a loved one at some stage of our life.

We each have differing levels of resiliency and coping mechanisms to overcome the grief and the loss. In many cases what we find is that the mechanism in the brain that deals with abandonment as a life or death issue, or a “fight or flight” scenario can switch on for some people and not others.

In some people it is the part of the brain that deals with attachment that influences and affects the emotional response to the perceived abandonment that survivors of dead or missing people tend to go through. In some cases a loved pet, a treasured antique, an environment of significance, can all affect the attachment part of the brain and amplify the loss or grief.

If we stay with the context of the loss of a loved close person, whether we lose them through death or we lose them without closure (missing person), we find that a prolonged period of unrelenting grief and possible abandonment trauma can result. The possibility exists in some people that they may have unresolved abandonment trauma from early life events.

Often this trauma is with their significant love and attachment figure (normally the mother), which recreates and re-traumatises when later life abandonment and loss results. It depends on how resilient is the child and how the parent reassured the child and created repair of safety with the child that often dictates whether unresolved abandonment trauma results.

In developmental psychology and neuroscience we now understand that the earliest challenge or developmental tasks that we all face in life is that of surviving birth and  creating a bonding to the mother that makes the child feel safe and welcome in the world.  If the baby has a trouble free journey in-utero and then birth and post natal then they have the basic conditions to feel safe in their environment.

From a place of having their senses available to them in an uncompromised way the baby next needs to bond with their love or attachment figure which we shall assume is their mother from here on end. The degree of success of the attachment process between mother and child will act to create neural circuits and growth and stimulation in the key parts of the brain that regulate arousal and emotions, and which promote social bonding in later adult relationships.

Where the attachment process falters we have from the side of the infant the first possible incidents of attachment trauma which is a form of developmental trauma. If re-attachment occurs then repair happens and the baby does not suffer significantly but if either mother and child cannot attach to each other, and if the mirroring of the mothers facial features, gestures, soft prosody of the voice, and loving looks in their eyes is not possible then the baby may start to feel unsafe and unwanted.

Normally for whatever reason if there is interrupted attachment then the baby will feel abandoned and this is a very significant event in their world. The adult concept of abandonment is mild compared to what the primitive brain of the infant experiences with abandonment.

Infants are impulse driven and their brain development in early life centres around survival needs. They respond from the primitive “fight or flight” part of their brain when attachment fails and no repair or re-attachment happens in a timely fashion.

You can spot this in babies with the way they cry. A pre-verbal baby can only use the pitch or prosody of their voice to communicate distress. When a baby cries it in the first instance is just a signal or communication for some form of attention or need.

The cries increases their arousal state but if someone comes and attends to them they settle again and their arousal drops back into what we call their “window of tolerance” or comfort zone. This is activated and governed by the hyper-aroused sympathetic state of Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

If no-one comes then notice as the pitch of their voice increases and anger kicks in as a fight reflex from the “fight or flight” part of the brain. The demand can be heard amplified in that increasing cry.

If that does not work then notice how distress or trauma kicks in as the babies arousal state breaches their window of tolerance or comfort zone. To the brain of the baby this is abandonment and this means potential death for a totally vulnerable baby so it now becomes a life or death event to them.

Life or death events to babies create a form of developmental trauma. They are wired this way as in nature the separation of the mother from the baby normally spells death through lack of safety, loss of nourishing, or the attack by a predator while the mother is absent and not defending the baby.

Once the distress is sustained the brain actually is in trauma and decides the baby is going to die and so prepares the baby for death through the brain pathway we all have as humans for death. This death process is a taking over of the Sympathetic state of the ANS by the Parasympathetic state of the same ANS.

The baby switches mode and shuts down preparing for death. The observed process is that the baby cries itself to sleep and the sleeping is the switching to the parasympathetic state and the sleeping is the activation of the hypo-aroused or numbing out shutdown process.

Tragically in our society we find parents abusing this natural process that is a trauma sequence as a means to get their child to sleep. We find “Controlled Crying” and “Toddler Taming” behavioural techniques now in common use that are akin to controlled traumatisation of their own baby!!

I predict in future years as neuroscience becomes more mainstream and understood that the research of Bessel Van Der Kolk, Pat Ogden and others will illustrate how misguided and damaging these current fad baby rearing techniques are. They will be our generation of “Dr Spock” discredited child rearing techniques.

It is sad that parents do not understand or are taught the potential implications of raising babies this way and the current research is seemingly ignored in its application to child rearing techniques. Developmental trauma at this early stage creates neural wiring in the early babies brain which will in later adult life become the basis for how the adults brain typically reacts to a perceived “fight or flight” event.

We unknowingly are shaping our babies towards the environmental response pathway that we know as anxiety followed by depression. How this works is that a stress event will in adults arouse our ANS.

We start to follow that pathway which is hyper-arousal into what for the baby was an elevated cry which translates into adulthood as anxiety symptoms associated with the hyper-aroused state. However we will then as adults have a wired in tendency to after a period of anxiety to collapse into a hypo-aroused form of low energy, emotional numbing and depressive symptoms.

This is because we follow the brain pathway grooved out in babyhood where we followed that infantile pattern of response through our crying mechanism. Adults are more likely to also have early life unresolved abandonment trauma from this same set of early life dynamics.

The brain will have an unconscious association and remembrance of abandonment trauma and so such adults will tend to react more severely to re-creations in adulthood of what they perceive to be abandonment. When this developmental trauma exists in adults then even though they are grown up and logical they may find they have an over-reaction to perceived abandonment.

This may look hysterical, “over the top”, frantic, and yes it may be for their personal reality a matter of life or death. This is because that part of the brain that processes life or death threats is involved directly as adults in attempting to inform and resolve the scenario placed before it to deal with as abandonment.

Adults caught with this sort of neural wiring then struggle to cope with abandonment events in life. They often developed as children certain coping strategies which compensated for the abandonment or which defended against the painful feelings of overwhelm and pain at being abandoned. These strategies are seen in the body and in the personality of the person.

What is one common outcome with this type of person is that they are unconsciously drawn towards partners and scenarios where they will be abandoned and rewounded again and again. This is often characterised by the various schools of bodymind psychology as the “Oral” character (Reich/Lowen/Pierrakos), or Dependent Endearing (Ogden).

Another common outcome with this type of person is that they may instead be withdrawn and disengaged or autonomous so they cannot be lured in and then abandoned again. They defend by not being emotionally available and stay aloof from others and relationships beyond superficiality.

This is often characterised by the various schools of bodymind psychology as the “Stubborn Oral” character (Reich/Lowen/Pierrakos), or Self Reliant (Ogden). Both are in some ways extremes in the sense their strategies to cope with abandonment tend to create their own form of suffering and often a form of abandonment or aloneness which resembles an abandonment state of outcome.

As I have previously mentioned we all will face abandonment episodes in our lives. The key ones are those that involved loved ones such as partners and parents and siblings. Our social attachment part of the brain engages in all the relationships in life we have.

It is also true that sometimes when we have a deep and enduring relationship with another key person, then the loss will be felt deeply through that part of us that feels safe, secure, loved and part of a greater social bond with that other person.

It is not uncommon for adults and children who lose someone close to them who was the subject of a deep attachment bond to mourn that loss as an open wound for the rest of their life. Some sufferers feel like a huge psychic hole has been ripped in their own soul, or they feel inconsolable regardless of the amount of grief they process.

The grieving process in this context is still not widely understood and so it is hard to guide persons into a form of completion with such deep abiding grief. It may be that the attachment is too deep to reconcile and the grieving is an expression of this deep truth that the critical attachment processes in our brain find unable to let go and move on from.

Some people will go on in life never to have another significant relationship or form deep attachments with others again. They will become living memorials to the one they lost. It is a mysterious and significant dominating factor in the lives of those so affected.

What is also true is where the loss of a loved one has no ending or resolution of the story. This is what happens for survivors of missing persons who often find they are ruminating constantly in their thoughts about what must have happened to the missing person.

This type of grief is not unlike anxiety in that both are states of unresolved fear or arousal which the brain is unable to resolve. Recurrent thoughts and obsession with the missing person become the norm as our brain has in its function a need to find answers, resolve the unresolved, and to come to completion with problems, for it to settle down and find itself safe and calm.

The missing person outcome is a special type of abandonment as the survivors often torture themselves with self blame, become distorted with thoughts of personal cause, as when we were children we magically also attributed all “out there” dynamics as stemming from our egocentric natures.

Children always tend to think that what happens to others is somehow their fault as this is what children naturally do in their ego-centric thinking. This egocentric form of thinking and the personalisation of blame occurs for those abandoned by significant others can activate in adulthood for some.

It is believed that this old early life part of the brain may again be distorting our thinking by processing the loss through the distorted lens of self involvement.  This form of self hatred, self blame and self loathing can be crippling for those experiencing it.

Often the “higher brain” centres need to be engaged to challenge this form of distorted thinking that originates from the older parts of the brain. CBT can be good in this situation but generally the more body centric therapies which engage the emotional life of the person are also well able to shift the stuck thinking of the older brain centres.

This is because the body centric therapies engage via the body the older parts of the brain in a “bottom up” fashion. This is often more effective than the common mainstream psychology approach which operates in a more top down cognitive level approach of the more recent adult parts of the brain.

At the Energetics Institute, we have been able to “rewire” many clients of self blame and self directed anger and sabotage from this approach.  If one considers the grieving process then one finds that mainstream psychology typically has models of grieving that typically involves from 5 to 7 stages.

The stages in these models are normally some combination of:

  • Denial
  • Shock/Numb
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Grief
  • Acceptance
  • Completion

In some ways the stages are positioned as a linear model where one tends to go through major stages on the way to completion. This is certainly true as a general statement in terms of how us humans process most emotional traumas and loss in our lives.

However at a more refined or detailed level the grief process is more chaotic and non-linear. Anyone who is dealing with loss will normally find that any one of the stages which each represent either feelings, emotions or cognitive thinking activations, can activate at any time and take over one’s normal adult self.

This aspect of grief troubles all who experience it as it interrupts life, drags the loss right back in front of your present moment experience, contaminates your happiness, and then often activates old unresolved emotional incidents, memories and anxieties. From a neuroscience perspective each time we activate a neural pathway or action we reinforce it further so we hopefully learn to disengage rather than engage with that which we would want to lessen in our mental life.

If one considers the various stages or states of the grieving process we find a rough correlation to the work of Jaap Panksepp who has been instrumental in mapping out the natural hard wired impulsive 7 attachment based systems that form part of being as humans.

Panksepp has shown that deep in the old part of our brain (sub-cortical) we all possess survival based neural pathways which assist us to survive and thrive. The 7 Panksepp systems include Panic/grief as one state. The full 7 systems are:

  1. Care
  2. Play
  3. Lust
  4. Rage
  5. Seeking
  6. Panic/Grief
  7. Fear

These manifest in us as primary emotions wired into the brain stem which is part of the oldest area of the brain. This area of the brain also has bi-directional with the body and activates and is activated by body posture, gestures and incoming sensory information.  In therapy we use the body as a doorway to access the higher parts of the brain through these older lower parts of the brain mechanism.

In approaching therapy from both a “top down” talk therapy approach in the first part of a session we access the front neo-cortex or the most recent adult conscious parts of the brain function. When we move into the body inclusive, and emotionally inclusive therapy processes we engage from the bottom up, and by doing so we access the old unconscious memories, beliefs, impulses and values that a person holds.

What we now know is that meaning creates beliefs and beliefs create meaning, with this being a looping process that requires intervention by the therapist in one of those avenues to effect change in that system of reinforced reality. Human beings engage in meaning making from the moment we are conceived and this is not just a mental process, it is very much wired into our bodies in terms of our body shape, posture, musculature, defences, gestures, and other somatic characteristics.

Intervening through the body to create new forms of bio-feedback back into the lower and older parts of the brain triggers transformative effects on the stasis or current reality of our bodymind. We can then deepen the experience of the client to amplify what was the original belief that created the original basis of meaning about themselves and the world, and then set about changing that when its distorted.

This is the basis of a lot of what we do at the Energetics Institute. The transformative effects of this approach are substantial and “hold” or persist when the client adopts the new reality at the behavioural level. Behavioural only level attempts at healing and change are usually not effective at changing meaning, beliefs, values or unconscious behaviours, and so normally do not persist beyond continuous conscious free will application of whatever techniques are taught to the client.

Grief is a natural part of our human condition as Panksepp has shown. It interferes with the ability to fully and freely engage with some of the other 7 attachment based systems of a positive bias. It can keep us stuck in the negative states of being and reactivate old traumas. Dealing with some of the underlying traumas, unresolved issues, defended against emotions, and secondary self imposed feelings such as shame, is the key to working through grieving till it finds its natural completion.

The Energetics Institute has designed anxiety and depression resolution programmes in both its personal Psychotherapy as well as its organisational Conscious Business Australia faculties. These have been adapted from the various body-mind traditions of Somatic Therapy, Yoga, Mindfulness, Meditation, CBT, Human Biology, Neuroscience, and the Bioenergetic understanding of the body and mind.

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