Causes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of Abandonment Part Two
There is a difference between Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The difference is that the latter involves post traumatic symptoms that are enduring. Some people are more prone to the disorder than others.
Why do some people who go through a traumatic abandonment experience go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder of abandonment and others do not?
Does it come from childhood?
The answer is, ‘It depends…’ In fact, a number of people who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder of abandonment are unable to identify significant abandonment traumas in their childhood. In fact, they may come from relatively intact families with no known history of abuse. On the other hand, there are those who endured traumatic childhood losses and yet appear relatively trauma-free as adults – able to weather rejection and loss without signs of post traumatic stress. The reason for the apparent discrepancy involves various predisposing psychobiological and environmental variables that contribute to whether someone’s earlier emotional traumas might lead to the development of a true clinical picture of post traumatic stress disorder. Many of these variables remain difficult to determine and may involve genetic coding and other neurochemical and social processes not yet understood. But some factors have been identified:
Jerome Kagan has suggested that some people are born with a tendency to produce higher concentrations of norepinephrine, a brain chemical involved in arousal of your body’s self-defense response. This would mean their threshold for becoming aroused is lowered, and they are more likely to become anxious when they encounter stresses in life that are reminiscent of childhood fears and experiences, hence more prone to becoming post traumatic.
Another variable involves what Mary Ainsworth calls ‘secure versus insecure attachments’. She suggests that insecure attachments in childhood predispose individuals to difficulties in forming secure attachments in adulthood and to having heightened responses to rejection and loss.
A third variable points to the great variation that exists at the bio-neurological level governing the regulation of our stress hormones. Joseph LeDoux explains that depending on the severity of our stress response to stressors (i.e. a romantic breakup), we produce certain stress hormones (i.e. CRF, ACTH, and cortisol) that at higher levels 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 warnings for future such events). At the same time, these higher levels of secretions can impede the storage of the facts surrounding that event in the hippocampus – another limbic structure that records, not the emotions, but the contextual facts of an event. The result is that some people readily pick up emotional baggage (amygdalal) without being able to remember the context of how or where they acquired it (hippocampal), which accounts for the memory gaps of childhood traumas experienced by many abandonment survivors, and the disembodied feelings of dread and sadness and free-floating anxiety which becomes fodder for future post traumatic reactions.
During the initial stage of abandonment which I call shattering, my clients almost universally respond to the word trauma and use it frequently, whether or not they consider themselves to be currently experiencing post traumatic symptoms. In fact, feeling abandoned by one’s primary love object is in and of itself a trauma, not post trauma. It is a legitimate initial trauma.
When faced with an abandonment crisis, whether it is the result of a recent breakup or an accumulation of abandonment wounds stemming from repetitive past losses and heartbreaks, or whether it stems from loss of a job, loss of a friend, or loss of one’s home or health, people describe feeling the rug pulled out from beneath them and shattering their dreams as traumatic.
In the throes of abandonment trauma, we experience many of the same symptoms as victims of other types of trauma such as rape or physical attack. A difference is that abandonment is not always professionally recognized as a legitimate form of trauma, yet the shock, numbing, disorientation, outbursts of anger, sleep and appetite disturbance, agitation, increased risk-taking, etc. are all symptoms of trauma. Another difference is that abandonment is not a single event like a train crash, but a sustained type of trauma whose stress builds momentum as we grapple with the ongoing rigors of the abandonment grief process.
What goes into making abandonment a traumatizing event?
The emotional volcano of abandonment unleashes a torrent of primal emotions that overwhelm us. Molten lava spews from the rock bottom of our emotional core ripping up through our freshly opened abandonment wound. No wonder the event is traumatizing! Technically speaking, being rejected by one’s love object triggers primal abandonment fear – the fear of being left by one’s source of vital sustenance. Abandonment, our first fear, is in response to being expelled from our mother’s womb. This sensation is stored in the amygdala – the site of emotional memory responsible for conditioning the brain’s fight/freeze/flight response. The emotional memory is intact enough at or before birth to lay down traces of the feelings and sensations of birth trauma as well as some prenatal antecedents. These primitive feelings can be reawakened by later events, especially those reminiscent of unwanted or abrupt separations from our attachment-objects. These object relationships have provided homeostatic comfort and a tear in the attachment tissues creates trauma.
In adult abandonment, when these primitive sensations are triggered and become activated, they can lead to terror and panic. As the old infantile urgencies emerge into the current crisis, it precipitates a symbiotic regression in which we feel unable to survive without our loved one. We become suffused with the intense stress of helplessness, especially as we try to compel our loved one to return but remain unsuccessful in doing so. This failure to make someone love us or care for our needs, can cause us to judge ourselves as having 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.” Balint suggests that experiencing this ‘limited capacity’ is sufficiently traumatic to produce a fault line in the psyche which renders us more vulnerable to break down emotionally when faced with feelings of insecurity or conflicts within our relationships.
Another trauma-inducing factor is the stress of losing our background object. A background object is someone on whom we have come to rely for myriad needs that we take for granted, such as the need to belong. We don’t realize how important our background object is to our sense of security until the object is gone. Unbeknownst to us, the relationship served as a mutual regulatory system, not only emotionally, but physically. As members of a couple, we became external regulators for one another. Multiple psychobiological systems helped to maintain each other’s equilibrium. We were attuned on many levels: our pupils dilated in synchrony, we echoed one another’s speech patterns, movements, and even cardiac and EEG rhythms. As a couple, we 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 we, but our partner who chose withdraw from the bond, and the sense of rejection leaves us to suffer intense emotional responses that are easy to misinterpret as evidence of being weak and lacking attachment-worthiness.
Signs of Abandonment’s Current Traumatic Stress
When individuals are in the shattering phase of abandonment trauma, it is within normal range for them to have the following responses: shock and disorientation, depersonalization, de-realization, emotional collapse and despair, collapse of self confidence, panic, symbiotic regression, disordered sleep, separation anxiety especially upon awakening, dysregulation/disorganization, reality distortion, self neglectful behaviors, increased use of substances, spurts of explosive rage, withdrawal, fatigue, agitation, and suicidal ideations.
As the trauma cycle progresses, individuals go on to feel depressed, agitated, and emotionally labile. They experience intense yearning for the lost object, diminished self esteem, pervasive separation anxiety, obsessive thoughts about the circumstances of the breakup and the possibilities for reuniting, feelings of neediness, desperation, and overreliance on others alternating with periods of self isolation. Many of these symptoms abate toward the tail end of abandonment’s grief cycle, providing people are able to successfully reinvest their emotional energy into new relationships, activities, and interests.
We can see most of the symptoms of traumatic stress in children who go through upheaval, disconnection, and loss in their families. Unlike adults, children do not have the tools with which to temper the impact of separation trauma. Their hurts, heartaches, and disappointments can leave a powerful imprint on their developing brains and affect their emotional responses throughout life.
As we have seen, not all children who experience traumatic losses develop post traumatic stress disorder of abandonment. Likewise with adults. Depending on the circumstances of the breakup, our personal history of loss and disconnection, neurophysical constitution, and availability of social supports, some of us become post traumatic from a current abandonment experience, while others do not. Regardless, a program of abandonment recovery techniques, therapies, and self help tools (described in Part Three) have advanced to mitigate the impact of past or present abandonment traumas, restore our emotional wellbeing, and promote positive change.
Please see the other articles that address people across the abandonment spectrum – those with and without post trauma, and learn about The Five Phases of Abandonment and Recovery – a program of techniques, exercises, and tools specific healing the primal wound of abandonment at each stage of the cycle.
People Across the Abandonment Spectrum: Healing the Primal Wound of Abandonment – coming soon
Childhood Abandonment, an Overview – coming soon
© Susan Anderson Nov 19 2013
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