Biological Impact of Abandonment


All our physical reactions are the result of our sympathetic nervous system’s response to a very real injury. The body prepares you to fight, flee or freeze in order to protect you from what it perceives as imminent danger. A rush of stress hormones flows through your body to keep your self defence system aroused, to sustain your alertness, to keep you on edge and in a state of readiness. Adrenaline is released, heightening your brain’s level of reactivity, supercharging your sensory apparatus to defend against threat. It is no wonder that people refer to abandonment as a knife wound to the heart. Physiologically, your body reacts as if your heart has been truly stabbed.

Somatic Sensations

The emotional brain perceives the loss of a partner as a threat to survival and the event triggers significant biological impact and changes. As you progress through the rigours of your emotional crisis, many of the effects are sustained. Your heart rate and blood pressure are increased sending a greater flow of blood and nutrients to the areas of your body needed for self-defence. Your digestion is turned off, blood flow is diverted from your stomach to major muscle groups so that you will be physically prepared to run away or fight off your attacker as the need arises. During the most stressful moments, structures deep within your brain signal a tightening in your vocal chords, creating the high pitched voice of intense anxiety.

Biological impact causes neural circuits to signal at certain critical times by putting a fearful or angry expression on your face, to freeze movements in some of your muscles, or to cause your breathing to become shallow so that you will be better able to detect important sound s above the sound of your breathing. Other processes cause your respiration rate to increase oxygen supply to your brain so that your mind can sustain its state of hypervigilance and keep your attention riveted upon the emergency.

Then bladder and colon prepare to void their contents to rid the body of dead weight so a person may move more quickly. The pupils dilate to let in more light and vision is more acute. The cochlear cells in the ears require less stimulation; you can hear a twig snap off a branch hundreds of feet away. The brain is unusually alert, even at night as biochemical systems work to sustain what your body experiences a s a life saving vigil.

The neocortex continues the biological impact by scanning your memory banks, retrieving similar experiences from the past that it systematically sorts, compares and analyses to apply to your body’s intensive problem solving campaign. The immune system responds by lowering its production of antibodies, delaying swelling and pain to areas of the body which may become injured (in battle) , so that attention may remain focused on the threat at hand.

Subjectively, you may experience many of these symptoms in the form of constant preoccupation with your loss, hypervigilance, a tendency to startle easily, gastrointestinal discomforts, and reminders of past hurts and insecurities. You have trouble sleeping, relaxing and eating. Alternatively you may be unable to stop eating because your body is trying to shore up energy reserves for a sustained crisis.

The amygdala plays a central role in the way you emotionally respond. It functions as the body’s central alarm system, scanning for any possible threat, be it emotional or physical, but especially for anything that recalls a previous fear laden experience. If the amygdala detects a problem, it declares a state of emotional emergency.

Imprinted in the amygdale and causing a biological impact are memories of how you have responded to fear and other perceived threats since infancy. These emotional memories help you detect dangers that you have learned about from previous experiences, both as a species (don’t go near the cliff) and individually (don’t go near Uncle Charlie). It is believed to contain traces of your prenatal and birth experience as well.

The amygdala continues to gather emotional memories as you grow. Once it has been conditioned to an emotional response (i.e. – feeling anxious when a loved one threatens separation.) The amygdala is responsible for the emotional memory banks, not only of pain and fear, but sights sounds and smells. Even years later the biological impact can elicit similar sights, sounds or smells can activate the powerful amygdala circuits , as an example, war veterans can re-experience a full blown emotional flashback at the sound of a thunder clap.

The amygdala also responds to thoughts or ideas formed within your neocortex. A fear provoking thought can trigger an immediate panic response. Before you have a chance to reason it through more carefully, your body has been thrown into self-defence mode. Responding quickly and automatically is imperative when faced with a falling tree or attack by an animal, but it gets in the way if the perceived threat is the beginning of a relationship. Who invited our automatic nervous system along anyway? Nature did - we evolved that way to ensure our survival.

If the biological impact of losses from childhood or adolescence are capable of conditioning a fear response, then the amygdale is the part of the brain implicated in fear of abandonment, a fear common to all of us.

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