I’ve been revisiting the abandonment work of psychotherapist Susan Anderson to help process emotions around a recent loss. What she writes about the amygdala has particularly helped me.
The amygdala stores memories of how you responded to previous fearful events and threats you experienced as a child/teenager, such as abandonment or betrayal. The whole point of the brain, and thus the amygdala, is to protect you. It cannot differentiate between past and present; it’s not aware, for example, you’re an adult now who can take care of yourself now and survive being left by somebody, never mind that that somebody who just left you is not actually your parent.
Thus when faced with the feelings of abandonment as an adult, you automatically respond in the same way as you did when you were a child. Your body goes into fight or flight mode, literally trying to fight for your survival.
That’s why those first emotions we face when abandoned – the shattering, as Anderson calls it – are so intense, and sometimes completely out of proportion to what actually happened. This is particularly true for those who have experienced intense childhood trauma. If your memories of abandonment were particularly painful and terrifying, your old, “primitive” self will respond accordingly.
Your biochemistry is taking over, and thus you are literally out of control.
The way forward is to use your cerebral cortex – or the rational, adult mind – to regulate these intense emotions.
My first experience of loss was the death of my Dad at age seven, an incident that threw my family into financial insecurity and caused unimaginable hardship for awhile that threatened my survival.
Loss really was a threat to my life, and that’s what my amygdala remembers.
It was an amazing thing to read and realize, and I was flooded with self-compassion as well awe at how the mind works. At the end of the day, our brains are just trying to protect us. Emotions we perceive as irrational are actually the most rational things in the world.
I keep reminding myself of this information now when the unsettled feeling comes back. This is just an old response; feelings are not facts; the trauma isn’t actually happening. There’s no need to react. I take deep breaths, and thank my brain for protecting me. After pausing, I continue with the day. All is well. All is safe. I’ve got a safe refuge in myself to rely on and take care of me now.
I am going to start sharing more interesting things I learn as I continue to read Anderson’s stuff mostly for my own documentation, and hopefully to help others.