“If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.” – Bessel A. van der Kolk
All humans will experience some form of abandonment anxiety because the fear of abandonment is universal to our experience and stems from our evolutionary survival instinct. Connection to others helps keep us safe, so we are motivated to seek out positive and secure attachments to others. However, for some people, this fear becomes overwhelming.
Anxiety Disorders are the most common mental health issue in America, affecting approximately 40 million adults. Abandonment issues often stem from an extreme fear of loneliness or isolation and presents as an intense form of anxiety known as abandonment syndrome or abandonment disorder.
Abandonment fears commonly start during the developmental years of childhood and early adulthood. However, they can occur at any stage of life and often result from childhood neglect or abuse, loss of a loved one, or relationship breakdown.
Abandonment fears can become invasive and debilitating and may prevent a person from leading a comfortable daily life.
This article seeks to explain abandonment issues, their causes, and how best to treat the problem.
Understanding Abandonment Disorder
Abandonment disorder, also referred to as abandonment syndrome, is classified as an anxiety disorder. It is triggered by an adverse experience or set of experiences that result in an individual feeling alone, vulnerable, unsafe, and fearful.
Positive human development depends on basic emotional and physical needs being met. In childhood, the reassurance stems from parents or primary caregivers. During adulthood, this comes from close, personal, intimate, or romantic relationships.
Adverse life experiences can interrupt an individual’s security at any age, and abandonment issues may develop when this happens. These experiences may include:
- Traumatic experiences – This includes child abuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, witnessing abuse, or being involved in an accident or natural disaster.
- Neglect – A neglected child goes without food, clothes, safety, warmth, or emotional comfort.
- Death of a loved one – Losing a loved one can cause intense loneliness, feelings of fear, grief, anger, and preoccupation with further loss.
- Poverty – If basic needs cannot be met, a scarcity mindset may develop, resulting in fears that emotional resources such as love and friendship are also limited.
- Relationship breakdown- The end of an intimate relationship due to conflict, infidelity, divorce, or change of circumstances can trigger feelings of grief, loneliness, and fear that feel similar to the death of a loved one.
People with abandonment disorder display numerous signs and symptoms, which often differ between child and adult.
- Difficulty maintaining intimate relationships due to a fear of abandonment
- People-pleasing tendencies
- Jealousy towards others your friend or partner may be close to
- Trouble trusting intentions
- Feeling insecure about relationships
- Controlling tendencies
- Settling in unsatisfactory, codependent, or abusive relationships
- Sabotaging relationships
- Seeking constant reassurance
A child suffering from abandonment anxiety is likely to react with intense fear or distress when triggered. It can be challenging to distinguish among social anxiety, shyness, and abandonment disorder, as a young infant cannot explain their feelings. The common abandonment disorder symptoms in children are displayed through separation anxiety tendencies. A child may panic or become intensely anxious or fearful if separated from their parents or primary caregiver. They may refuse to sleep alone, leave their side, go to daycare or school, or even be in another room.
Attachment Theory and Abandonment Issues
Attachment theory explains the importance of forming attachments to parents or other primary caregivers as a young infant. These attachments are critical to a child’s emotional, physical, and psychological development. Healthy, positive attachments as a child allow a person to grow into a healthy adult with a strong sense of self-worth, self-esteem, and the ability to foster close, secure relationships.
The lack of a positive, healthy attachment, where a parent or primary caregiver does not provide the emotional and physical care needed, can result in a strong sense of neglect and chronic stress.
If a healthy attachment bond does not form or adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) such as abuse occur, the child may experience abandonment trauma. The effects of these developmental experiences will often continue into adulthood and can manifest in various mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), substance use disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, self-injurious behavior, and suicidal ideation.
Risks to the formation of a healthy attachment include:
- An emotionally unavailable caregiver
- Childhood neglect due to substance abuse disorder
- Mental illness or physical illness or disability in a caregiver.
- Parentification of a child
- Loss of a caregiver
- Divorce, conflict, and familial instability
- Inability to emotionally express themselves
- Pressure to achieve or exposure to criticism or ridicule
When treating abandonment issues, the first step is understanding what triggers you and learning to withdraw when these triggers arise. You should also try to get more comfortable having calm, respectful conversations about your fears with someone you trust.
Therapy aims to explore the root causes of an individual’s fears and identify triggers and negative thought patterns. Through gentle exploration and therapeutic tools, the person can create healthy boundaries, avoid harmful or destructive relationships, learn how to develop positive connections, overcome fears of being abandoned, and utilize healthy coping skills if fear arises.
The negative behaviors associated with abandonment disorder can have unhealthy consequences, including hindering the growth of healthy bonds, ruining relationships, and developing co-occurring mental health issues. If you or a loved one is struggling with the fear of abandonment, please seek professional support today.
 Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Social Anxiety Disorder,” retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder.
 “Abandonment Issues: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment, and More”. Medicalnewstoday.Com, 2022, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/abandonment-issues#causes.
 Sutton, Tara E. “Review of Attachment Theory: Familial Predictors, Continuity and Change, and Intrapersonal and Relational Outcomes”. Marriage & Family Review, vol 55, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-22. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/01494929.2018.1458001. Accessed 4 Jan 2022.
 Matthies, Swantje et al. “Please Don’T Leave Me—Separation Anxiety and Related Traits in Borderline Personality Disorder”. Current Psychiatry Reports, vol 20, no. 10, 2018. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s11920-018-0951-6. Accessed 4 Jan 2022.