neuroscience of attachment

The Neuroscience of Attachment (Part 3)

Part 3

Here we again borrow extensively from an excellent article by Linda Graham

The so-called resonance circuit, discussed in our previous blog,  operates in the brain of the parent attuning to his or her child; it’s what stimulates the developing brain of the infant to process and know its own experience; its experience metabolized and reflected back by the parent becomes encoded in the infant’s neural circuitry. Because you know what’s in my mind and heart, I can know it, too. These patterns do stabilize in the brain by 18months of age, rendering them as Cozolino says, of permanent psychological significance.

This resonance circuit helps us understand the neurobiology operating in the development of each of the four styles of attachment identified over 40 years of attachment research.

How relational experiences, the meaning the developing brain gives those experiences, create conclusions or models of how life works. These models create anticipations of what to expect in the future which shapes, filters, distorts our perceptions and response which can reinforce our conclusions. None of this is an issue if attachment is secure, but this process is very much an issue if attachment is less than secure. These distortions become the Truth of the Way Things Are. They become defenses which block learning and prevent change.

Mary Ainsworth at the University of Virginia identified three styles of attachment that have since been proven to be universal across cultures: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-anxious. Mary Main and Erik Hesse of U.C. Berkeley discovered a fourth less common style – disorganized – occurring within the other three styles rather than all the time.

If the parenting style of the parent is Responsive: the parent is available, present, predictable, sensitive, focuses attention on baby, is emotionally attuned, empathically resonant, contingently reflective of baby’s inner reality, reciprocally communicating in tones, gestures, facial expressions as well as words, if engagement-disengagement follows the baby’s lead, if the parent is able to hold-process-regulate baby’s affects (soothe distress, amplify joy), effective in interactions –

Then the attachment style that develops in the child is likely to be Secure: the child feels safe and protected, feels “felt” in their own reality; feels affects regulated and soothed; learns to self-soothe; develops trust of the caregiver as a safe haven, internalizes mother as a source of comfort, the child pro-actively seeks connection, trusts its own capacities to activate a response; the child expects others to be attentive, helpful, encouraging of autonomy; there is a flexible focus on self-other-world.

Securely attached children are likely to become Secure-Autonomous adults. They believe relationships are generally safe and people are generally helpful; they are comfortable with emotions, intimacy, inter-dependency; they tolerate relational frustration well; are optimistic about relationships lasting and being satisfying.

If the parenting style of the parent is Dismissive: the parent is indifferent, distant,  neglectful, absent, rejecting, shaming, blaming, critical, judgmental, physically-emotionally unavailable, ineffective in regulating affect.

Then the attachment style that develops in the child is likely to be Insecure-Avoidant: the child withdraws from interactions, is seemingly indifferent to parent; the child doesn’t seek or expect comfort or soothing; there is a defensive exclusion of affects (numbing out); there is a focus on self or world, not other.

Insecurely-avoidant children are likely to become Insecure-Avoidant adults: emotionally shut down; devaluing relationships and feelings; uncomfortable with intimacy, vulnerability, dependency. There is difficulty trusting; they can be aggressive or hostile.

If the parenting style of the parent is Pre-occupied: inconsistent, unpredictable, sometimes attentive and loving, sometimes harsh or punitive, sometimes over-involved, sometimes off in their own world.

Then the attachment style that develops in the child is likely to be Insecure-Anxious: the child is insecure about the reliability of the parent for safety-protection; they are not easily soothed; ambivalence: they are sometimes clingy and possessive, sometimes angry-defiant. There is an internalization of anxious mom. There is a focus on others, not on self.

Insecurely-anxious children are likely to become Insecure-Anxious adults: they are subject to abandonment fears; there is chronic vigilance about attachment-separation, there is emotional dysregulation and anxiety, passivity and lack of coping; there can be a victim stance.

If the parenting style of the parent becomes Disorganized: if the parent, even temporarily, is fragmented, disorganized, dissociated; or is frightening, bizarre, abusive, traumatizing to the child –

Then the attachment style of the child can become Disorganized: the child can become, even temporarily, helpless, paralyzed, fragmented, chaotic dissociated; they cannot focus; they cannot soothe.

Experiences of disorganized attachment can lead to an Unresolved/Disorganized adult: there are difficulties functioning; they are unable to regulate emotions; there are dissociative defenses.

What’s happening in the brain as these attachment styles operate in adult life?

When a person is experiencing the safety of a secure attachment relationships there is no over-arousal of the sympathetic nervous system; everything is OK and humming along. There is a flexible balance of stimulation – vitality – and regulation – calm or ease.

When there is insecure attachment – either style – there IS arousal of the SNS. Relationships mean danger, so the brain prepares for flight or fight.

In insecure-avoidant attachment, the coping mechanisms of avoidance, withdrawal, minimizing, focusing externally, over-regulate the body and any emotional signals that might come through. There is flight from feelings and people. There is a shutting down of core affect, a de-valuing the importance of relationship. A person may be functioning well in the outside world but clueless about interpersonal interactions or even their own inner world. They can present as under-stimulated and over-regulated.

In insecure-anxious attachment, the sympathetic nervous system is over-stimulated and under-regulated. The personal can feel flooded with stress, fear of abandonment, panic and not be able to self regulate enough, not enough calming of the parasympathetic nervous system. There is energy for fight; people engage through anger aggression.

In disorganized attachment, “fright without solution,” there can be such a sense of danger or life threat, even the momentum of the amygdala, the flight-fight response, collapses. Only the brainstem is operating. The parasympathetic nervous system over-regulates bodily energy to the point of paralysis and helplessness.

The coping strategies in less than secure patterns of attachment are defensive – they create barriers to emotion, to the full range of human emotions that are important signals of what to pay attention to in our lives and in others’ lives. They create barriers to the skillful regulation of emotion, creating avoidance or flooding rather than skillful experiencing, processing, managing, moving through. They create barriers to healthy relating, if relating is going to trigger unbearable emotions of fear, shame, loneliness, despair –  regulating closeness-distance by dismissing, focusing on self rather than other, or clinging, focusing on other rather than self, or by losing focus altogether, rather than flexibly focusing on self and other, the hallmark of secure attachment.

Why Allan Schore said “The security of the attachment bond is the primary defense against psychopathology.”

It is difficult not to see the “personality” of an addicted individual in some of these descriptions of insecure attachment – the emotional immaturity and self obsession that frequently accompanies those with addiction.

I believe there is an inherent emotional and stress dysregulation in addiction and this is partly accentuated by insecure attachment. This stress dysregulation also appears to reduce the ability to process emotions. Emotion processing theorized as Alexithymia is reported to increase in the addiction cycle, so initial emotion and stress dysfunction becomes more severe, partly via the toxic effects on emotional regions of the brain by chronic substance consumption.

Also in some prominent theories of addiction is altered stress systems that drive the addiction cycle. For many addicts this may partly be the consequence of insecure attachment. A  main issue with altered stress systems is that they have direct consequence on many  other neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Stress reduces dopamine and causes us to initially like more than those without altered stress systems  (it heightens our reward response and motivates us to repeat a certain behaviours such as consuming drugs)  it then leads to us pathologically “wanting” more and finally it contributes to compulsive drug seeking and taking.

Recovery acts is so many ways to dampen this stress/distress response. In doing so it increases all the neurotransmitters responsibly for adaptive behaviours such as GABA, the natural brakes on impulsive behaviours, oxytocin, natural opioids, serotonin and dopamine.

By reducing stress/distress through our new secure attachment to groups like AA we can rebalance the brain’s actual bio-chemistry. In time this alters the brain and the brain recovers just like the soul. The heart is also put under less strain. There is a reciprocal relationship between heart rate variablity and emotional regulation in fact HRV is said to be an index of HRV.  

Hence we regulate our emotions essentially via our hearts.

We learn to live in manner that is not constantly “fight or flight” like a constant state of emergency. We begin to find some peace, find we like it and want more.

Unlike other things we have wanted more and more of in our lives, it is difficult to argue against too much peace.


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