Sit down. Take a breath. For just a moment close your eyes and think about the most important relationships you had growing up. What do you remember? Pay close attention to the feelings, sensations, images and memories that bubble up from your unconscious as you ask yourself that question. Then take note. This is important. Very important. Our early childhood relationship with our primary caregivers, which for many of us were our parents, have the power to influence our lives far into our future.
The foundations of Attachment date back John Bowlby’s theory on attachment and later, Mary Ainsworth who introduced us to the Strange Situation to see how attachment styles may vary between children. It was from her research that she developed the different attachment styles.
Secure Attachment: This happens when a child is surrounded by caregivers who are attuned to their needs and responsive and warm in their interactions. Dr. Dan Siegel states that for a secure attachment to occur a child must feel safe, seen and soothed. When a child is securely attached, they learn to trust that the world is a safe place, their needs will be met, and they have a secure home base.
Avoidant Attachment: When children grow up with caregivers who are unavailable or unresponsive to their needs, children learn as an adaptive strategy to find a way to take care of their own needs and stop reaching out for support in their environment. These children develop into “little adults” who learn to care for their own needs.
Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment: This style occurs when caregivers are inconsistent in their attunement to their children. At times they respond appropriately, other times insensitive to their needs. Children never know what to expect and causes them to feel distrustful but also appear clingy and needy.
Disorganized Attachment: When a caregiver is abusive toward the child, they learn that the world is frightening and unsafe. They want to flee from their caregiver but are unable because that they depend upon them for survival. This results in a need to detach from themselves and their experience.
It is clear from the research, that having a Secure Attachments in childhood have positive effects long-term, but why? From the moment we are born, we are immediately overwhelmed by our experiences in the world. Where we had spent the last 9 months floating in the womb, warm and dark with the reassurance of our mother’s heartbeat as our constant companion, we are now thrust into a world with bright lights, loud voices, temperature fluctuations, medical interventions to process and adapt to.
As newborns, there is no capacity to consciously modulate and regulate the shifts in the nervous system. But that is where evolution comes into play and our absolute reliance on our caregivers to help us bring the nervous system back into homeostasis. We have evolved, through a complex interplay of biology and cultural norms to attend to a child’s needs. Oxytocin, commonly referred to the love hormone, surges after delivery. Oxytocin plays a vital role in our social interactions, and positive social connections like touch and support stimulate the release of this important hormone.
Newborns do not have the developmental capacity to self-regulate. We see the importance of the role of caregivers so clearly when we look at the research on Kangaroo care. Kangaroo care is a method of holding a baby that involves skin to skin contact. Kangaroo care stabilizes heart and respiratory rates, improves oxygen saturation rates, and better regulates body temperature. As caregivers, we allow our stable and regulated system to serve as a secure base for the baby. Through the process of co-regulation, the baby is better able to regulate its own immature nervous system.
In homes where secure attachments are formed, this safe home base continues throughout childhood and beyond. Adaptations are made as development matures and grows, but consistent, loving and responsive care is the foundation of the parent child relationship.
Growing up, even under ideal circumstances can be scary at times. Children are constantly faced with new challenges, needing to learn new skills and coping strategies. Risks must be taken to successfully prepare for the transition into adulthood. Secure attachments allow our children to explore their environment, push themselves beyond their comfort zone with the trust that if they falter there will be someone there to catch them if they fall.
With the other attachment styles there seems to be a disruption in the ability to co-regulate successfully. Instead of a child feeling reassured and soothed by mom’s return, they feel confused, unsure or avoid seeking comfort at all. They are left to contend with their distressed and activated body on their own. When this pattern of chronic activation of the stress response system is prolonged, in the absence of the buffering presence of a loving, responsive adult, it can develop into toxic stress for a child.
What is unhealthy or “toxic” stress? Under stressful conditions, we all release emergency stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol which increase our heart rate and prepare us to take action. This is a normal, healthy, adaptive response to situational stress. Where it becomes problematic is when this system goes from being activated occasionally to always being “on”. This happens when children are faced with repeated, intense trauma and stressors with no way to deactivate this fight or flight system. This system that evolved to protect and save us from danger can also impede healthy brain development, and negatively affects all systems of the body when it stays constantly activated.
And so, this is what happens, we find ourselves as adults with a burdened body carrying a lifetime of living with an activated nervous system, always waiting for something bad to happen. Without those secure attachments in childhood we can struggle to form healthy adult relationships and allow ourselves the comfort and connection we crave. In a sense, that is what good therapy does. It creates an opportunity to bring what feels broken in us to another human being, who then joins with us in finding a gentle path through our pain without having to face it alone.
Human beings have evolved to need connection. Someone who has our back. A friend to talk to, a reassuring hug, someone who reminds us things will be okay. The comfort of another human being who lets us borrow the calmness of their own energy field until we can bring our own back into equilibrium. This is how we activate the social engagement nervous system and utilize the protective capacity of our relationships to bring calm back to the body
Not everyone was fortunate enough to have those secure attachments growing up. But here is what I know…it is never too late. There is always an opportunity for us to learn to be loving and kind with ourselves and seek the same from others. To find a way to be gentle when we are suffering, holding ourselves close and reminding ourselves that we are not alone. To seek out the relationships that remind us we are safe and supported, encourage us to take a deep breath and give us a hand to hold when we need it.
Sit down. Take a breath. For just a moment close your eyes and think about the most important relationships you have today. What do you know? Pay close attention to the feelings, sensations, images and that bubble up from your unconscious as you ask yourself that question. Then take note. This is important. Very important. The relationships we have today, in the here and now, have the capacity to affect our lives going forward. Invite the ones in that offer you that secure attachment. The people who promise to be there for you when you need them, those you can call in the middle of the night when you are overcome with grief or paralyzed by fear. The relationships that allow you to lean in on their strength and solidness when yours is wavering. Allow that love into your body, feel the protective capacity of the social engagement nervous system working its magic to help you breathe deeper, filling your lungs with oxygen, regulating your heart rate and bringing you back to yourself.