In my last post, I talked about the link between addiction and connection – or lack of it. And how our earliest experiences shape the way our brains develop and generate a specific ‘attachment’ style.
Knowing your attachment style and how it affects your thoughts feelings and behaviours can provide an incredible sense of relief. It can help you to start making sense of the struggles that you have and can give you a focus of how to work through them.
Attachment theory is fast becoming the leading theory on why we are prone to a whole host of psychological issues including depression, anxiety, relationship conflict and addiction. Attachment theory is not new; it has been around for decades. But what IS new is the validation it now has from research in neuroscience.
So what is it exactly?
In a nutshell, the type of attachment bond we have with our caregivers in the first few years of life dictates how we live, love and learn for the rest of our lives. Or as John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, said “from the cradle to the grave”
A Secure attachment bond develops when the care-giver is emotionally ‘attuned’ to the child’s internal state. Before we can speak, we have to communicate through facial expressions, gestures and sounds. To get our needs met we are constantly signalling what we need. We might need comfort, to play, to eat, to sleep – so we SERVE a signal to our care-givers that we need or want something.
If the adults in our lives can read our signals accurately, they RETURN with an appropriate response. The child points at something, the care-giver looks. The child searches for eye contact, the care-giver looks back. The child is afraid, the adult comforts.
It is this back and forth serve and return that creates the attachment bond. But for the person looking after the child, it’s not always easy to know what exactly the child is signalling. It could be that the baby has a stomach ache or that it’s bored and needs stimulation. Many times the need will be mis-interpreted and the bond is RUPTURED.
At this point, we are in a state of stress – adrenaline and cortisol running around our systems.
We are basically in fight or flight mode.
But if the care-giver persists in trying to read the child’s facial expressions and body language, eventually the need will be met, the stress response is switched off and the bond is REPAIRED.
Clearly it isn’t realistic to expect the mother to always know what a baby wants. Many times the need will be misunderstood. In reality, ‘perfect’ attunement only happens around 30 % of the time. And that’s ok as the strength or ‘security’ of the attachment bond relies more on the repair of ruptures than on the correct response to the serve.
And it is in the moments of REPAIR that the brain is shaped for optimal development.
So what is optimal development?
Securely attached children learn how to manage their emotions. The constant rupturing and repairing of the emotional bond creates strong neural pathways between the logical rational part of the brain and the emotional brain. This sets up brain architecture that makes it much easier to regulate emotions throughout life.
They develop the ability to ‘mentalise’ – basically the ability to think about thinking – or self-reflection. They also develop a good empathic ability and can see things form others’ perspectives. They come to learn that it’s ok to get things wrong in relationships. As they grow up, they feel safe expressing their emotions and asking for help – they don’t expect to be ridiculed or criticised for expressing feelings and needs. They grow up with an inherent sense of safety in their interactions with others. They learn how to tolerate discomfort for a period of time and s a result have a better ability to over-ride impulsivity and stay focused on tasks.
On a deep level they feel significant, that their needs matter and that they are ok as they are.
60 percent of us are lucky enough to have had this type of early experience.
But what happens with the other 40 percent?
There are many reasons why the attachment bond might not be very secure.
In some cases the reason is obvious – as in when a parent is directly abusive or not able to look after themselves let alone a child. They might be struggling mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or addiction. But in other cases, the causes are more subtle. If a parent has to work a lot, is the sole care-giver, is struggling with poverty – they often just don’t have enough emotional resources to tend to the child’s needs.
After working a ten hour shift then having to deal with a crying child, it is understandable that you wouldn’t be very switched on to your the child’s emotional state.
In other cases, it is due to cultural norms. For many years, parents were told to let the baby cry so it would develop independence or to stop it becoming overly clingy. Many children were left to cry themselves to sleep.
Some of us might have had parents that were emotionally detached or unaware of their own emotions – resulting in an inability to read the child’s emotions.
You can see the effects of non-response on a child’s emotions here
Whatever the reason, when a child’s needs are ignored, or inconsistently met – they experience prolonged periods of toxic stress, which has a profound effect on the developing brain, the child’s emotional experience and the way that it interacts with the world.
These children are likely to develop an insecure attachment style and with it – a vulnerability to developing addictive habits.
Insecure attachment comes in two forms:
Insecure-Avoidant or Insecure-Anxious
Those of us who grew up with care-givers that were consistently dismissive, rejecting, cold or critical will have likely developed an insecure avoidant attachment style. These children will have tried unsuccessfully to get their needs met but after repeatedly being ignored and neglected they learn to shut down their emotions. They SERVE but there is rarely a RETURN. Being in a constant state of toxic stress from unmet needs is just too much to bear.
With enough rejection, a child learns at a core level that its needs will not be met. They internalise the message that are insignificant and that they don’t matter. Relationships don’t hold much value for them so they just don’t bother with them. But because they don’t get emotional needs met, they don’t experience the positive emotions that are a by product of close human connection.
Often adults look at these children and think they are fine – they rarely cry, they don’t get angry – they just play on their own. But in studies, the stress level of avoidant children – physiologically – is high. So they DO experience stress but they are disconnected from it.
Insecure anxious types grow up in an environment where there is a great deal of unpredictability. Sometimes the needs are met and other times they are ignored. Sometimes the care-giver is overly intrusive – showering attention when it is not needed or wanted.
Because they never know how the care-giver will respond, they develop a high level of anxiety – watching, waiting, scanning the face of the care-giver for signs of what they are going to do. When the care-giver is in a responsive mood, the child will cling and cry in an attempt to keep them close as they never know when their needs will next be met.
These children exist in highly aroused emotional states – often swinging between anger and anxiety. They are not easily soothed. The part of the brain that detects danger – the amygdala – becomes over-stimulated and set at a higher point than average resulting in much higher levels of anxiety throughout life.
As both anxious and avoidants go through school they might encounter difficulties on many fronts.
Avoidants might find it hard to connect to other children and teachers, often being perceived as weird, different or in world of their own.
They tend to favour non-interactive activities that they can do on their own. Because they don’t feel comfortable in relationships, they experience something called “poverty of reward”. They don’t get regular emotional satisfaction that secures get from fulfilling relationships. They rarely ask for help and as a result might not do very well at school.
Insecure -anxious types are prone to constant restlessness caused by ever-present emotional arousal. They will find it hard to focus on tasks and become easily distracted. They are likely difficult to teach as they can’t sit still and find it difficult to take in information. Quite often, they will be labelled ‘difficult’ or ‘problematic’ Or they might develop perfectionist traits – always striving to do their best to ensure that they receive constant attention and avoid being rejected.
Interactions with family, peers and teachers might be fraught with emotional outbursts as they find it very difficult to regulate their own emotions and feel ‘unsafe’ in relationships. Their constant agitation and anxiety might result in either frustration and anger causing them to act out or lead to depression and social withdrawal.
Their ingrained habit of constant scanning can result in mis-interpretation of other peoples actions. Often ADHD and conduct problems are borne from anxious attachment.
And so the pattern that was set in the first few years of childhood, ripples out, impacting all aspects of life. In terms of brain development, the social and emotional interactions vital for optimal brain growth are lacking.
Insecure children, whether avoidant or anxious, often struggle with certain skills that are necessary to navigate the emotional complexity of human relationships.
Both types are not very comfortable in relationships. Avoidants can come across as quite hostile and aloof or emotionally distant. Anxious types can worry a lot about what others think or say and be prone to social anxiety. Neither type is able find the security, comfort or fulfillment that secure types get from relationships.
Emotionally, avoidants don’t experience a wide range of feelings as they have learnt to suppress from an early age. So they can struggle with under-stimulation – like there is something missing.
Anxious types however can often feel too intensely. They experience anxiety around people, though it can often be experienced as restlessness or agitation. They worry too much about what others might be thinking about them or ruminate over what people say.
Securely attached adolescents view their relationships as a safe base. In times of difficulty, they have no issue talking about their problems and using their relationships as a source of stability and comfort.
Insecurely attached often don’t have this – or have it to a limited extent. They struggle with a range of feelings that they don’t know how to articulate or process. They don’t have either an internal or external secure base. Until that is – they encounter drugs or alcohol.
In my next post, I’ll look at how insecure attachment styles can lead to dependency on substances in adulthood.