Attachment Trauma Primer

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Unless children (and other mammals) are given deep emotional connection (“attachment”) from birth by parents or others, infant neurological systems don’t develop well.  The infant brain literally requires programming by an adult’s eyes and facial expressions to begin to program its own neurons.

When a mother doesn’t respond to her baby with strong positive emotions (she’s being battered, has stress at work, is unable to attune to others), the infant’s instincts read that as a survival threat.  This floods its bloodstream with fight/flight stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.  But a baby is helpless to use these to act in self defense.  If some adult doesn’t make the baby feel safe, stress chemicals overwhelm its brain and within 45 minutes the baby goes into clinical shock (dissociation).

What began as emotional stress ends in physical brain damage.  We can now do brain scans showing that whole chunks of neurons in some brain regions don’t fire.  I felt this as “parts of my brain are dark.”  There is literally a “hole in me.”

The resulting attachment trauma causes intense emotional pain to be transmitted by the brain stem to the neurons around the heart and other viscera, producing, literally, a broken heart – and it hurts, big time.

This means a lot more of us do need to have our heads examined; we need help!  Yet, it is definitely not “all in our heads.”  Attachment trauma, which to me includes attachment disorder, is a medical condition at the interface between the emotions and the body.

The infant brain develops from its most primitive parts first, explains Dr. Bruce Perry, MD. The rest of the brain grows out of these, so harm to early fetal and infant development can throw all of the brain out of whack for life. His diagram shows the primitive survival brain, aka reptilian brain (cerebellum and brain stem), in yellow and red. Next to develop, unique to mammals, is the “limbic” lobe which provides emotions and attachment, shown in green; and last to develop is the highest thinking “cortex” level, in blue. “We see three things that damage developing brain stem neurons, causing across the board developmental trauma,” says Perry.

“1. Intra-uterine insult – stress, threat to the mother, or substance abuse by the mother adversely affect infant brain neurons. In particular, the brain stem (survival brain) must be organized before you are born. So there is a lot of activity there and it’s the most vulnerable part of the brain in the womb.  With stress in utero, we have a cascade of mental and physical problems in every part of the body and brain.

“2.  Disrupted Attachment: If you disrupt post-natal bonding, if the caregiver is not capable of attuned, regulated care giving, all these brain networks will be dysregulated.

“3. Post-natal Trauma such as violence in the home. With all three, we have a 100% prospect that this child’s brain is going to be dysregulated,” Perry stated. “But because of the way we’ve invented our health service delivery models, the pediatrician treating his asthma won’t make the connection to his intra-uterine insult, and the psychiatrist will just give him Ritalin or even the drug salesman’s latest sample.”  [Perry UCLA]

This early damage creates toxic stress, says Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child. Normal stress is good, they note: “when we are threatened, our bodies prepare us to respond by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, such as cortisol. When a young child’s stress response systems are activated in an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline. The result is the development of healthy stress response systems.

“However, if the stress response is extreme and long-lasting… toxic stress can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support.” [Harvard Center for the Developing Child]

Half of Us have Attachment Trauma

Only 55% of us had “secure attachment” as infants, according to research on 6,282 infant-parent pairs during 1977-1999. This would worry us all if we knew what it meant, because the other 45% suffer “insecure attachment.”  That means 45% of us have trouble with committed relationships. [FN1, 2]

It’s worrisome because the attachment we had as kids continues all our lives in our adult relationships, says related research on over 10,500 adults during 1982-2009.  Plus, we pass on our “insecurity” to our children. [FN3]

These are the “quiet blockbuster” results of two extended, linked studies. First, using the “Strange Situation” procedure, Dr. Mary Ainsworth and her successor Dr. Mary Main studied infant attachment during 1969-99. (Dr. Main & Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, above.)

Second, Dr. Main discovered enough upset babies to become concerned about the parents, so she created the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) in 1982 to study adults. Results showed that almost half the adults were not securely attached either, corresponding to their infants to an amazing degree.

This 45% “insecure” figure starts to explain why we’ve got a 50% divorce rate. If (like me) you’ve tried dating after divorce, it won’t surprise you that science shows almost half the adults out there can’t manage a secure, committed, relationship. Ouch, you’ve experienced it.

And if 45% of us were “insecurely attached” in 1999, what’s the 2017 rate?  In the almost 20 years since, we’ve become an “e-society” with email, cell phones, texting etc. further trashing our ability to relate in person. Psychotherapists interviewed for this blog said that a round number of “about 50%” insecure attachment is conservative.  Some say our insecure rate is higher.

In fact, a 2009 study of over 10,500 Adult Attachment Interviews said that  secure attachment had fallen by an additional 17.1%, since the 1999 estimate of 55% given above. So “insecurity” has risen; by some measures it’s up to more than half the population. This is due to the loss of safety in the home “to protect mother-infant bonding,” said Dr. Allan Schore, “so as a result… there is an increase in psychiatric disorders in this country.”  [FN3 ibid]

Here’s more “about 50%” data.  The 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study showed that 64-67% of 17,421 middle class subjects had one or more types of childhood trauma, and 38-42% had two or more types.  In less privileged populations, these numbers are far higher. A national average of all economic groups would likely show 50% or more suffer ACE trauma.

The ACE Study lists physical and sexual abuse and 8 other types, including traumas that happen to newborns like physical and emotional neglect. Such trauma puts children into “fight-flight,” a chronic state proven to shut down the organism’s capacity for feelings of attachment and love.  [FN4]

Half of us are in emotional trouble due to attachment trauma and don’t even know it.  Let’s get informed; then we can heal. If we didn’t get securely attached as kids, we can develop “earned secure attachment.”  “It’s possible to change attachment patterns,” as Main’s colleagues Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Marion Solomon say. [FN5]

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