Many people think of trauma as something big that has happened to a person. We often think of sexual abuse, physical abuse, rape, or war when we think about trauma. But the reality is that attachment disruptions or issues around attachment often causes trauma symptoms.
Attachment has been studied for decades and most people know the basics. Secure attachment is good, and insecure attachment is bad. Yes, that’s an over simplification of how many of us think about attachment, we strive for secure attachment as parents and when we think about insecure attachment we think about failure.
One thing I want to make clear in this blog is that discussions around secure vs insecure attachments are not about intentionality. Most parents don’t strive to harm their children, and think, “I don’t want to connect with my baby” or “I want them to hurt”. No, insecure attachment, comes about because of a lack of awareness. Most of us parent the way we were parented, either by taking what we learned and repeating it and/or taking what we didn’t like and doing things differently. Mainly though, as parents the goal is to parent to the best of one’s abilities in order to create a happy and loving environment for our children.
I also want to state that attachment is not black or white, secure vs insecure, but rather that it can be experienced as a range or a gradient. This range can be 100% secure (which is rare) on the left and 100% disorganized (a type of insecure attachment) on the right, where most people fall somewhere in between.
Finally attachment is not just about how the parent responds to their baby but also about the babies express their individual needs. We all come into this earth with our own unique set of sensitivities, with some of us needing a lot of input or stimulation while others need very little. Some babies are difficult to soothe while others are easy. Some babies have high energy, while others have low energy. Again, it depends on the way their individual systems are wired. Part of attachment is being able to attune effectively to those needs most of the time, so that the baby develops the skills necessary to self regulate later on.
With that being said, the reality is that early relational dynamics between baby and caregiver(s) serve as the foundation for our adult relationships.
Parenting and Brain Development
Parenting starts even before the baby is born. The baby’s development in utero, in part, depends on the environment created by the pregnant mother. How are her stress levels? What toxins is she subjecting baby to (theres the ones in the environment we cannot control like pollution and ones we can such as alcohol and tobacco which we can)? Is she getting enough rest, eating well, and staying healthy and safe? Some of the reasons these questions are so crucial is because the development of the baby’s organs and other physiological components are aided by the rhythm of the mothers heart beat, the food she ingests which the baby absorbs, the amount of oxygen she gets and it’s connections to blood vessels and other organ development, etc. This is the beginning stages of early brain development, most notably the brainstem and its physiological components (aka the physical wiring of the baby).
Once the baby is born and during those first 5 years, the brain continues to develop rapidly. Building upon some of the foundational support that occurs in utero, the baby’s brain develops in a sequential and use dependent fashion. This means that each developmental block builds upon what comes before it. What gets retained is what is used repeatedly and consistently. One of the fundamental building blocks that needs to be developed is emotional regulation.
Infants are unable to fully regulate themselves and need attachment figures to help them with this. This mechanism is called co-regulation and requires the caregiver to be attuned to their babies needs. They also need to be able to consistently and safely fulfill those needs. This includes relational repairs when attunement is mistimed or mismatched. The relationship between baby and attachment figure actually is the foundation for which we all develop lifelong tendencies for regulating our arousal levels and our affect. That is our ability to manage our stress levels and our emotions effectively. This is why secure attachment is so vital.
Our ability to self regulate effectively is connected to our window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is something we all have and is our ability to continue functioning despite shifts in our arousal levels (think stress levels). This functioning includes how we process information and manage our emotional states at the same time. The larger the window of tolerance the greater our ability to handle fluctuations in arousal states (high, low, or somewhere in between. Arousal levels are our physiological and emotional responses to stimulation coming from a mix of our outside and inside environments).
Conversely, the smaller the window of tolerance the harder it is for us to cope with these fluctuations in arousal levels. In fact these fluctuations can actually be experienced as overwhelming, unmanageable, and dysregulating.
A secure attachment base, which is built upon the inborn tendency to connect relationally (Social Engagement System), is how we develop our window of tolerance which then contributes to our capacity for effective self-regulation.
The Social Engagement System, Secure Attachment & Emotional Regulation
The social Engagement System is our innate method for seeking connection and calming from people we are connected/attached to. It’s also responsible for maintaining our arousal levels or helping arousal levels return to our optimal window of tolerance, by curbing the trauma reactionary systems of the Stress Response System (flight, flight, freeze). The ultimate goal of the Social Engagement System is to seek proximity to our primary attachment figure in order to alleviate distress. Infants deploy vocal techniques such as cooing, babbling, and crying to get this need met. As they get older they use movement, crawling, rolling, and walking to do this as well. Around 3 months, but sometimes earlier, the baby uses smiling to achieve this goal as well. With repeated interactions and attunement the infant learns how to be more effective at signaling, engaging, and responding to their caregiver (and the caregiver learns the same) which shapes their Social Engagement System. As we become older we use verbal and nonverbal communication to achieve this proximity as well.
Primary Caregivers modulate their child’s arousal levels in different ways. When baby’s arousal levels become too high (as often evidenced by them crying) then the caregiver attempts to calm this distress by feeding, rocking, and/or swaddling their baby. Sometimes they get it right on the first try and sometimes its the fifth, but the goal is to alleviate distress and emotional repair happens because they continue to try, and eventually get it right.
Other times the baby’s arousal levels are too low, as evidenced by lethargy or low energy, The mother begins to stimulate baby through the use of play, thereby bringing the baby’s arousal levels back within their window of tolerance.
The Social Engagement System is built upon the face to face and body to body interactions with attachment figures which regulate the baby’s autonomic and emotional arousal. It is further developed through attuned interactions with caregivers who respond with motor and sensory contact (body language) which infants understand before verbal communication is possible. These interactions stimulate the development of the part of the brain responsible for effective emotional regulation of arousal.
Attachment is fundamental to connecting with others. Without that connection a person has a difficult time developing a positive sense of self and their capacity to self regulate is limited. In part 2 I will dive deeper into ruptures of attachment and how this causes trauma symptoms as well as how you can heal from attachment wounds. So stay tuned for part 2.
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Until we connect again,