What is the Connection Between Attachment and Physiological Functioning?

Attachment theory is one of the most researched theories in psychology. I have previously discussed some aspects of attachment theory. Today I will look at how attachment patterns affect our psychobiological system.

 Bowlby originated attachment theory. In his conceptualization, he stated that the attachment system is seen as a “fundamentally psychobiological system which affects individuals’ basic capacities to respond adaptively to danger and threat” (Bowlby, 1973). In other words, the attachment system is a biological process involving the mind and the body. It is a biological system of responding to threats that responds to our experiences with our attachment figures and environment.

 Given the conceptualization of Bowlby’s theory, it is not surprising that in recent years researchers have explored the connection between the biological systems in response to social situations (Repetti et al., 2002). This research has led to the understanding that individuals are products of their ongoing reciprocal interactions with their environment, their interpersonal relationships, their behavioral responses, their psychological states, and their biological processes (Cairns, Gariepy, & Hood, 1990; Gottlieb, 1991). That means that, beginning in infancy, the attachment system continues to evolve as we engage in different experiences.

 In brief, attachment theory states that when infants do not receive adequate external assistance from caregivers with emotion regulation, then deficits in their own self-regulatory capacities develop. This results in the development of suboptimal emotion regulation strategies (Main, 1990). Research has shown that individuals with high attachment anxiety tend to be hypervigilant to threat cues, which leads to them maximizing experiences of negative affect. In contrast, individuals who score high on avoidant attachment tend to direct attention away from threat cues and minimize experiences of negative affect. That means that individuals with anxious attachment tend to look for threats, and find them, even when threats are not present. It also means that individuals with avoidant attachment style sense threats, but they downplay the threat and are at risk of being victimized.

Research has also found that individuals with insecure attachment patterns (anxious, avoidant) have activation in their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system as well as their autonomic nervous system (ANS) when they feel they are under stress. These systems lead to the limbic system being activated which activates individuals fight, flight, freeze response. When this system is activated it is difficult to regulate emotions. It is important to understand that these systems are naturally activated in the human body when it is under stress. The aspect of this research that is important to grasp is that because this system was activated in infancy and never regulated, the system itself developed heightened negative affectivity because the individual has exaggerated patterns of stress-induced HPA and ANS activity. That means that these systems become overly activated when under stress and the window of tolerance for these individuals is decreased. That means that smaller stressors activate the system.

 In summary, research has found that early experiences with suboptimal caregivers impair the basic “tuning” of stress regulatory systems in infancy and childhood (see Glaser, 2000; Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002). The research also emphasizes the link between attachment insecurity and negatively biased cognitive beliefs about self and other. The research also found individuals are hypervigilant to perceive danger in the environment when danger is not present, leading to higher and more sustained levels of psychological stress, emotional dysregulation, and reactivity in the physiological systems responsible for stress response.

The reason I am exploring this research is because the research also indicates that individuals can unlearn the attachment patterns from infancy and develop new attachment patterns with new experiences and insight. It also means that when individuals work somatically, they are able to understand what is happening in their HPA and ANS systems. Using somatic and mindfulness approaches, they can learn self-regulation strategies for managing emotional distress. The human body and mind are capable of amazing processes. I believe that individuals are whole and have the capacity to be fully functioning. I understand the impact that our experiences have had on our nervous system and understand the current research on how to regulate the nervous system somatically.

If this way of working interests you, please feel free to contact me for a free 20 minute phone consultation at allison@blossomingheartcounseling.com or 503-880-7190.