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Power of Attachment Relationships, Epigenetics, and Trauma

Posted on March 6, 2015

“Every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.” – Alfred North Whitehead

The last couple of weeks we have established a working definition of the mind as: The human mind is a relational, environmental, and biological emergent phenomena that has the power to regulate the flow of energy and information. We’ve also examined how characteristics in the environment influence genetic expression through a process known as epigenetics. Today, I want to look at one aspect of the environment that is often the most important one in our lives. Attachment relationships are relationships between a young child and their parental caregiver, and our focus of this week’s post.

To understand the power of attachment, we must first understand the brain on the developing child. In utero and in the first years of life, biology is the primary driver of action and development. In utero, an average of 250,000 neurons, or brain cells, form every minute with a peak developmental stage of 500,000 a minute. During this rapid developmental stage, high levels of stress, or drugs, can have a huge impact on biological development. Attachment starts months before the child is even born.

Neurons continue to be created through infancy, with a peak of 200 billion (compared to 100 billion in the adult brain).  From birth to age 2, the young child is also starting to create synapses (connections between neurons) at a rate of 1.8 million a second. In the early years, many of these synaptic connections are driven by biological processes controlled by our genetics (Schwartz & Begley, 2002).

As the young child emerges out of infancy, the brain starts to shift from biological design to environmental design through the process of pruning. Pruning is the elimination of synaptic connections that are not needed to thrive in the specific environment. In the first years of life, our brains are packed with biological potential. From infancy to age 25 the environment takes over and determines which of these many potentials we need. Our brain then strengthens the synaptic connections that support those potentials and eliminate connections that are not needed.

The processes of neurogenesis (creation of new neurons) and neuroplasticity (change in the structure of the brain) happen throughout life but are most active early in life. This is why attachment figures (mother, father, foster parent, family member) play such a critical role in the development of the person. This is also why these relationships can be so predictive of future characteristics, such as relationships with peers and romantic partners, how one sees themselves in the world, and risk factors for things like substance abuse, domestic violence, and other social and psychological issues. (Note: While attachment is very powerful, the fact that the brain continues to develop throughout life offers anyone the opportunity to break out of these predictors.)

It is not hard to see that trauma during the attachment process can be devastating to the vulnerable and rapidly developing brain. Trauma, especially if repeated over time (complex trauma), creates an environment where the genes are focused building a brain that can survive the trauma. The field of child psychology has recognized this tragic situation and created two definitions to describe two of the most devastating forms of trauma.

The first term is attachment trauma. This is where the availability of the attachment figure is threatened. While they might not be a source of danger, things like divorce, illness, substance abuse, or imprisonment take the parental figure away from the young person at a critical time in their development. The child’s main source of safety and physical and emotional resources is missing. Attachment trauma helps explain the power and impact of neglect.

On the other hand, betrayal trauma is when the attachment figure is the source of the trauma. This forces the young brain to develop around this source of fear and survival. Trauma, by nature, is devastating. Trauma and attachment together can have a lifelong impact on the person affected (Bloom & Farragher, 2011).

To demonstrate the power of attachment and the impact of trauma on attachment, Sandra Bloom and Brian Farragher present a great analogy comparing attachment to the operating system of a computer. Whether it is Windows, iOS, Android, or Linux, a computer’s operating system is what works in the background and organizes programs like Word, iTunes, and Internet Explorer. If the operating system is working, programs open and run the way they are supposed to.

When healthy attachments develop, emotional, cognitive, physical, and social functions can also develop in a healthy way—these are the “programs” in this analogy. A healthy attachment allows the person to utilize skills or approaches appropriate for a specific situation, and to do so efficiently and effectively.

Sandra Bloom states: “We understand attachment as the basic ‘operating system’ for individuals. Without an attachment relationship in early development, people cannot become fully human.” Healthy attachment gives the person an operating system to interact fully with the world and the people in it. However, if trauma is introduced into the attachment relationship, the mind starts operating like a computer with a virus.

When a computer has a virus, programs do not operate the way they were originally designed to work. Energy and information that is supposed to go into making programs work well is disrupting the system instead.

Introducing trauma into the attachment relationship disrupts mind functioning in a similar way. When people feel safe in the attachment relationship, energy and information are focused on the development of cognitive and emotional functioning.  However, when danger and trauma enter the relationship, the brain has to put its energy towards surviving, at the expense of cognitive and emotional development. This exposure to trauma develops parts of the brain associated with the fight, flight, and freeze survival responses. While development of these reactive parts of the brain helps the child survive abuse or neglect, when placed in other social situations like school, these reactive behaviors become maladaptive.

Attachment is so important because it becomes the template for other important relationships. If the child is raised in a healthy home with loving parents, they can recreate these dynamics with authority figures like teachers, friends, and eventually romantic partners. On the other hand, if the parental relationship is chaotic and painful, the child will likely create relationships with peers and romantic partners who will mirror the chaos of the attachment relationship.

The devastation of attachment trauma manifests itself in a confused state about relationships and the larger world.

Children are programmed to seek safety and soothing from attachment figures. That is why babies cry when they are hungry or startled. Babies are not born with the capacity to take care of themselves physically or emotionally. Nothing demonstrates this better than when a parent picks up a crying baby. The baby’s emotional state can change immediately when someone they love picks them up, ensures their safety, and meets their physical needs.

While the brain is programmed to reach out to parents for emotional and physical resources, it is unable to process when the attachment figure is also a source of danger. When someone the child relies on for survival also becomes a source of fear, the young mind has no ability to manage this contradiction.

Under this stress, the mind can fracture, creating one mental state to relate to the parental figure when they are loved and another mental state to survive when the parental figure becomes dangerous or neglectful. This leads to dissociation, which will be discussed in more detail later. Just like with a computer virus, dissociation can crash the young brain and send it on an alternate path of development, and can have terrible consequences for years to come.

For so many of my traumatized clients, I could see this attachment virus at work through their teens and into adulthood. When I worked with families, you could almost see the virus passed from generation to generation. I soon realized that parents of my clients were not intentionally creating poor attachments with their children, they were just replicating their experiences with their own parents.

If you work with families, children, or parents, what is your role in helping to break the hold of these viruses?

Power of Attachment Relationships, Epigenetics, and Trauma

Posted on March 6, 2015

“Every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.” – Alfred North Whitehead

The last couple of weeks we have established a working definition of the mind as: The human mind is a relational, environmental, and biological emergent phenomena that has the power to regulate the flow of energy and information. We’ve also examined how characteristics in the environment influence genetic expression through a process known as epigenetics. Today, I want to look at one aspect of the environment that is often the most important one in our lives. Attachment relationships are relationships between a young child and their parental caregiver, and our focus of this week’s post.

To understand the power of attachment, we must first understand the brain on the developing child. In utero and in the first years of life, biology is the primary driver of action and development. In utero, an average of 250,000 neurons, or brain cells, form every minute with a peak developmental stage of 500,000 a minute. During this rapid developmental stage, high levels of stress, or drugs, can have a huge impact on biological development. Attachment starts months before the child is even born.

Neurons continue to be created through infancy, with a peak of 200 billion (compared to 100 billion in the adult brain).  From birth to age 2, the young child is also starting to create synapses (connections between neurons) at a rate of 1.8 million a second. In the early years, many of these synaptic connections are driven by biological processes controlled by our genetics (Schwartz & Begley, 2002).

As the young child emerges out of infancy, the brain starts to shift from biological design to environmental design through the process of pruning. Pruning is the elimination of synaptic connections that are not needed to thrive in the specific environment. In the first years of life, our brains are packed with biological potential. From infancy to age 25 the environment takes over and determines which of these many potentials we need. Our brain then strengthens the synaptic connections that support those potentials and eliminate connections that are not needed.

The processes of neurogenesis (creation of new neurons) and neuroplasticity (change in the structure of the brain) happen throughout life but are most active early in life. This is why attachment figures (mother, father, foster parent, family member) play such a critical role in the development of the person. This is also why these relationships can be so predictive of future characteristics, such as relationships with peers and romantic partners, how one sees themselves in the world, and risk factors for things like substance abuse, domestic violence, and other social and psychological issues. (Note: While attachment is very powerful, the fact that the brain continues to develop throughout life offers anyone the opportunity to break out of these predictors.)

It is not hard to see that trauma during the attachment process can be devastating to the vulnerable and rapidly developing brain. Trauma, especially if repeated over time (complex trauma), creates an environment where the genes are focused building a brain that can survive the trauma. The field of child psychology has recognized this tragic situation and created two definitions to describe two of the most devastating forms of trauma.

The first term is attachment trauma. This is where the availability of the attachment figure is threatened. While they might not be a source of danger, things like divorce, illness, substance abuse, or imprisonment take the parental figure away from the young person at a critical time in their development. The child’s main source of safety and physical and emotional resources is missing. Attachment trauma helps explain the power and impact of neglect.

On the other hand, betrayal trauma is when the attachment figure is the source of the trauma. This forces the young brain to develop around this source of fear and survival. Trauma, by nature, is devastating. Trauma and attachment together can have a lifelong impact on the person affected (Bloom & Farragher, 2011).

To demonstrate the power of attachment and the impact of trauma on attachment, Sandra Bloom and Brian Farragher present a great analogy comparing attachment to the operating system of a computer. Whether it is Windows, iOS, Android, or Linux, a computer’s operating system is what works in the background and organizes programs like Word, iTunes, and Internet Explorer. If the operating system is working, programs open and run the way they are supposed to.

When healthy attachments develop, emotional, cognitive, physical, and social functions can also develop in a healthy way—these are the “programs” in this analogy. A healthy attachment allows the person to utilize skills or approaches appropriate for a specific situation, and to do so efficiently and effectively.

Sandra Bloom states: “We understand attachment as the basic ‘operating system’ for individuals. Without an attachment relationship in early development, people cannot become fully human.” Healthy attachment gives the person an operating system to interact fully with the world and the people in it. However, if trauma is introduced into the attachment relationship, the mind starts operating like a computer with a virus.

When a computer has a virus, programs do not operate the way they were originally designed to work. Energy and information that is supposed to go into making programs work well is disrupting the system instead.

Introducing trauma into the attachment relationship disrupts mind functioning in a similar way. When people feel safe in the attachment relationship, energy and information are focused on the development of cognitive and emotional functioning.  However, when danger and trauma enter the relationship, the brain has to put its energy towards surviving, at the expense of cognitive and emotional development. This exposure to trauma develops parts of the brain associated with the fight, flight, and freeze survival responses. While development of these reactive parts of the brain helps the child survive abuse or neglect, when placed in other social situations like school, these reactive behaviors become maladaptive.

Attachment is so important because it becomes the template for other important relationships. If the child is raised in a healthy home with loving parents, they can recreate these dynamics with authority figures like teachers, friends, and eventually romantic partners. On the other hand, if the parental relationship is chaotic and painful, the child will likely create relationships with peers and romantic partners who will mirror the chaos of the attachment relationship.

The devastation of attachment trauma manifests itself in a confused state about relationships and the larger world.

Children are programmed to seek safety and soothing from attachment figures. That is why babies cry when they are hungry or startled. Babies are not born with the capacity to take care of themselves physically or emotionally. Nothing demonstrates this better than when a parent picks up a crying baby. The baby’s emotional state can change immediately when someone they love picks them up, ensures their safety, and meets their physical needs.

While the brain is programmed to reach out to parents for emotional and physical resources, it is unable to process when the attachment figure is also a source of danger. When someone the child relies on for survival also becomes a source of fear, the young mind has no ability to manage this contradiction.

Under this stress, the mind can fracture, creating one mental state to relate to the parental figure when they are loved and another mental state to survive when the parental figure becomes dangerous or neglectful. This leads to dissociation, which will be discussed in more detail later. Just like with a computer virus, dissociation can crash the young brain and send it on an alternate path of development, and can have terrible consequences for years to come.

For so many of my traumatized clients, I could see this attachment virus at work through their teens and into adulthood. When I worked with families, you could almost see the virus passed from generation to generation. I soon realized that parents of my clients were not intentionally creating poor attachments with their children, they were just replicating their experiences with their own parents.

If you work with families, children, or parents, what is your role in helping to break the hold of these viruses?

3 responses to “Power of Attachment Relationships, Epigenetics, and Trauma”

  1. William Herl says:

    Matt:Excellent article.

  2. Matt Bennett says:

    Thanks William!

  3. […] Power of Attachment Relationships, Epigenetics, and Trauma […]

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