Healing through Attachment Neurobiology
Posted on March 20, 2015
Thanks for all the great feedback on the previous posts on attachment. Many of you have expressed your struggles with the power of attachment and how something that happens to us as small children can impact us in an extremely negative way throughout our lives. There is, however, some good news in all this attachment research. If we take a step back, it appears that the same biological need for a secure base and attachment stays with us throughout our life and provides an opportunity for healing, both from unhealthy attachment styles and past trauma.
Please take a moment to watch the following video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T58lGKREubo).
These five out-of-sync metronomes are a great representation of the impact of a disorganized attachment on the human mind. Childhood trauma and dangerous and unstable caregivers pull the young mind in many different directions, making it hard to find any stability and coherence in thought and emotion. But just as the vibrations of the metronomes eventually bring them together into a coherent and stable rhythm, so too can we help our clients bring together a traumatized and disorganized brain.
Let me continue this analogy, as I believe it has a lot to teach us about our role in the healing process. In the last post, we discussed the disorganized and polarizing reactions to stress that manifest in many people with past trauma and insecure attachment styles. To review, these are Help-Seeking vs. Disengagement, Impulsiveness vs. Inhibition, and Submission vs. Aggression. These are well-represented in the video by the out of sync metronomes.
We know that things that vibrate in proximity will eventually sync, as is evident in the video. This connection is a great representation of our role in our clients’ struggles for healing. We are similar to the middle metronome – if we are able to maintain our own flexibility, adaptability, coherence, energy, and stability, we set a healthy rhythm and create attunement with our clients. Being exposed to our healthy and hopeful energy can help those with disorganized functioning to find stability and coherence within themselves.
In addition, we know from the video that the cans below the plank help to speed up the synchronization. To me, these represent the compassion and empathy we provide as the foundation of our work with clients. Compassion builds a bridge from the pain of the past to the hope for a better future. Empathy is the foundation for attunement, as it provides us an understanding of the client’s world and the struggles. Empathy and compassion show the client that they are no longer alone in their pain and that we are there to help them find a way out.
When I first learned about the reality of attachment I realized that, as a therapist, one of my most important jobs was to work with the client’s transference (the past experiences, especially attachment, that the client projected on me as a helper) in order to help them repair the suffering they experienced in their youth. Creating a safe and secure base with the client allowed them to explore their past trauma in a safe and nonjudgmental setting. This exploration had the ultimate goal of bringing organization to their previously disorganized personal story of their life and experiences. This process of integration reconnected the parts of the client’s mind that never had a chance to form normal and coherent connections in childhood.
It is well established in the research that this organization, or integration of previously disorganized experiences, does not have to be done in therapy. Study after study shows that integration and healing are accessible if someone in the person’s life attunes with them in an empathetic and compassion way. This can be another family member, teacher, coach, mentor, friend, case manager, medical provider, or anyone else who values the person enough to connect with where they are in life. In the research, we see the powerful long-term impact of just a single caring person in a traumatized child’s life. Those lucky enough to have a person to connect with most often build the biology to live a fulfilled life, while those without a caring person often struggle for years, if not their entire life.
What continues to amaze me about our biology is that many of the same processes that can devastate and harm the mind also stay online as a tool for healing and growth. Relationships can harm or heal, dissociate or integrate, control or set free. As helpers and healers, relationships are the vacuum in which the magic of our work happens. We have to make sure we keep this prioritized in our own work. Additionally, it is also critical that we communicate the power of relationships to funders and policymakers who may not realize the impact of continuing to cut funding, which takes time and energy away from the foundation of healing: the time needed to develop healthy relationships based on compassion and empathy.
My challenge as we wrap up our discussion on attachment is to look at your own work and how your program(s) are structured. Have you developed programs around an understanding of attachment theory? If not, are there any ways to integrate this knowledge to improve client outcomes?