Attachment Theory and Emotion Regulation

Halifax Psychologist, Brad Peters, talks about attachment theory and emotion regulation, as it relates to emotional intelligence, connection in relationships, and psychological resilience.

Attachment is a term that describes an emotional bond – initially in childhood, with the parent or caregiver, but then later in life as well, with close friendships and romantic partners.

When an infant is in distress, it will be almost instinctual for most adults or caregivers to provide comfort. We do this through our physical touch, soothing tone of voice, and eye contact. Research suggests that these kinds of behaviors promote the release of dopamine (neurotransmitter involved in pleasure/elation) and endogenous opiates (the body’s natural painkillers).

It is also useful to remember the axiom: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The parent finds the infant in a state of nervous system distress or chaos, and then uses their body, to move the body of the infant, into a state of calm or equanimity. When this happens with repetition and consistency, over time, the nervous system of that infant will ‘learn’ (like muscle memory for neurons) to more readily shift from a state of distress to a state of relative calm – this marks the very beginnings of what we call Emotion Regulation: the ability to tolerate, and ultimately regulate, high levels of emotional distress, without being flooded by feeling, or having to engage in various forms of psychological repression.

Fast-forwarding into childhood, we can imagine a child feeling sad. The tears are streaming down their cheeks, facial expressions suggest that they are in emotional pain, and their body posture is slumped over. In a perfect world (which only happens about 50% of the time), a parent will meet the child at eye level (dropping to one knee), will comfort them physically, and will offer that familiar tone of voice that the child intuitively recalls from childhood – and for all the reasons described, it feels good. But with language, now parents are ideally ASKING their child what they might be feeling, and the circumstances that led to them.

When the parent guesses correctly, the child feels like their parents understand, and if the parent is moved by their hurting child, the child feels themselves being felt by another. When this happens, it makes these painful emotions, which are almost unbearable in isolation, now bearable.

If we have these kinds of experiences in childhood, we tend to grow into adults with high emotional intelligence, who are able to experience and express their feelings, and who feel comfortable relying on others for psychological support. Those who receive less than that, because parents were perhaps not very good with feelings, took a problem-solving approach to addressing emotion, or used distraction or guilt to suppress them, tend to develop into adults with avoidant or anxious-ambivalent styles of attachment.

The important point to keep in mind is that while attachment styles are programmed early and unconsciously, once they are identified and made conscious, they can be changed. It is hard work, for sure, but this ‘earned secure attachment,’ will mean an end to maladaptive emotional patterns, that prevent us from dealing effectively with feelings, and that keep us stuck in unhealthy relationship dynamics.

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