Attachment and Stress

“We are born twice, once from our mother’s body, then from her unconscious“ Louis Cozolino

 We used to talk about survival of the fittest. Now we talk about survival of those who fit to the environment. The latest science shows our brain is above all an organ of adaptation. So there are some environments where it makes sense for our brain to be on high alert all the time.

 Can you think of some examples?

 One of the key factors that enables our survival is our ability to belong. In a group we are more likely to survive predators and other threats. Our brain, as an organ of adaptation, needs to be plastic to enable this adaptation. What happens in the brain has been studied extensively since the 70’s, when neural networks were first identified. But now, more and more systems have been discovered that are specifically dedicated to helping us bridge the “social synapse”.

 Relationships have been shown to improve our health, longevity, learning and healing. Without relationships we die, as in the Anaclitic depression seen in orphans during the second world war. Bowlby and others later showed that attachment was needed to keep them alive.

 Even our genes have been shown to be affected by the environment which includes our relationships. And relationships affect the formation of neurons and the nervous system, beginning with our mother. It makes me wonder about the sort of pressures mothers are under these days!

 If you compare the brain to a computer, the mother partly “downloads” her brain into the infant. Early experiences shape the brain and the formation of  neurons.  By looking into her baby’s eyes, cooing and making other noises, mirroring, and by looking away when the baby gets too excited, the mother is literally shaping the brain of her baby. At the same time, the baby is reflexly searching for the mother’s face, and the sight, sound, touch and smell of her is instinctively important to the baby.

 Good connection between mother and baby creates more connections between neurons and more growth in neurons. Neurons that are “happy” also form a fatty covering (myelin sheath) which enables the transmission of information faster.  When a mother touches and strokes a child, and uses soothing words, chemicals are released in the heart of the baby’s brain that allow us to feel comforted and stimulated.

 Without this “good enough” parenting, we grow up feeling abandoned and insecure. If this happens, our amygdala grows fewer receptor sites for endorphins and other chemicals that would soothe and downregulate us when distressed or aroused.

Repeated over time, these early experiences – positive or negative- shape not just our physical brain, but also our social behavior, our thinking, and our emotional responses. This in turn shapes our perception of the world and ourselves, our ability to make satisfying connections with others, and our ability to regulate, soothe and calm ourselves when distressed.

Most importantly, these experiences impact on learning. “Good enough” experiences set us up to be less afraid, and to approach new experiences more openly.