If we understand attachment styles, we can calm ourselves and others quickly.
Sometimes our feelings don’t make sense and we don’t know why we feel the way we do. Often, our relationship with our partner or parent is negatively impacted by our own childhood and our attachment style.
To understand why we come up against a blank when trying to understand our behaviours or those of someone else, we have to have some awareness of the amygdala and memory. The amygdala and memory are in the basement of our old primitive brain. The wrinkly neocortex, which is our new brain, is wrapped around the old brain.
The neo cortex or “new skin” is where you, that is the calm rational you, sits. The “calm you” sits in the neocortex at the front of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex as it sits just behind the front of the skull. This area is your rational, insightful self, your intelligent self, you as a planner, as a decision maker. This part of you is like an intelligent philosopher and problem solver, it is slow responsive and contemplative. However it switches off if your emotional self is triggered!
That is, you also have an emotional, nervous, irrational self. This part of you sits in the centre of the old primitive brain below the rational neo cortex. The amygdala is reactive and fast with no intelligence. Imagine a nervous hamster that has had a jug of strong coffee, the amygdala is very twitchy.
How the Amygdala works
The amygdala works very quickly, in milliseconds and picoseconds, at about a 3rd of the speed of light…something which the conscious you, in the neocortex, cannot comprehend. The neocortex operates in seconds, minutes and hours. The amygdala operates in milliseconds as it has had hundreds of millions of years, almost a billion, to evolve but the neo cortex developed very recently.
The job of the amygdala and its neighbour, the hippocampus – the part of the brain involved with memory, is to store records, like a photograph with an emotional tag of significant events, that helps us function quickly and effectively. It does this by taking snap shots of life every few milliseconds and storing the most meaningful memories (good, bad, happy and sad). The emotion gives the picture importance. When presented with a dangerous situation the amygdala supercharges the photograph of the incident by adding an emotional tag which gives it meaning.
What is the purpose of Emotional memories?
The purpose of emotional memories is to act as a reminder. So when presented with a similar situation the previous danger memory is activated as a warning: “…stop!!! something is wrong, fix it”. These memories are then referred to when a person is confronted with similar situations happening in the present. This is especially important when we have felt unsafe and in danger. This is where it gets confusing.
Every 2 seconds it asks if we are safe and compares the current 2 second moment to old memories. However, the amygdala does not communicate in words, instead, it communicates through emotion or more correctly by producing sensations. If the amygdala registers a situation as “unsafe” it throws out signals as sensations (emotions) in our stomach to evacuate the contents so we can run faster, to our chest to breathe faster, our shoulders to punch, our jaws to bite. Then the frontal cortex gets hijacked by the amygdala. This is because the neo cortex could actually slow us down in a dangerous situation so it is closed down by the amygdala which is why we find it difficult to think rationally when we are stressed. As the amygdala communicates in a completely different way to the neocortex, the neocortex does not understand what’s going on when we become emotional.
Attachment styles and children
The importance of understanding the amygdala relates to early attachment in our childhood. Attachment refers to the bond between a child and parent and relates to a time before we can remember, before we were 2 years of age. This is essentially where our personality develops.
Anxiety develops for 2 reasons, genetic predisposition and upbringing as well as later life trauma. If a child has a predisposition to anxiety due to genetic reasons he /she will have a sensitive amygdala. This means he /she has had multiple amygdala activations which are stored as trauma memories.
However, nurturing also plays a huge part. To a large extent anxiety develops before 2 years of age. If the baby senses his / her parent is stressed the baby senses danger. The reason for this is we have special brain cells called mirror neurons which reflect another person’s emotional state. By viewing a parent’s emotional state through her / his mirror neutrons the baby senses whether or not he / she is protected and safe. The more unsafe moments the baby perceives the more likely he/she will develop anxious bond to the parent, a fear that something bad will happen. Two types of common bond form. Either ambivilent attachment or avoiding attachment.
Ambivalent attachment arises from mixed signals from parents, for example the baby perceives one parent is stern and the other is warm and loving; or one parent could give mixed signals. This results in a baby who is anxious and becomes focused on whatever protection is available. The child typically develops into a needy child and a needy adult. This type of attachment leads to adults with a dislike of change and a need for control. Change or lack of certainty triggers terrors of abandoment or rejection by those around them.
Whereas Avoident attachment develops from parents who are unable to connect emotionally with their babies. The baby develops into an avoidant child. The child’s amygdala looks for safety in other ways, from friends or withdrawing into their room avoiding their parents to seek their own protection. Avoidant attached children are typified by a need for space. Their need for space is as intense as the need for connection for the ambivalently attached child / adult. The avoider will not like to be controlled and will tend to avoid conflict the opposite to the ambivalent attached adult.
Learning your partner’s and your parent’s attachment style to their parents will help you understand their behaviours.
Dr Dan Siegel is the world guru on attachment and well worth a watch to understand how our early attachment influences our adulthood
The book “Attached” by Amir Levine explains how our early attachment (and its effect on our amygdala) affects us in our adult relationships.