This article explains how mental health and healing can be understood from an attachment and neurological perspective. Psychotherapy has the potential to change the brain through increasing neurological integration-allowing all parts of our brain to function as a whole. This type of functioning increases one’s capacity to regulate emotion, maintain a sense of self, connect and empathize with others, respond flexibly, manage fear, have moral awareness, and find meaning. The neurological underpinnings of this will be addressed, as well as how therapy, the practice of mindfulness, and having loving relationships can all work to impact our neurology, our ability to form healthy attachments, and our overall mental health.
Attachment Theory: In order to understand the process of healing (and that of psychotherapy), it is important to know a bit about attachment theory. This theory was developed by John Bowlby in the 60’s, but has more recently gained prominence, largely due to exciting developments within the field that shed light on how attachment (i.e. early childhood) experiences impact brain development. Attachment theory explores the critical importance of an infant’s early experiences with caregivers in terms of forming later patterns of relating that include sense of self (e.g., “I received lots of love, so I must be lovable”), expectations of others (e.g., “If I express need, I will be disappointed/punished”), and strategies for handling relationships (e.g., “I can’t expect consistent care from others, so I will learn to take care of myself”).
Children have little other choice than to base their understanding of reality, and their strategy for dealing with that reality, on what they experience at home. Perhaps the most important aspect of this learning is what they come to expect from other human beings. That is due to the fact that social relationships are so critically important to living How to Be Guided in the Present Moment . Because humans have a much better chance of surviving (and reproducing) in a group, we are literally wired to need relationships-for our sense of safety, for our psychological and physical health, and for our ability to find meaning. This wiring explains why so much of our sense of well-being is dependent on our relationships and why coming from a family that instills negative expectations of others (and the subsequent maladaptive strategies) can be so debilitating.
Because relationships are key to survival, a great deal of the brain is dedicated to monitoring and engaging in social behavior (determining safety or danger, expressing warmth or threat, etc.). According to Allan Schore, a nationally acclaimed researcher, the right hemisphere is more heavily involved in interpersonal processes. It is also the side of the brain that develops more actively in the first two years. During this time the brain is extremely plastic, with neuronal pathways being laid down and strengthened (or, without use, atrophying). This is a concept some may find surprising. It would be easy to assume that the brain is pretty much fully-structured at birth (like the hands and feet). But in fact, experience works alongside genetics to determine how the brain is wired. Because so much of the right brain is molded during the first two years, this period is particularly critical in terms of learning how to trust and relate to other people. Reading social cues, having empathy, even being able to like others and ourselves, is based on how the brain is wired. Although this wiring is largely determined by how one was related to as a child, corrective experiences in adulthood (such as therapy) can fortunately modify brain wiring as well, which I will say more about later.
Attachment and the Brain: The study of how attachment experiences impact the brain has been largely pioneered by a psychiatrist named Daniel Siegel, whose work many therapists, psychologists, and educators have grown interested in over the last 5-10 years. Siegel developed a field in the area of attachment research called Interpersonal Neurobiology, which addresses how the brain is wired through past experiences and how new experiences can help rewire the brain. In the last few years, interest in this field has rocketed, I believe because Siegel’s work confirms what psychologists have always known-that early relationships are important-while helping us understand why they are important from a biological point of view. Although specific knowledge of the brain may not be essential for therapy or counseling, I have found it extremely useful to orient clients to some of the general principles that Siegel (and Allan Schore, Steve Porges, among others) have discovered. There is something helpful about conceptualizing our behavioral/emotional problems as glitches in our nervous system. This can decrease shame (since it illustrates that our vulnerabilities aren’t “on purpose”) and be empowering (since understanding the science behind what we are experiencing can help us make shifts).
Because the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology and other advances in attachment theory are so groundbreaking, there is a tremendous amount of excitement about it in the therapeutic community. A number of approaches to therapy, including Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Psychobiological Couples Therapy, Emotionally Focused Therapy, and Systems Centered Therapy, incorporate attachment ideas into their techniques.
Let me say more about what Interpersonal Neurobiology teaches us. According to Siegel, how the brain becomes wired is largely based on social stimuli (such as smiles, cooing, being rocked or held), that activate certain neuronal patterns. For instance, if a baby cries and then is picked up and soothed, the brain is learning how to move from a state of upset to a state of calm. In other words, neuronal pathways are being formed so that various parts of the brain can work together to deal with the upsetting emotion. On the other hand, if a baby cries and is ignored, or even punished, then the baby not only learns important “realities” (like that there is no point in reaching to others, and that emotions lead to disappointment, isolation, and being overwhelmed), but his or her brain is also left in prolonged states of chaos or upset-what therapists refer to as emotional dysregulation. Since “neurons that fire together wire together,” the longer the brain remains in certain states that lack integration (particularly when we are young), the more likely one will return to those states later on.
When parents are available, attuned, and non-intrusive, children are able to use them for emotional regulation. This type of support patterns the child’s brain toward healthy independence (where they can care for themselves, but also allow others to care for them when needed). When parents are inconsistent, a child might learn to cling to his or her loved one’s to get what she needs, thereby engraining a style of relating (or an “attachment style”) that is very sensitive to abandonment (this is called a preoccupied or ambivalent attachment style). On the other hand, a child may feel so neglected that he or she “gives up” on others and shuts down his or her need for support-to the point that it can be difficult to receive support much at all later in life (this is called an avoidant or dismissive attachment style). Though these adaptations may be necessary during childhood, they can be unfortunate later on, since having a secure connection to another can be a uniquely effective way to emotionally regulate.
To summarize, for people who did not have positive experiences of being regulated by their caretakers, it may be more difficult for them to effectively use others when dysregulation occurs. In couples counseling, teaching partners to successfully use one another for regulation is a key to therapy and can often make the difference between a safe, healing relationship, and an unsafe, damaging (or distant) one.
Have you ever taken a trip abroad and were left unsatisfied? Are you tired of the safe but boring organized tours? How about dealing with annoying friends and being forced to compromise your travel experience as a result? Well my friend, I know exactly how you feel! Back in the day I took an organized trip to the middle east and the entire time I was crawling out of my skin because all I wanted to do was explore the area, visit attractions my own way and meet locals. The tour guides, however had a schedule to keep. Another time I went to Russia with a friend who had local connections. Experiencing another country with someone who knows the local scene sounds great doesn’t it? Well, it would have been great if only I didn’t have to fight with him every step of the way about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do! Both experiences were true disappointments because I felt like I missed out on what travel is truly all about: Freedom and Adventure! Afterward I vowed never to take another organized tour or be subjected to a friend’s itinerary ever again!
In my vision, travel abroad is meant to be adventurous, exciting and spur-of-the-moment. You must have the freedom to go anywhere you want, live how you want and be free to take advantage of incredible opportunities should they present themselves! In order to make this a reality, there are three simple rules that must be followed no matter where in the world you decide to go. The first is to make the unconscionably scary decision to go at it solo. The second is to have faith that your trip will be amazing no matter what and refrain from making an itinerary. The third and final rule is to decide on a hostel in your first destination. Whether you’re a guy or girl, young or old, I promise you that if you follow these three rules, you will have the time of your life!
I have a friend who is a lady, 38 years old and loves the idea of travel. After many sub-par experiences, she asked how to do it right because mine seemed incredible to her! I told her exactly what I am telling you – don’t make an itinerary, don’t take any friends and make sure to stay at a hostel. She listened, booked a ticket to Argentina and told herself “let the cards fall where they may!” A month later, she returned and had the most incredible glow about! She told me that I was absolutely right not to make an itinerary. She met people along the way, at the hostel and other places, who helped her whenever she needed it. She found adventures she never thought possible and returned with a clear idea about which direction to go in her life.