What is “secure attachment” and how does not having it create fertile grounds for addictions?

Human beings have a longer period of dependency on their caregivers than any other mammal. We depend on our caregivers not just for food and safety but also emotional connection, affection and love. When there is strong emotional connection and love between infant and caregiver we call this “secure attachment.” Baby knows that they can turn to their caregiver for comfort and care in times of distress. They know they have a safe haven in this big world. They feel emotionally connected with the caregiver and therefore safe. This also helps with the regulation of their nervous systems and, as the Minnesota studies (some of the first attachment research on young children done in the States) showed, helps them to excel in every area:
Children with secure attachment histories scored higher in every area, from ego resilience, to self-esteem, to independence, to the ability to enjoy themselves and respond positively to other children.(1)

We are wired to need secure attachment, not just for our survival but also for optimal
brain development.

Here is what it looks like when secure attachment doesn’t happen:
Baby is upset, turns to caregiver for comfort and connection; instead, baby gets ignored, is left alone, or worse, is abused for having needs. These types of reactions from caregiver will have an enormous dysregulating effect on baby. Most likely baby will protest (i.e., cry) or give some kind of distress signal. If this is ineffective, eventually baby will stop seeking care and comfort from their caregiver; instead, baby withdraws and starts finding other ways to self-regulate and self-soothe.

This is where I believe fertile grounds for addiction start to develop. This baby is wired to not turn to humans for care and comfort; instead, they will seek alternatives to help them self-regulate. Addictions to drugs, food, rituals around food, over- or under-eating, can all become compensatory mechanisms for replacing the regulating effect a secure attachment would have provided. I have yet to meet someone who struggles with addiction who doesn’t also have some kind of attachment trauma.

Viewing clinical issues through the lens of attachment theory has helped me enormously in my work with clients. Problems and dysfunction make perfect sense when viewed through this lens. Take my client Becky, for instance. (I’ve changed her name for confidentiality purposes.) Becky had a problem with drinking. She turned to drink whenever she felt anxious, stressed or overwhelmed. In her words: “It helps me numb out, and suddenly those things that seemed so big and overwhelming are gone.” Becky turns to alcohol to help herself regulate. She didn’t have caregivers who were really there for her or very responsive to her needs growing up. In fact, her father was an alcoholic and her mother suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. This background provided fertile grounds for an addiction to develop. I believe that because Becky had not experienced the regulatory effect that secure attachment would have provided, she had to get creative. She had to find a substitute to help her regulate; alcohol became that substitute.

Part of Becky’s healing included learning how to find other ways to self-regulate besides turning to alcohol. We came up with a “Top 10 Soother List” for her to use when she felt anxious, upset or overwhelmed. This included turning to her partner to ask for a hug, calling a friend, taking the dog for a walk, taking a bath with lavender oils and so on. The idea for this list was to find ways to create more connection with others and establish grounding in the body as a way to self-regulate-in effect, to start to wire in secure attachment.

Herein lies the good news: Our brains are constantly growing and changing; this is
called neuroplasticity. Just because Becky had caregivers that weren’t there for her and probably passed down the same caregiving that they got, does not mean she is doomed to a life of dysregulation or addiction. Because of neuroplasticity, she can rewire her former dysfunctional ways of coping with stress. Through our work together Becky started to turn to alcohol less and to her relationships more. Her partner appreciated Becky becoming more present for their relationship, and Becky’s friendships also became stronger. Other areas of her life started to improve; she had more self-confidence and better self-esteem. Her moods balanced out and she had fewer highs and lows. Becky started to feel that she had more choices. Alcohol was not her only solution when she felt stressed and overwhelmed; now she had these other options available to her. The more she turned to these other options, the more satisfying these choices became. In effect, she was starting to rewire how her brain responded to stress so that it looked and felt more like the brain of someone who was securely attached.

Becky’s treatment can be applied to many different forms of addiction. It can also be applied to eating disorders, as both bingeing and self-starvation can be attempts to regulate overwhelming affect. Once the roots of an addiction can be identified, then healing can begin. Using the lens of attachment theory to look at these roots can be both a compassionate and empowering way to start to dislodge age-old patterns of dysfunction that in many cases have been passed down generation to generation.

1)”Becoming Attached- First relationships and how they shape our capacity to love”-Robert Karen, PH.D.

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