Why we need attachments – from birth and especially after trauma

  • Sunday, July 24, 2016
  • Shona Innes Psychology

For a long time now we have known that people need people.

In the 1930’s, Harry Harlow conducted studies with baby rhesus monkeys.  He made surrogate monkey mothers out of wire and wood and some he covered with cloth.  The babies had a preference for the soft covered monkeys, even if the wire monkeys held the bottle of food.  The babies clung to the cloth mother.  Babies raised with just a wire mother had troubles with digesting their food and frequently suffered diarrhoea.  Baby monkeys were braver in the presence of a surrogate and would huddle in fear without them. Harlow concluded that contact comfort was essential to the development of psychological and physical health and lack of contact can be psychologically distressing.

Another important researcher of this era was John Bowlby.  He studied maternal deprivation and sought to understand the problems experienced by infants and children raised in institutions.  Prior to this research, institutions were large and busy places where children were fed, but the atmosphere tended to be clinical rather than warm. He suggested that babies need physical contact and emotional attachments to others in order to survive and that they cry and cling to make and maintain important survival connections.  If an infant has regular, steady contact with a reliable and caring attachment figure, they are likely to develop a secure attachment.

If there was trouble with early attachment, the child grew up with a different attachment style – insecure in their attachments – either constantly anxious about attachments and needing to check or expect abandonment, or avoidant of attachments altogether.

Attachment theory is starting to make a re-emergence as a way of understanding human behaviour, especially in terms of how others are in interpersonal relationships and now how well people deal with trauma.  We usually seek attachments when we are unwell or tired or under threat.  The way we go about doing this and the success we have in feeling soothed by others may well be influenced by our early experiences.

Move ahead from psychology history to now, the early 2010s, and we find that contact with people is important not just in infancy, but throughout life.

Professor Richard Bryant is one of the world’s foremost researchers in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was fortunate enough to hear him speak at a recent congress.   His group has studied trauma in laboratory settings and also in those people affected by many of Australia’s natural disasters.  Some of the information they use has come through from the terrible bushfires of 2009 and is providing important information about attachments styles and how well people recover from traumatic circumstances.

In the laboratory studies, the team have used the cold pressor test.  A test where people are asked to put their hand into icy cold water, a stressful situation, and they measure various stress responses in their body.  Some who did the test were asked to think about a person they really loved during the test and others were asked to think about something else.  The group that were primed to think about their loved ones, showed lower stress responses in the test.

However, when they assessed the participants for their attachment style, they found that those who were avoidant in their attachment style reacted differently.  When those with an avoidant attachment style were asked to think about their loved one, there was no protective effect of doing so during the cold pressor stress.  Individuals with secure attachment seemed to benefit from thinking about loved ones more than those who had a pattern of avoidant attachment.

Based on these studies, you can see why researchers are speculating that attachment can affect how we learn about and deal with fear.

Then, beyond the lab and in the real world, Richard Bryant’s team looked at distress following real world disaster.  The team have followed those who survived the Ash Wednesday bush fires.  They have done some follow up with those children who were separated from their families when the fire came through and those who were with their families.  It seems that those children who were separated during the fire experienced more long term distressing effects, avoidance, numbing and arousal.  So, it seems it does not have to be long term separation from an attachment figure (like in an institution or care facility) for there to be an impact on long term trauma.

After Black Saturday in 2009, the team followed up with survivors again and looked at their social maps.  Social maps indicate the connections and friendships that people have to each other – who is friends with whom.  When they looked closely at the maps it indicated that the social connections people had correlated with how much trauma they experienced.  The more connections people had to other people, the less trauma they had and the connections seemed especially healthy if they were reciprocal rather than just one way.

A large proportion of our population have an insecure attachment style and not all of these respond to trauma in distressing ways.  Clearly, there are lots of other strategies that people use to get by, but this research confirms the importance of our early attachment and our need for people.  Secure attachment is obviously a priority for many with their infant and children.   To me, this research also suggests that it is wise to ensure that children who are separated from parents during fearful events are reunited quickly and that communities that have experienced trauma get support to continue to network.  Also, it seems important that those who go through trauma alone are given chances to work on building and maintaining reciprocal relationships.