The Good News and the Bad News About Feeling Secure

Children become securely attached if half of their upsets are fully soothed.

Posted May 15, 2019

There's good news — and bad news — about feeling secure. Initially, the mother is a child's whole world. The level of safety the child experiences in their first relationship influences how safe the world will seem as an adult.

To help us be safe, a part of the brain, the amygdala, monitors the environment. Anything unexpected or unfamiliar causes the amygdala to release stress hormones. Though the amygdala may be reacting to something that is harmless, the hormones cause feelings of alarm and the urge to escape. What happens next depends on whether a person is secure or insecure.

In the experience of a secure person, alarm has been followed by a caregiver's response and resolution of the matter. This sense of security allows the parasympathetic nervous system to down-regulate feelings of alarm to feelings of curiosity. With urgency to escape inhibited, executive function can survey the situation to determine whether there is a threat or a false alarm. When executive function counters a threat or dismisses a false alarm, it signals the amygdala to stop releasing stress hormones and allow a return to homeostasis.

In the experience of an insecure person, feelings of alarm are not responded to by a caregiver. The parasympathetic nervous system, which operates based on relationship, has no basis for stepping in. Thus, the feelings of alarm continue. Alarm, because it is associated with danger, makes accurate assessment of the situation difficult, if not impossible, Fear may turn into panic and overwhelm the person even when there is no danger at all.

Terrified of overwhelm, an insecure person does their utmost to control every situation because, lacking automatic down-regulate, control of emotion depends on control of events that could cause distress. Such control is tenuous, and the person thinks, "what if this happens" and "what if that happens?" These thoughts trigger the release of stress hormones. As anxiety increases, overwhelm can be avoided only if escape is guaranteed. For many panic sufferers, mere imagination that escape may be blocked triggers panic.

Since our first relationship may determine whether we will be subject to panic, how good does that relationship need to be? A study by researchers at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Maryland shows a child becomes securely attached if, at least half the time, crying leads to being completely calmed. One of the researchers, Susan S. Woodhouse, says, "It is at the end of each crying episode that the infant learns about whether, on average, the caregiver can be counted on."

Fifty percent sounds easy. Any parent should be able to pull that off. But, there is bad news. One — just one — frightening episode in the caregiver-child relationship results in insecure attachment. Woodhouse says, "If the mother did frightening things when the baby cried, like hard yelling or growling at the baby, or suddenly looming toward the baby's face while the baby was upset, even if it only happened one time, the baby would be insecure."

The idea that secure attachment can be ruined by frightening the child just one time is shocking. Don't most parents "lose it" once in a while? If so, that may explain why many of us feel insecure in our relationships and somewhat unsafe in general. This research may explain why, when things go wrong, it is as if it were the end of the world. If we are insecure, when stress hormones cause us to feel alarmed, we don't automatically down-regulate. Once alarmed, we stay alarmed until the stress hormones burn off.

We need alarm. But, we need it only long enough for what is going on to grab our attention. We then need to down-regulate enough to think clearly, and examine what is going in. We need to separate false alarms from real threats. When there is a false alarm, we need to be able to let it go. That's hard to do when feelings of alarm continue. On the other hand, if there is a threat, we can't wait until stress hormones burn off to be cool, calm, and collected enough to figure out what is best to do about it.

If we weren't secure enough in our first relationship to develop automatic down-regulation early in life, we can develop it now. An excerpt from my new book explains how:

To produce completely automatic alarm attenuation, we train the mind to activate the parasympathetic nervous system automatically. Because the amygdala releases stress hormones every time it senses anything nonroutine or unexpected, we experience arousal several times a day. Link your actual feelings of arousal to your friend’s face, voice, and touch. When feeling relief, we sometimes say, “ahh.” Let those three letters remind you:

  • the letter “a” of their attuned face,
  • the first letter “h” of hearing their voice, and
  • the second letter “h” of getting a hug

Every time you sense arousal, imagine you see your friend walk into the room, come over to you, and give you a hug (or whatever form of touch is appropriate for your relationship). By imagining this in response to arousal or alarm, you cause the three elements that activate the parasympathetic nervous system — face, voice, and touch — to come immediately to mind.

Let your friend’s presence linger in your mind for a minute or two. You could imagine your friend sitting down with you. You might imagine talking over what triggered you. Hanging out with your friend in this imagined way keeps the parasympathetic nervous system active until whatever stress hormones are present burn off.

In just a few days, bringing your friend’s face, voice, and touch to mind each time you feel arousal will establish automatic alarm attenuation.

Reference

Susan S. Woodhouse, Julie R. Scott, Allison D. Hepworth, Jude Cassidy. "Secure Base Provision: A New Approach to Examining Links Between Maternal Caregiving and Infant Attachment." Child Development, 2019; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13224

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