Ever since the pandemic has started, our lives have turned upside down. Our routine has changed, people are struggling with sleep, waking up with nightmares and experiencing a range of mental health problems, which brings into question, has this pandemic activated our attachment wounds?
What Are Attachment Wounds?
The relationship with our primary caregiver (mother, father, or primary caretaker) sets the foundation of how we relate with the world, including romantic relationships.
Attachment wounds develop when the relationship with our primary caregiver has been insecure and our idea of relationships is, “it isn’t a safe space”.
There are primarily four attachment styles:
Secure Attachment: People with secure attachment style are comfortable with emotional closeness as well as alone time, have positive self-esteem and will attempt to repair misattunements in relationships.
Anxious Attachment: They carry sense of unworthiness, seek validation by others as a means of self-acceptance, are extremely sensitive to other people’s feelings and need constant reassurance from their partners.
Avoidant Attachment: They avoid closeness with others as a method to protect themselves from rejection, have the need to take breaks when faced with conflicting situations in relationships because they get easily overwhelmed when their partner expresses strong emotions.
Disorganized Attachment: They have sense of worthiness but with a negative disposition towards other people. They avoid closeness by maintaining independence to protect themselves from disappointment. They see relationships as dangerous and swing between two extremes – craving for closeness and fear of closeness.
Attachment wounds can develop when the child has grown up in the conditions involving abuse and neglect of any kind, but it can also form if the parents were separated from the child due to work or any other reason, or in some cases medical procedures. All the other attachment styles except the secure attachment style leads to attachment wounds.
Attachment Anxiety: When Our Attachment Wounds Are Activated
People experience attachment anxiety when their attachment wounds are activated. In all the three insecure attachment styles, people experience attachment anxiety in different ways. A person with anxious attachment style will start wanting a lot of closeness in the relationship, fearing that their partner is losing interest in them, being extremely suspicious and start manipulating the situations to keep their partner’s interest. Someone with avoidant attachment style will start becoming more distant, overemphasizing on boundaries, exploding during disagreements and devaluing their partner. People with disorganized attachment style have no specific noticeable pattern. They can be a mix of both anxious and avoidant styles showing excessive emotional shifts between the two styles.
Does Activation Of Attachment Wounds Make People Vulnerable To Anxiety And Depression?
There has been multiple research evidences suggesting that activation of attachment wounds make people more vulnerable to anxiety, depression and other mental health related conditions. Simonelli and his colleagues (2004) studied attachment models and their relationships with anxiety, worry, and depression and found that all of the four attachment styles were related to anxiety, worry and depression levels. Mikulincer and Shaver (2012) studied attachment difficulties and found that it is associated with significant distress and a variety of psychological difficulties. Some other researches have shown that attachment anxiety is associated with increased negative emotional responses, heightened detection of threats in the environment, and negative views of the self.
The Link Between Uncertainty, Emotions And Attachment Anxiety
H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. The length of the pandemic doesn’t seem to be ending, the transmission can be from multiple sources, the cure is not yet properly known. All these factors are add up to the uncertainty and fuels up one’s fears. The emotions we experience in the times of uncertainty depend on our appraisal of the situation. This link between uncertainty and emotions has been widely studied using the Uncertainty and Anticipation Model of Anxiety (UAMA) by Grupe and Nitschke (2013), which explains how anxiety can be due to heightened expectancies about the probability and cost of future threats. Another set of theories that has studied the relationship between uncertainty and emotions is appraisal theories. It states that the perceived certainty or uncertainty about the outcomes affects one’s appraisal of the situation which in turn affects what emotion they are going to experience. A study by Wright and his colleagues (2017) found that individuals with insecure attachment styles develop heightened intolerance of uncertainty relative to those who are more securely attached. In uncertain situations, our attachment wounds are activated, and thus, uncertainty may be perceived as threatening which in turn reactivates our attachment wounds and creates an endless loop of anxiety.
Has This Attachment Anxiety Put People In The ‘Survival Mode’?
Many clients are reporting that lately they have been experiencing mental exhaustion, frustration, difficulty in coping, difficulty in concentrating and a lot of edginess. These are the symptoms of burnout which might be because our brain has been in the ‘survival mode’ ever since the pandemic has started (which is almost a year now). Survival mode is one’s automatic response to sudden stress shifts where our bodily senses are sharpened and we gear up to respond quickly to a life-threatening event. In the book Hijacked by Your Brain, Julian Ford (2014) explains that, in the times of stress, that alarm center in our brain takes control starting managing our memories and thus, enabling us to think clearly. Until it gets reset, the brain is stuck in survival mode. This also results in persistent feelings of stress that seems unstoppable. Hence, Instead of exploring the world, the brain of a person shifts to hypervigilance and a fight-flight state – ‘survival brain’. Burnout occurs when the person is exposed to long periods of stress and thus their brain is stuck in the survival mode which makes it difficult for the person to stay calm, is extremely focused on threat, cannot handle uncertainty, and start self-doubting themselves and their abilities.
In the current time, frontline workers are more susceptible to experience burnout because there is high demand at workplace and simultaneously higher levels of stressors associated with the pandemic. The higher stress levels at workplace are outweighing the rewards associated with work, which is the breeding condition for burnout. Neil Greenberg and his colleagues (2020) writes about how COVID-19 has put all the healthcare workers in an unprecedented situation where they are at the risk of moral injury which puts them at the risk of mental illness, PTSD or even suicidal ideation.
How Does One Get Out Of ‘Survival Mode’?
The answer lies in attachment theory. When the person feels safe and secure in their surroundings, it gets easier to restore their regular state of calmness and turn off the survival mode. Since we are not in control of what happens outside especially during the time of this pandemic, the key is to “restore the internal sense of safety and security”.
Using Secure Attachment As A Tool To Combat Burnout And Get Out Of Survival Mode
Some secure attachment principles we can follow:
- Reconnecting with your secure resources as an imaginary practice exercise where you feel their presence around. These are the people who have been consistent in your life can be anyone, a pet, your teacher or a friend.
- Practicing physical distancing but not social distancing. This means, staying connected with your loved ones through video calls, phones, etc. This will also help in managing the disconnect caused by threat response.
- Using this time as an opportunity to learn new things, like developing a new hobby or learning a new art form.
- Noticing the signs of burnout like headaches, irritability, fatigue, neck and shoulder pain. And giving yourself time to practice self-care and light non-reward related activities.
- Practicing different breathing techniques (4-7-8 breathing technique, abdominal breathing, etc.). When our brain and body is in the survival mode, the amygdala in our brain sends more oxygen to our body to prepare us for fight-flight-freeze response and our prefrontal cortex get less oxygen making it difficult for us to think rationally. Breathing exercises help us get more oxygen so that we can think clearly.
- Practicing polyvagal nurturing exercises to wake up our social engagement system and bring our body to its natural rest-and-digest state. This exercise involves the vagus nerve which affects our breathing, our heart rate and how we make sense of, react to and recover from stressors.
- Practicing self-compassion for our lack of productivity. We need to remind ourselves that we are all innately worthy and directing our compassion inwards.
- Consuming less news and tuning into silence from time to time.
- Watching TV shows that displays secure attachment (like Young Sheldon, This is Us, Parenthood).
WHEN YOU ARE WORKING IN THE FRONTLINE:
We are all on the same boat but the people serving at the frontline are at more risk of experiencing different mental health issues because of their increased work hours, demands and less time for rest and self-care. The following strategies that can be used:
Create an online support circle with your fellow working professionals to share their experiences.
Sometimes continuous and long hours of working might make people feel lost in the sense of purpose (especially when they are experiencing burnout). People are reporting that they have been feeling that there is an imbalance of how much effort and time they are putting in and the rewards they are getting in return. These support circles and the discussions with someone going through the situation and in the same field might serve as a reminder towards why they joined the field of work in the first place and bring their attention towards the internal rewards associated with their passion towards work.
Focusing on the recovery and not on the illness.
When you are constantly being exposed to people’s suffering, it is easier to get caught up in the misery. But it is important to remind yourself everyday that human beings are resilient beyond belief and have enormous capacity to recover and heal. Consuming lesser amount of news, and reading articles and magazines that generate hope can serve as a small reminder to not lose hope. This does not mean that we are closing our eyes towards the reality. This just means that we are being prepared about what comes next but at the same time trusting our own resilience and the healing capacity of ourselves and everyone else around us. Brooks and his colleagues (2020) found some people (like rescue staff after disaster) who came across significant challenges (moral or traumatic) experienced a degree of post-traumatic growth,
Creating a balance between work and self-care.
Self-care can be a lot of things. It can be a small walk in the nature, having a routine, balanced diet, exercising, engaging yourself in non-reward related fun activities, listening to your body when it needs rest, and getting proper sleep. Beauchamp & Childress (2001) defines self-care as providing adequate attention to one’s own physical and psychological wellness. But with an ongoing pandemic, it might seem difficult to meet the high work demands and simultaneously practice self-care. It is also natural to fall into one extreme (work or self-care) at times. So it is important to remind yourself that it all comes with a little practice and it is possible to achieve that balance with time. You will be able to give your best at work if your mind and body is happy and healthy and well-rested.