What a strange and scary time we are experiencing! We are in a period of extended “social distancing,” the news is unsettling, and things feel uncertain. Many of us are home alone or with a small number of our closest friends and family. Anxiety is high and we may be swinging wildly between boredom, shame, hopelessness, and anger. On top of all that, for people with attachment trauma (or insecure attachment styles), this time of heightened anxiety may be bringing some very old wounds to the surface. Its rough out here.
“Attachment style” refers to the way we interact with those closest to us in intimate relationships. We create our attachment style as a response to our caregivers’ parenting styles. If our parents were attentive, responsive to our needs, and consistent in their dependability, we likely developed secure attachment. This means we feel comfortable with both close intimacy and greater distance between us and our loved ones. However, if our parents were less than ideal- unavailable, unpredictable, frightening, or smothering- we may have developed a different attachment style to cope. In anxious attachment, a child reacts to unavailable or unpredictable parents by turning up the volume on attempts to get connection. They may become preoccupied with fears of abandonment, highly distressed at a caregiver’s distance, or have trouble being alone. In avoidant attachment, a child reacts to unpredictable parents by becoming extremely independent. They learn to rely solely on themselves, may be uncomfortable or overwhelmed by intimacy, or be less likely to commit in relationships. Ambivalent (or anxious-avoidant) attachment is a mix of both and the child swings between feeling like others are too close or too far away. While people tend to have one style that dominates their interactions, our attachment style depends on who we are relating to and how much stress we are under.
For people with insecure attachment, times of great stress can lead to increased symptoms. The global crisis we are experiencing feels for many like a threat to their safety, and past trauma is being brought to the surface. Some people are finding that they are more fearful of abandonment, feeling heightened anxiety when their loved one goes to the store, or worrying that their partner is upset with them. For people in non-monogamous relationships, jealousy or insecurity may feel heightened in places where it had previously subsided. Other people are responding to the stress by isolating and cutting off connection to partners, not returning texts, or starting fights to push people away. It may feel difficult to be on our best behavior because our lizard brain, that fight-or-flight protector, is currently in the driver’s seat. We are being flooded with emotions, not just about our current situation, but also about every time our youngest selves felt unsafe.
If any of this sounds like what you are experiencing, know that you are not alone. This is a hard time for all of us. Here are a few simple things you can do to help you get grounded and manage overwhelming emotions.
1) Neurobiologist Dan Siegel has a great tool he calls “name it to tame it.” Notice the emotion you are feeling and summarize it out loud in a few words. When our lizard brain has hijacked the bus, our emotions are in control and logic has left the building. By summarizing our feelings, the logical part of our brain is turned back on and the emotional experience will soften. Notice that I said summarize and not monologue. Going on an on at length can push you deeper into the emotion.
2) 5-7-8 breathing. Our breath and our lungs are an intimate part of the internal system that regulates our emotions. Taking slow deep breaths soothes our nervous system and pulls us out of fight or flight. In this technique, breathe in for the count of 5, hold for the count of 7, exhale for the count of 8. Do this five times over to slow your heart rate. Stop if you begin to feel lightheaded.
3) Partnered breathing. If you are struggling to feel grounded in your relationship to a loved one, partnered breathing may help co-regulate your nervous systems. Sit in a comfortable position close to one another. If eye contact is comfortable for you, maintain eye contact. If not, you can sit with your backs touching. Then, synchronize your breathing. Try square breaths together- breathe in for the count of four, hold for the count of four, exhale for the count of four, hold for the count of four.
This is a difficult time for all of us, especially us who struggle with mental health symptoms. Remember to practice your self-care and take care of one another. We are all in this together.
Megan White, LICSW