Depression and anxiety disorders often occur after the brain’s stress centers have been forced to remain at high alert for extended periods of time. But why is it that some people seem to bounce back very quickly from stress while others succumb to depression, anxiety or even Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Are some people just better at pulling themselves up by their bootstraps?
Well, not quite. The ability to bounce back from stress or trauma is referred to by psychologists as "resilience," but we don’t achieve this quality by sheer force of will. There might be many reasons why one person has higher stores of resilience than someone else, and one of these has to do with the quality of attachment during infancy.
Neuroscientists confirm that the mutually responsive attunement that occurs between parents and infants actually sculpts the areas of the brain that foster resilience, and this key developmental period will also affect the success of children’s future relationships all the way through adulthood. Neglect and trauma that occurs during this important sculpting period have long-term effects.
Fortunately, there are some encouraging points to keep in mind if you find yourself struggling with depression, anxiety, or other negative outcomes. The first piece of good news is that the human brain has amazing plasticity and it retains the ability to grow and change well into adulthood. Another factor is that adults have attachment needs just as children do. This means that the adult brain can be reshaped by positive key relationships, long after childhood has passed.
Pepperdine psychologist Louis Cozolino put it this way a 2007 interview: "If someone with an insecure attachment manages somehow to marry someone with secure attachment, then after about five years or so, research shows that there’s a shift in their attachment pattern to a more secure profile."
Of course, marrying someone isn’t the only way to work toward reshaping our attachment patterns. Therapists learn very early in their training that in order to help clients they must begin by establishing a relationship based on trust, support and security. This is seen as the single, most important agent of change—hardly surprising given that so many mental issues stem from broken relationships.
In fact, sociologist Peter Marris believed that most of society's problems can be traced to breakdowns in human relationships. In his studies of loss and life change, he drew on John Bowlby’s attachment theory as he sought to explain the differences in the way people handle uncertainty. In 1991, Marris commented on the artificial division between the fields of psychology and social science in trying to understand human behavior. "We rarely explore the interaction between each unique human actor and the social systems of which she or he is part,” he noted. “Yet, surely this interaction ought to be at the foundation of any theory of human behavior. . . . How can we understand society except as a network of patterns of relationship which each of us is constantly engaged in creating, reproducing, and changing? We need a way of thinking about the interaction between unique human beings and the social relationships they form, not only because our theories are crippled without it, but because without it we cannot articulate clearly many of the gravest causes of social distress."
Government and social institutions, which have sometimes sought to solve human problems by financial means alone, have been showing signs of realizing this. One human security study prepared by the Harvard School of Public Health argues that focusing on material resources has obscured the real sources of a population’s resilience. “For a society to be resilient, we find that it need not necessarily be rich," says the report. Rather, "individuals and communities have greater resilience when their core attachments to home, community and the future remain intact."
Resilience isn’t something we just “work up” on our own. It is rooted deeply in our first interactions with other human beings—and is watered and fed by the social connections we continue to make throughout our lifespan. Perhaps it’s no accident that we talk about “the milk of human kindness.” After all, just as milk forms the foundation of a baby’s physical health, a parent’s kind and responsive attention forms the foundation of the child’s mental health.
August 15, 2010