Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Depression, attachment and love

I wrote recently about depression and the pervasive nature of it, and many of us who work within this field believe a lot of depression stems from a lack of a secure attachment in childhood.  The type of attachment style we develop as an infant with our principal caregiver, will form the blueprint for the way we approach all our relationships throughout our lives - with friends and colleagues, lovers and even our own children, when the time comes.

A secure attachment is developed when a child grows up in a nurturing environment where all his physical and emotional needs are met and where his carers are able to manage their own emotions well, so they don't exhibit aggressive behaviours around the baby, even when they experience their own distress.   The child learns from this, that you can trust other people to help you in life and he develops a sense of being worthy of love and respect from others, good self-esteem.  Being constantly cuddled and doted on promotes the release of neurotransmitters in the brain which aid in the management of stress hormones.

When a child grows up in a family where adults don't tend to manage their emotions well, where aggression is often displayed when parents experienced distress and where the baby's need for comfort and security is not highly prioritised, the infant learns that he doesn't deserve to be looked after and you cannot trust adults to care for you; when you are at your most vulnerable, people will tend to let you down, resulting in the child developing low self-esteem.  A lack of cuddling, also results in lower levels of the stress reducing hormones, and the child will inevitably experience more anxiety and distress, with few mechanisms for controlling this.  This baby's brain and personality will develop and grow differently to infants who received more nurturing.

A lack of being able to trust others to truly care about you, and feelings of not being worthy of that sort of devotion, make relationships very hard to manage.  You can be married to a wonderful partner, have adorable children, and still feel completely isolated in the world if your parents taught you, you're unworthy of love.

For some, the prospect of a lasting marriage is not even on the radar, they had no experience of seeing what a happy relationship between adults was like, and throughout their lives, the concept has been quite alien to them, understandably.

Research suggests strongly that babies' brains are programmed at birth to form these attachments with those who have the potential to care for them, thus increasing their chance of survival.  Studies also suggest most babies are hardwired to feel sympathy for a victim, when they witness aggression, and it seems innate to our species to want to connect with other humans, to love, purely for love's sake, for the joy of connecting.

The drive in humans to connect and to love, is arguably even stronger than the drive to have sex for the purpose of producing offspring; not everyone we feel romantic attraction towards is a young, fit, fertile member of the opposite sex.  As a species, we've evolved to be much more sophisticated than that.

Often, people with low self-esteem and difficulty trusting others, crave love nonetheless, more so, in many cases.  It is as if, deep down, we're still hardwired to want to be close to others, but we haven't been able to learn the skills to make achieving that easy.

Some don't.  Some people learned in childhood your needs will never, ever be met by other human beings, that others are not even capable of understanding what your needs might be, often due to a complete lack of empathy in the parents, resulting in severe neglect, both in terms of physical and emotional care.  This tends, in turn, to produce adults who are incredibly cold and hostile and completely opposed to the idea of connecting emotionally with others.  Again, it's not their fault, this was what they internalised as an infant, the world is always a brutal place, there is nothing to be gained from loving others.

But for most of us, regardless of our upbringing and however good or bad we are at it, there remains a desire to experience the emotions connected with love, both platonic love and romantic love. 

Empathy allows us to experience emotions connected with love, even when they're happening to someone else, even when that's a completely fictional scenario, such as in a movie we're watching.  Our brains produce dopamine and even oxytocin when we watch romantic interactions in a film, we invest our own emotions in a couple who are in love and our reward is that feeling of bliss when we see them kiss.  Studies reveal that men might experience this even more intensely than women, because their brains are more programmed to respond to visual stimulation, and this might explain why lots of men feel quite uncomfortable watching romantic films.  For all the social progression of the last 50 years, many men still don't find it easy to express feelings of love in public, but it's likely they crave the feelings nonetheless.  

People seem increasingly comfortable openly watching pornography - even at work.  But watching scenes of a deeply romantic nature is something many will avoid like the proverbial plague.

As a society, we seem to be suppressing this notion of connecting with a small group or people, or just one individual on a very deep level, in favour of lots of superficial interactions with a vast range of people, often all at the same time, on Facebook and Twitter for example.  It's the illusion of having emotional connection with friends, but actually many of these people we'll only ever know as a screen name, we'll never meet them in the flesh, never give them a real hug, we'll never even talk to them on the telephone.  We just post happy faces, and sad faces on their twitter comments, as if we knew them; frequently within a couple of weeks we never hear from them again.  They could be computer generated identities for all we know, and some of them probably are.

But if people are to live genuinely fulfilling lives, I think there is a need to think about relationships more, to prioritise love higher, to feel like we belong somewhere and we'll always have a place there.  I think it's still a feature of human nature to want that level of emotional security.  Some say forever is unrealistic these days, that we have to accept people come and go in our lives, and that's all there is to it.  In a recent study of engaged couples about to marry, more than half didn't expect their marriage would last forever.

The TV shows transmitted into our living rooms night after night, soaps, dramas, documentaries and so on, tend to depict a vision of society where relationships are more doomed to fail than last, reinforcing our fears that nothing is forever.  These are incredibly cynical times we live in, but yet, there remains this craving for many, for connection and community, compassion and kindness.

Old films, depicting the values of generations before, are dismissed as sentimental and lacking relevance to our modern culture.  We're brought up from a young age to be independent, relying on others for anything, including our emotional wellbeing is largely discouraged even in childhood. And yet, so many of us still watch these old black and white movies and want to connect with a time when people did seem to care about each other more and have a greater sense of loyalty and love.

Will society continue this trend of everyone being more isolated, more disconnected?  Or will things eventually turn full circle and will people reject the idea of placing more emotional value on objects they can buy than the human beings in their lives?  Who knows, but I think it would be beneficial to a great many people's emotional wellbeing if some of those old fashioned values and views returned.

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