Attachment and Emotion Regulation

Bowlby was unequivocal in his theory that dissimilarities in the level of attachment security between infant and mother could have long lasting implications in later adulthood, specifically regarding intimate relationships, self-understanding, and psychological disturbance (Bowlby, 1960).  According to attachment theory, inconsistent, unreliable, and insensitive attachment figures can affect the development of a stable mental foundation, resulting in reduced resilience in the ability to effectively cope with stressful and difficult life events.  Such figures can also predispose an individual to deteriorate mentally and psychologically during times of crisis (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).  Certain types of attachment insecurity can result in the formation of particular kinds of mental health disorders (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).  Attachment-related mental health disorder predispositions are moderated by biological, psychological, environmental, and sociocultural factors (Fonagy, 2011). 

Attachment theory stipulates that interactions with an available and secure attachment figure who can provide symbolic support for obtaining constructive and effective emotion-regulation coping strategies is essential (Bowlby, 2005).  According to Lander et al. (2013), eye contact, tone and volume of speech, comforting touch, feeling a sense of support and security, along with the ability to comprehend and attend to the infant’s needs, are all intricate building blocks of attachment. 

Leerkes (2010) conducted a study on 119 mothers to investigate the degree that the mothers’ emotional (i.e., empathy, negative emotion) and cognitive (i.e., detection of stress, emotion efficacy) responses to infant distress can be related to maternal sensitivity.  When maternal sensitivity and infant distress were examined simultaneously, results demonstrated that “maternal sensitivity to distress was a predictive factor of infant-mother attachment, social competence, behavioral adjustment, and affect regulation than was sensitivity to non-distress” (Leerkes, 2010, p. 220). 

According to Mikulincer and Shaver (2012), emotionally accessible and responsive parents can provide an environment in which a child can learn that appropriate displays of emotions are important in a sense of maintaining emotional and psychological wellness.  It is healthy and socially appropriate to express, explore, and try to understand one’s personal feelings.  Unlike secure individuals, avoidant individuals tend to remove their emotions from their thoughts, behaviors, and actions (Zepf, 2011).  Due to this emotional distancing, avoidant individuals present a pretense of security and composure by suppressing distressful situations that can affect their ability to deal with life’s eventual adversities (Fonagy, 2011).  For avoidants, their emotions are not well regulated (Zepf, 2011); they often exhibit elaborated emotion and exaggeration of worries, depressive responses to actual or potential losses and failures (Fonagy, 2011).  They might also display socially destructive outbursts of anger and impulsive, demanding behavior towards their relationship partners (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).  Often, the result of these outbursts might include violent behavior (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).

Bowlby considered emotional dysregulation to be a “distortion of the attachment behavioral system” (Bowlby, 1960, p. 43).  Sable (2008) reported that individuals with high levels of anxiety and depression have excluded, suppressed, or misrepresented certain painful countenances of their personal lives, essentially attempting to lock them away.  Unfortunately, the effects of trauma continue to surface in symptoms of psychological imbalance and SUDs when situations in their lives remind them of painful past experiences, whether an individual is consciously aware of these experiences or not (Sable, 2008).  Research and investigation based on attachment have identified a host of interpersonal experiences that can be harmful during childhood development (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).  These experiences can result in anxiety and anger that can pose significant difficulty to the adult personality (Sable, 2008).  For example, parental threats of abandonment, hostile punishments, and illogical constructions of reality, in addition to separation or loss, can have a tremendous effect on the organization of attachment behavior response (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).

Attachment theory has advanced in the field of learning; it promotes an understanding of psychopathology by demonstrating that symptoms can develop out of individuals’ transactions with their environment (R. Bowlby, 2008).  For example, internal working models begin to form during infancy and are persistent, affecting feelings of security and generating configurations of behavior (Zepf, 2011).  Attachment-related events, such as childhood loss and abuse, can result in modifications in internal representations and thus affect strategies for processing thoughts and feelings (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).  According to R. Bowlby (2008), “when children develop negative representations of others or when they adopt strategies for processing attachment related thoughts and feelings that compromise realistic appraisals, they can become more vulnerable to psychopathology later in life, including the development of an SUD” (p. 136).

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