How attachment theory helps with real-life challenges like lockdown

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“What happens once you come to understand attachment? What do people do with this knowledge? The best way I know to answer these questions is by telling some real-life stories of people who have undertaken this journey of awareness.” 

Those are the words with which I begin one of the chapters in my forthcoming book — a newly revised edition of Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears: The connected baby guide to attachment.  Since the book was first released in 2013, it has sold nearly 15,000 copies.  Seven years on, it seemed time for an updated edition.  The publishing team at connected baby never dreamed, when we embarked on planning for 2020, that something called ‘coronavirus’ would be part of the challenge we faced!

Ironically, though, these weeks in lockdown have highlighted the key message of the book.  Human beings need connection.  Without it, we suffer.

It is true that we don’t all need exactly the same ‘amounts’ of connection, nor do we need it delivered at the same pace or intensity.  But each of us, individually, need the amount of connection that allows us to feel personally relaxed and comfortable.  It’s no different from the urge to avoid hunger or cold.  Human beings have a biological drive to avoid loneliness.

Attachment needs

Hunger is managed by the digestive system (with major input from the hypothalamus in the brain). Temperature is managed by the thermoregulatory system (also with guidance from the hypothalamus).  Connection is managed by the attachment system (with, yes, help from the hypothalamus).  All three are all biological systems.  Culturally, we tend to have a lot more awareness of the first two.  In 2020, we have all learned more about the attachment system than we ever wanted to know.

On second thought, let me put that another way.  Human adults have re-learned more about attachment needs than we ever wanted to remember.  Every single one of us knew all about those needs when we were babies.  It’s just that the uncomfortable memories of what we learned got stored in our unconscious, so we grow up largely unaware of those early lessons.

It is entirely possible for adults to go through the whole of their lives without any realisation that their emotional patterns and relationship decisions have been influenced by experiences they had as an infant.  The aim of Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears is to encourage readers to take a new look at that forgotten past.

Why would a person want to do that?  Isn’t it unsettling?  Well, yes, it is true that it isn’t always straightforward to undertake these discoveries.  But the thing is….when people better understand how their emotional regulatory system works, they often find that everyday emotions become a bit easier.  Actions and reactions make more sense. They stop beating themselves up.  Shame can be replaced with self-compassion.  Compassion can be extended to other people, including one’s own children.  Patience requires less effort.  So does holding to boundaries.

Managing lockdown

I would even go as far as saying that lockdown becomes easier when you understand your own attachment style.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Peter Lovenheim, author of the 2018 book The Attachment Effect, has offered his thoughts on coping with quarantine.  He reckons that, of the three primary attachment styles, those people who have a ‘secure’ style (i.e., those who handle both emotional connection and disconnection reasonably well) will manage best in weathering this crisis.  “They’ll be sheltering in place and helping to keep up the spirits of loved ones.”

For those who have an ‘ambivalent’ style (i.e., those who get anxious in disconnection), Lovenheim advises, in his light-hearted tone: “Watch less TV.  You are not cut out for news shows that display a running tally of illness and death.  Instead, call a friend.”  And for those with an ‘avoidant’ style (i.e., those who feel most at ease with emotional distance)?  He recognises that they chafe against rules that constrain.  He suggests, cheekily: “Social distancing has long been your preferred way of life, so maybe just pretend that no one has ordered you to do it and it’s your own idea.  Keep in mind that the sooner we get through this, the sooner you can regain your independence.”

Putting attachment theory to use

It is in taking attachment theory beyond the realm of theory and applying it to real-life challenges (like pandemics!) that its value becomes clear.  That is why I am grateful to the range of people who have allowed me to tell their stories in the new edition of Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears.  We hear how Jennifer, as a mum, realised she could support her anxious daughter, rather than get impatient with her, on the days she was reluctant to go to school — because Jennifer came to understand attachment.  We hear how Iain, a defence lawyer, has transformed the way he presents clients’ cases within the courtroom – because he was introduced to the science of adverse childhood experiences.  We hear how three headteachers — Angela, Eileen and Frances —  became so confident in their understanding of the emotional regulatory system that they purchased massive teddy bears for every classroom in their schools.  There are other stories told in the book, but I don’t want to spoil all the surprises!

I’ll end with the story of Tony, who was sent to boarding school at the age of 7.  Now in his mid-50s, he is still working to make sense of the traumatic impact of those early years.  I admire Tony’s willingness to share his story publicly, both on his website and more widely.  As he says in the book, “Going to boarding school is considered a privilege.  There is a shame associated with telling a story of privilege as a story of trauma.  I have to re-confront that shame every time I share my story.”  Yet, when you view the remarkable animated film that Tony has created as part of his journey of recovery, you are left in no doubt about the power of attachment ruptures to wound – and the power of attachment knowledge to heal.

Celebrating with a Book Launch

That is why Tony Gammidge will be amongst those joining me at the Book Launch for Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears, on 16th May 2020.  I have invited him and other guest speakers to reflect on the ways they have benefitted from understanding attachment theory and why they believe everyone deserves that opportunity.

You too can hear what they have to say, if you wish – because you are also invited to come to the Book Launch on 16th May, 10.30am – 12.00pm (GMT), from wherever you live in the world.  One of the silver linings that has come out of the collapse of live gatherings is the rise of online ones.  All you need to do to attend is sign up via this link, and then tune in this coming Saturday.

Actually, that’s not quite true.  You’ll also need, please, to bring along a glass of your favourite fizzy morning beverage.  Despite the distances, we want the occasion to feel as celebratory as possible, so we’re going to end it with a toast.  I guess we’ll have to pretend we can hear the ‘clinks’!

If you’d like to pre-order a print copy of the book, you can do so on this link.  After the Launch, you’ll be able to obtain the book in three additional formats: audio, eBook and online.  The connected baby team has always been keen to have the insights in the book reach as many people as possible, and the challenges wrought by COVID have only strengthened that desire.  I am grateful to every single person who helps to expand the ripple of understanding.

I look forward to welcoming everyone who can come along to the Launch.  Bring yourselves, your children and, if you wish, your teddies!  Thank you all.

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