Can Secure Attachment Make Us Less Afraid During the Coronavirus Crisis?
Last night I woke up from a deep sleep in a panic about the possibility of getting the Coronavirus, despite my precautions and social distancing. I tried a mindfulness practice for a few minutes and that did help calm me down. Then my thoughts turned to some of the young children I’ve worked with as a Child Mental Health Specialist. How are they dealing with the disturbing emotions and anxiety they must be picking up from their parents? I have many friends who are also struggling with these same fears. I recognized that the panic and fears we all are experiencing are expressions of a basic anxiety about life and death.
Now wide awake, I turned to my I-pad, a reliable sleep-aid, and found a Washington Post survey showing that over 30% of the U.S. population is currently suffering from anxiety or an anxiety disorder. The report emphasized that this was a significant rise in anxiety over more “normal” times (May 26, 2020). For some reason, reading the article reminded me of a lecture I heard the year before at a professional conference. At that time, the topic inspired me to write something about secure attachment and death anxiety — the same anxiety now keeping me awake at night.
The lecture was a keynote address delivered by social psychologist Mario Mikulincer, prominent adult attachment researcher, at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Conference in Portland Oregon in February, 2019. His lecture was based on a compelling question, especially relevant today: can a secure attachment lessen children’s fears about death? What about the anxiety states that we adults fall prey to? If so, how and why does it work? What follows is the piece I composed after recording the speech.
How important is attachment security to our overall wellbeing and happiness? Do the benefits of being securely attached to our parents in childhood extend into adulthood? Can being securely attached to a relationship partner help us cope with the fear of death? In his lecture, Mario Mikulincer tackled these questions, describing how and why attachment security helps children and adults alike to cope with their fears about death and dying.
Secure Attachment in Childhood
Throughout life, certain events — rejection, separation, illness, or loss of a loved one – remind us of the inevitability of our death and arouse powerful feelings of anxiety and dread about other existential concerns, such as aloneness, meaninglessness, and isolation. How we deal with these disturbing emotions is largely determined by the extent to which we form secure attachments with protective others (what attachment researchers call attachment figures) over the course of our lives.
In a brief review of attachment theory, Mikulincer echoed John Bowlby’s (1980) assertion that all of us are born with a biological tendency to seek proximity to an attachment figure, especially when we are frightened or distressed. According to Bowlby, an innate attachment behavioral system operates alongside an exploratory behavioral system; when one system is activated, the other is deactivated. For example, if we are frightened or distressed, we will seek for the proximity of our attachment figure and will be reluctant to detach from him or her and explore the environment.
Only when we feel secure and protected by our attachment figure, is our motivation to go out and explore activated or intensified. The attachment and exploratory systems in children, together with the ‘care-giving’ system in parents had an evolutionary advantage: they “increased the likelihood that primate (including human) infants would survive in a world full of danger, despite these infants’ immaturity at birth” (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016).
Attachment figures have two major functions: one is to provide us with a safe haven, which includes helping us regulate our emotions, calming us when we are distressed, and offering us assurance in times of need. The second, and perhaps most important function, the secure base function, allows us to explore to take calculated risks, and to accept important challenges with the confidence that support will be provided when we need it.
The attachment system was designed by evolution to regulate our emotional reactions to all kinds of threats. In the era of evolutionary adaptation, the threat from predators was prominent; next we had to learn how to deal with powerful emotions associated with a sense of helplessness and abandonment. Therefore, today whenever there is an external threat to our safely, or a threat to our connectedness with another person, the attachment system is activated, motivating us to seek proximity to our attachment figure. Ideally, our cries or other signals of distress would provoke the desired response and our attachment figures would provide us with an inner sense of security, a belief that the world is a safe place, and the assurance that we can rely on others to support us when we choose to separate in order to explore the world.
Secure Adult Attachments and the Fear of Death
In the past, most attachment research was focused primarily on parent-infant attachments and less on attachment security in relation to existential concerns that arise later in life. However, a number of terror management (TMT) theorists and researchers in adult attachment who were exploring this topic discovered that securely attached adult individuals were, in fact, less afraid of danger in general and had less death anxiety than insecurely attached individuals. The secure individuals also exhibited “low levels of separation distress, which might have resulted from the perception of their parents as supportive, their sense of confidence in the world, and their ability to cope constructively with negative emotions” (Mikulincer, Florian, & Tolmacz, 1990). It appears that Bowlby (1980) was correct in declaring, “The attachment system is influential ‘from the cradle to the grave.’”
To return to our first questions: how and why does a secure attachment help us deal with the fear of death? Or as Mikulincer and Shaver (2015) asked, “What is it about attachment security (the lasting effect of feeling loved, well cared for, and emotionally supported) that has such a remarkably wide range of beneficial effects?”
In his lecture, Mikulincer outlined the ways that attachment security works to diminish or relieve anxiety states associated with four ultimate existential concerns: Death-Mortality; Freedom; Isolation; and Meaninglessness, described by Irving Yalom, in Existential Psychotherapy (1980). Each existential concern or threat is capable of activating the attachment system, triggering our search for an available and reliable attachment figure. However, our needs in relation to each concern are different.
(1) In the case of biological death, the mortality threat, we need kindness and someone to provide us with a sense of safety in the world. As Lifton and Olson (1970) noted, ‘Life for the baby means being connected to the source of care and support. Powerful fears and anxiety appear when the child is left alone, separated from the source of nurture. This image of separation is related to an image of death’” (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2015). Thus, what we most need from our attachment figure in this case is a safe haven. We need assurance that predators will not kill us, that our biological end is not imminent, (perhaps ten years from now), but most likely not now.
(2) In the case of freedom, which in its existential sense, “refers to the absence of external structure” (Yalom, 1980), we need our attachment figure to provide us with a secure base from which we can freely explore our early environment. Later on, in attempting to live a free existence where there are no absolute truths, we need to be able to trust our own thoughts and feelings and to make choices based on what we feel is right rather than being driven by external forces. However, living with freedom arouses feelings of dread and a frightening sense of groundlessness, of having no solid ground beneath us, only a void.
To avert psychological death or motivational death – the inevitable result if we retreat from pursuing freedom out of fear — what we need is not only to keep on moving toward exploration, but we also need support for our continued explorations. We need our attachment figure to provide the platform, a secure base, for us to have the confidence necessary to continue to venture out into the world and eventually to make our own choices in life.
(3) In the case of isolation — existential isolation or social death, — in addition to a safe haven, we need to explore what’s happening with other people. We need to seek out other people and see if we can connect with them. To meet this need, the attachment figure provides us with what Peter Fonagy (2002) calls “mentalization” – an important aspect of a secure base that was added to the attachment literature ten years ago.
Our attachment figure should help us learn how to mentalize. In other words, we would be able to understand the subjective experience of the other person and through self-reflection, to understand our own subjective feelings as well. Not only does the attachment figure comfort us, but he or she also understands, upon reflection, our subjective feelings and so we no longer feel alone in the world. Someone is really seeing us, understanding us.
Learning to mentalize in the company of an attachment figure is an antidote to existential isolation. Secure relationships give us confidence that other people can perceive our needs and communications accurately, understand our struggles, and validate our experiences. Moreover, securely attached individuals feel confident that they will continue to exist in the thoughts and memories of others — their relationship partners and offspring after they are gone.
(4) In the case of meaninglessness, D. W. Winnicott (1960) described the ‘good enough’ mother as having the ability to provide some structure or meaning to the infant’s uncanny experiences and fantasies of omnipotence, that is, she provides some sense of coherence and reality.
The good-enough mother meets the omnipotence of the infant and to some extent makes sense of it. She does this repeatedly. A True Self begins to have life, through the strength given to the infant’s weak ego by the mother’s implementation of the infant’s omnipotent expressions (p. 145).
As children, we need a safe haven, an attachment figure to pacify us, a secure base from which to explore, and a model for learning to mentalize. But in this case, we also need someone to coach our self-reflections on our subjective experience. We need someone to provide some structure to our experience, so that later on we can search for our own personal meaning in life through creative endeavors, service to others, friendship, a love relationship, and other contributions that are uniquely ours.
It seems that attachment security not only offers a safe haven from a myriad of threats, but it also lessens the intensity of the anxiety associated with these four ultimate existential concerns. For fears of biological death, attachment security attempts to provide a safe haven and a positive relationship that (ideally) one originally enjoyed with one’s primary caregiver, and later with other people. It also provides support for one’s autonomy and motivation to explore the world. But the essential core of these processes is that attachment security provides the mental platform for a mindful, self-reflective state of mind.
Insecure Attachment in Adult Relationships and the Fear of Death
The type of attachment that we form with our parents during infancy tends to remain relatively stable, (when the environment remains mostly constant) throughout adolescence and into adulthood. Just as separation anxiety and emotional distress activate the attachment system during infancy, reminders of death arouse death anxiety, which also actives the system. Both threats trigger the same attachment strategies (either secure or insecure) that we developed early in life in an attempt to find safety and security. However, even if we developed an insecure attachment pattern early in life, positive changes in our environment or in our caregivers can effectively change an insecure attachment to one of ‘earned security.’
Based on findings from numerous studies, attachment researchers have concluded that “Adult attachment style [which research shows is correlated with childhood attachment patterns] shapes the way people cope with the terror of their own mortality” (Mikulincer & Florian, 1998). People with insecure (ambivalent or avoidant) attachment styles have a stronger fear of death than those with secure attachment styles. Individuals with ambivalent attachment styles were “more likely to fear the loss of their social identity in death,” whereas those with avoidant attachment styles “were more likely to fear the unknown nature of their death” (Mikulincer, et al,1990).
Pursuing intimacy in a close relationship appears to diminish death fears for people, but usually only for individuals with a secure attachment style. Researchers also found that the desire for “intimacy sometimes could be a regressive response that leads people to excessively immerse themselves into another person at the expense of a sense of individuality” (Florian & Mikulincer, 2004, p. 287). In fact, for insecurely attached individuals, existential threats do not necessarily activate the striving for closeness or intimacy.
Anxious/insecurely attached individuals often react defensively to heightened death awareness by becoming preoccupied with the possibility of rejection and abandonment and by being more dependent and clingy to their partner. Those having an avoidant/insecure or dismissive attachment tend to become more critical of their partner, to create distance in the relationship, and to become more ‘self-sufficient’, after being exposed to reminders of death on a subliminal level. In other words, when their awareness of death is heightened, insecurely attached individuals tend to engage in behaviors that characterize a fantasy bond — an imaginary connection or a fantasy of love and closeness — instead of maintaining real closeness, companionship, and intimacy with their partner.
The fantasy bond, an illusion of fusion with our parents that we originally developed is childhood, was a compensation and substitute for the love and care that may have been largely missing in our family.(Firestone, 1985) This fantasy, along with rudimentary self-soothing, self-nourishing behaviors, partly gratified our basic needs, gave us a false sense of security and safety, and promoted a sense of being totally self-sufficient. In other words, we felt that we needed nothing from anyone, we could take care of ourselves.
Later on, in an intimate relationship, we may form a fantasy bond with our partner, which instills in us a sense of immortality and helps relieve painful feelings of aloneness. In this way, this imagined merger works as a powerful defense against death anxiety, providing some comfort and solace when we feel threatened. However, the cost is considerable, in terms of the loss of our independence and autonomy.
Developing “Earned Security”
Although Bowlby (1980) emphasized the strong influence of early childhood experiences, he also acknowledged the potential for changes in people’s attachment patterns that could occur throughout life. It’s important to recognize that anxious and avoidant attachments are adaptive responses to insufficient or inconsistent nurturance and care in childhood; but now we are adults and no longer absolutely dependent on our attachment figures as we once were.
The good news is that positive changes in our environment or in our caregivers often lead to new adaptations, and to “earned or evolved security” (Hesse, 2016). Indeed, it is possible to improve or heal an insecure attachment and develop a more secure attachment with a new attachment figure. There are three ways that we can change an insecure attachment style to a secure one, based on the notion of earned security.
(1) We can seek out and develop relationships with people who have a more secure attachment style than our own. We can try to sweat through the anxiety of relating to someone in ways that at first will feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable. If we persist in this endeavor, and become comfortable with both giving and receiving love, even when it makes us anxious, we can adapt to this new way of relating and gradually develop earned security.
(2) Psychotherapy can be a valuable tool for developing more secure attachment. A therapist can help us explore our early life and how it has affected us. In building a trusting therapeutic alliance or relationship with our therapist, we can gradually change the way we feel about ourselves as well as our defensive attachment strategies, and develop satisfying romantic relationships based on earned security.
(3) We need to investigate and understand our attachment history and how it may still be affecting the ways that we relate to our partner in a close relationship or marriage. In exploring the way we felt with our parents, and how we adapted to deficiencies in their care-giving skills, we can develop a coherent narrative of our childhood experiences that will provide insight into how we respond in our present-day relationships. Creating a coherent narrative of our attachment history actually rewires the brain in a way that integrates our emotions, enabling us to develop a secure attachment in our relationships.
Being securely attached or developing “earned security” later in life, to a relationship partner, parent, child, or therapist, helps us cope with fear at any point in the life cycle. It frees us to focus attention on our personal growth and to be open to new experiences and relationships without always trying to guard against hurt and loss. Attachment security, which ideally begins in infancy in interactions with a reliable, sensitive parent, would lead to a sense that “the world is a generally safe place, other people are helpful when called upon, and I, as a unique individual, am valuable and lovable, thanks to being valued and loved by others” (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2012).
As children growing up in less-than-ideal environments, we did not consciously decide to defend ourselves. Instead, we developed defenses as a survival mechanism when we were faced with overwhelming emotional pain and the threat of ego-disintegration (Firestone & Catlett, 2009). Like other defenses, developing an insecure attachment strategy was an adaptation to the stress induced by the lack of security and faulty parenting practices we experienced early in life. These defensive attachment strategies were strengthened and became firmly established in our personality when we first became aware of death.
As adults, our core conflict centers on choosing between contending with psychological pain and death anxiety while maintaining a close attachment or avoiding these painful realities by distancing ourselves or becoming overly dependent on our partner. The universal existential dilemma is whether to live with the pain of awareness or unconsciously disengage from the self and turn our back on life and love.
An awareness of our finite existence makes life all the more precious and helps us value every aspect of real experience, however painful or temporal. Secure attachment helps people face up to issues of death and dying without becoming demoralized, allowing them to experience both the pain and joy of living. People can take control of their lives and in that sense create themselves, but it requires honesty, self-reflection, courage, persistence and the willingness to take chances. In choosing to live with a minimum of defense, we can move toward a life of adventure characterized by freedom of choice, enthusiasm and optimism (Firestone, 2018).
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Tags: attachment, covid-19, death anxiety, death awareness, existential, fear of mortality, secure attachment, self development