Attachment Disorder in Children and Adults: Underlying Physiology that Contributes to Attachment Disorder

Working with children who have attachment disorder, living with an insecure attachment yourself, or having a spouse with attachment disorder is hard. There are behaviors and hurtful actions that can look like disarrayed-chaos, and it makes you wonder what is wrong with the brain!

Traditionally, attachment disorder has been strictly seen as a thought process disorder, or in psychodynamic circles, it is seen as an emotional regulation disorder. Both are certainly true. For many people, therapy has been very helpful in undoing the emotional and thought processes that perpetuate an insecure attachment style.

However, there is so much more to attachment disorder than just part of the brain; it is a whole brain and body disorder, which we will explore further! It is crucial to fully understand the biological processes of the brain and body that can contribute to attachment disorder, as well as what physiology attachment disorder causes so that one can be prepared to prevent and heal those who struggle with trust and attachment issues.

Here, we will discover, investigate, and learn how attachment disorder is an entire brain and body disorder. An important take-away point has two perspectives, like two sides of the same coin. One, there are brain and body biological processes that contribute to the development of an attachment disorder. Two, having attachment disorder causes and is associated with a number of brain and body biological imbalances.

In this discussion, we will focus on the brain and body biological processes that contribute to the initial development of attachment disorder. We will explore the influence of genetics and environmental triggers that cause these biological processes.

Is attachment disorder a genetic condition?  

For kids who are adopted, it can be easy to look at birth parents and see common traits in their moods and think perhaps it is all genetics. After all, Bipolar and ADHD have been determined to have genetic inheritance because of its patterns from one generation to the next in families. While talking among friends, parents will often say similar things about depression and anxiety, such as “He got anxiety from his dad and depression from me!”

Even mood disorders like depression and anxiety, as well as ADHD and Bipolar, have many potential causes and factors that contribute. It has now been shown through studies, like the work of Bruce Lipton, that explain the interaction of the internal and external environments that determines how our genes are expressed.

The core of Bruce Lipton’s work is the following: we are not locked in to our genes, but we can change how our genes are expressed by how we change what we are exposed to in our environment, as well as how we perceive and respond to that environment.

Going back to attachment disorder, there are certain internal physiological states that will make a child more prone to developing an attachment disorder. These same internal states will make it harder for a child, or an adult, to earn a secure attachment style through therapy or deep interpersonal work.

What are these physiological states that will influence attachment? First, let’s review what is a physiological state. Physiology is how our organs and systems in our body function, which determines how well our body works and feels. Physiological states are created by the interaction of our specific genetics and our external environment.

Physiology of Attachment

Let’s look at examples of genetics around different neurotransmitters in the brain. If the neurotransmitters’ feelings of happy, safe, and satisfied are somehow low or processed differently because of genetics, this child will have a higher chance of not feeling loved or understood from infancy leading to an insecure attachment style.

The same parents raising another child without these genetic changes will result in a happy and securely attached child. This is only one example of genetics contributing to a physiology that makes an insecure attachment disorder more likely.

Given how many neurotransmitters play a role in mood and emotional states, it would be safe to assume that several different neurotransmitter genetic conditions are associated with an insecure attachment disorder.

However, remember that physiology is the interaction between our genes and our environment. Meaning that even though a child has lower neurotransmitters because of their genetics, a sufficient environment will be supportive enough to help them be able to securely attach and feel loved during infancy.

Can systems outside of the brain contribute to our mood and connection with others, or is it just brain neurotransmitters that influence emotional states? 

The brain and body are so connected that there are many systems in the body that directly influence neurotransmitter levels, moods, and emotional states. Through multiple pathways, the brain, body organs, and systems communicate and therefore change each other’s physiology. Let’s look at some of those systems in the body and the physiology states that they create, which contribute to attachment disorder.

The energy system of the body is a big one for contributing physiology to attachment disorder. Our brain and body requires an extensive amount of energy to function. If one’s genetics results in lower energy states, one will simply not have the energy to engage socially with others and will thus isolate one’s self.

Certain genetics can contribute to low energy systems if the environment is not changed to accommodate the genetics. For example, genetic changes involving what is known as, the methylation pathway, affect levels of important chemicals in our body that in some people, have caused severe mental and mood disorders including, depression and anxiety.

Dairy sensitivity is another condition that will result in overall discomfort for infants who are more likely to take formula during their feedings. While a dairy allergy may be easier to detect because of a strong immediate reaction, dairy sensitivity can be quite subtle and very hard to discern. However, an infant who is having digestive discomfort will be less engaged socially and will thus, affect attachment.

Dairy sensitivity is not the only food sensitivity that can contribute to social disconnect, but there can be many others that, as introduced, can cause frequent abdominal discomfort or mood disturbances. It is normal for infants to experience many different emotional states, so crying, defiance, or increased tiredness can be hard to relate to food sensitivity.

Colic is another condition in which, due to obvious discomfort, an infant feels more pain than love, security, and understanding. An infant who continually experiences pain will come to the conclusion that his/her parents cannot help or save them, and they therefore believe that they cannot trust anybody. Though not true, you can see how this can lead to attachment disorder since this is the underlying belief in insecure attachments.

Other major systems in the body that contribute to mood disorders include the pathway involving detoxification, as well as, a condition called pyroluria, both of these being a result of genetic mutations.

Pyroluria is a genetic condition that many people live with, especially those who end up having mood disorders and find using substances or drugs help them to feel normal. Here is an excellent summary article of the underlying nutritional deficiencies, including genetic conditions like pyroluria that can cause anxiety.

Are there some physiology states that are not caused by genetic mutations that will contribute to attachment disorder? Of course, though the lines start to blur when you try to separate what is genetic versus what is environmental. Remember the following principle: our genetics direct how we interact with and respond to our environment, including the food we eat, which then becomes a feedback loop changing our genes to best respond to such a perceived environment. Even if all we do is expose ourselves to foods our body reacts to, our genes will become programmed to run our brains and bodies as if we are constantly in survival mode.

Other relatively common environmental triggers that influence our moods are: toxins, molds, chemicals, metals in our food and living spaces. Even in subtle amounts, these will have influences on how well a person feels, their brain’s ability to function well (including on an emotional level), and how their genes are programmed. Certain genetics can make a person more susceptible to reacting more strongly to molds or toxins, especially genes involving detoxification.

Toxic metals including lead, mercury, and fluoride contribute to mood and emotional states, making some people more reactive. These metals actually embed themselves in the tissues in the brain and body. Among other things, they can result in excitable nerves.

As we look at the biological processes that are due to our genes or influence our genes contributing to an underlying anxiety, fatigue, or neurotransmitter imbalance, the picture gets much larger, fuller, and more complex.

The thought process and emotional regulation disorder that characterizes attachment disorder can often have an underlying physiological process. In these cases, attachment disorder is just one symptom of the physiology imbalance.

Finding and treating the underlying process in children and adults with attachment disorder facilitates the healing of the thought and emotional regulation disorder. If the underlying biological processes are not identified and treated, that individual will always have a physiology that works against him or her.

It is not always easy to find the exact underlying physiological or biological process, nor is it always just one! However, as data is collected through different assessments and tests, one’s biology can be improved as we reach towards the goal of complete healing.

There is so much still to be learned in the area of identifying the biology and physiology created by the interaction of our genes and environment. It is truly exciting to continue to explore ways of how we can change a person’s brain and body’s biology to create an internal environment primed for a secure attachment!

What are your thoughts on the interplay of genetics, biology and attachment disorder? In your experience, has genes or physiology played an obvious role?

Please share your thoughts!  Shared experiences help us understand more the complex relationship between genes, physiology, and attachment disorder!

Related: Working With Children With Attachment Disorder

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