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Affect Regulation: The link between attachment and trauma in childhood





Affect regulation - attachment, trauma and dysregulation.


I regularly talk about our emotional and mental health as that's how I started this health journey 8 years ago. It's been a huge part of my journey. And Affect regulation is something that really resonates with me. Working on our emotions is as important as working on our nutrition etc. A whole body approach. Everything is connected.


When we have things going on in our body, physically and emotionally, I think it's really helpful to understand WHY. I personally feel that the 'oh, that's why!' lightbulb moment can really help with clarity, understanding ourselves better and understanding there is a real reason behind this stuff.


This is not professional advice. This is just something that has been a huge part of my journey and something that I want to share with you.


Please seek advice from a trained mental health professional if you require support. Check out my EMDR highlight on Instagram.


Our emotional and mental health is as important as our physical health. It should not be forgotten about. Storing stress and other emotions in our body can be a contributing factor to the root of dis-ease. Quite often, a large part of it. Nutrition is important, movement is important, all the health supporting tools are important, but we can't forget about our emotional health.


If this resonates with you, I hope it helps to provide some clarity as to 'why'.


Don't forget healing is possible, emotionally and physically. Our bodies hold an innate ability to heal. We just need to provide it with the right environment and a helping hand to get it on the right track.


Let's dive into affect regulation:


Affect is what is happening inside your body, how your inner emotional body is feeling and what it has experienced. It is how attachment from your primary caregiver as a child, and/or trauma experienced, has affected your emotional brain.


1-4 = numb and shut down, difficulty concentrating, feeling/appearing checked out, feeling shame, hopelessness, despair etc. (hypo arousal)


5-6 = relaxed, excited, alert, attentive, present, calm etc.


7-10 = racing heart, faster breathing, tighter chest and stomach, feeling jittery, jacked up, panic, terror, rage etc. (hyperarousal)


Our optimum zone of arousal is 5-6. That is right where we sit if our affect is regulated, and we feel pretty good. Being out of this zone generally means a state of dysregulation.



Signs you are hypo aroused:


1 - 3


Feeling numb, body is shut down, difficulty concentrating, feeling/appearing checked out, feeling shame, hopelessness or despair etc.



Signs you are hyper aroused:


7-10


Racing heart, faster breathing tighter chest and stomach, feeling jittery, jacked up, panicky, terror or rage etc.



Becoming dysregulated

We all get dysregulated, but some get more easily dysregulated than others. For example, I'm sure most of us would get dysregulated if someone barged into a restaurant with something dangerous in their hand! Yet, some get dysregulated just from the drop of cutlery on the floor or two people arguing over what to order on the next table.


In those moments of dysregulation, your body's greatest need is to regulate it's affect and return to the 4-6 zone. The zone of regulation. The happy, calm or excited zone. This means being able to self-regulate. You may need to invigorate your hypo arousal or calm your hyperarousal to come back to that zone of happy medium. Regulated people can manage this pretty easily and quickly.


BUT some people struggle to do this, they struggle to bring themselves back to that happy medium. Ever feel like you're always losing patience and always angry? Or get frustrated thinking why can't I get myself out of that mindset and just feel calm? You get more wound up than others in the room? Your loved one 'winds you up' all the time? Not everyone's brain has the ability to self-regulate. People who suffer from a lack of attachment as a child, can, in childhood and adulthood, become more dysregulated and more often, BUT, add in trauma and then they can also struggle to actually self-regulate.



Self-regulation

Self-regulation simply means BOTH invigorating your hypo arousal and calming your hyperarousal.


When a child heads off to their bedroom to calm themselves down after an argument with siblings, they are simply building the habit of putting self-regulation into practice. They are learning to actually regulate their affect. This is very important as confidently knowing you can self-regulate is what makes a child/adult feel safe. A child/adult is either giving love or asking for love. Being in the 7-10 zone and 'freaking out' is simply a person desperately seeking regulation. They feel unsafe and they are just seeking that feeling of security and calm. But they struggle to find it. And this can be a daily ongoing struggle.


How do you react in a situation / heated situation? Do you numb down? Or do you lose your s**t? Or are you pretty alert and switched on but calm?


Self-regulation is critical for everyday life and interpersonal relationships, especially when things get heated.



What's at the root? Attachment

Your ability to self-regulate was largely moulded by your PRIMARY caregiver in your young years, especially your first 7 months of life. But it can also apply to other relationships and relationships during the years following.


Babies have little to no ability to self-regulate. At a young age, the brain does not have the structures developed to regulate their affect. So, they rely on their primary caregiver to do it for them. This is where attachment comes in. The primary care giver will do this for them, on repeat, and that's how a secure regulated child is moulded.


When a child is dysregulated (which is of course, normal, due to life's ups and downs), having their kind and loving caregiver there 24/7 is not enough. The primary caregiver will need to honour attachment and be able to pick up on their child's distress AND respond appropriately by helping the child return to their regulated state. The primary care giver will need to be very much attuned and emotionally connected to the child and respond fully, physically and emotionally. The child will be relying on the adult to make them feel safe again, regulate them and bring them back to a calm and centred place. Ideally, this process will happen thousands of times, resulting in a storage box full of experiences of moving from regulation, into dysregulation, and back to regulation, with the support of their caregiver, which is how SECURE attachment and the ability to self-regulate our own affect is formed.



Building those brain structures

When a child's primary caregiver works hard to regulate the child whenever needed, they are ultimately teaching the child's brain to regulate itself. This repeat process is how the brain structures are formed. How the necessary neuro-circulatory structures are developed. They will develop descending fibres from a portion of their brain called the orbital prefrontal cortex, which will run down to the amygdala (structure of cells in the middle of the brain that is associated with memory formation). This is the area of the brain that people use to regulate their own affect. The attuned and responsive caregiver will be building and strengthening this area of the child's brain.


All this allows the child to develop the physical and emotional ability to self-regulate.


Although, it's important to understand that a primary caregiver does not need to get it right all of the time. Just half of the time! But when they do slip up, it's important that re-regulation occurs at some point. Even further down the line. And the primary caregiver simply recognising they have missed an opportunity to attune, want to attune and actually attune, is helpful.


And guess what, this is also an ongoing important factor in all our close relationships as adults! Recognising the need to connect with a loved one and attune.



Prolonged missatunement

Prolonged misattunement or unresponsiveness from a primary caregiver can result in chronic emotional dysregulation for the child, as the child has been unable to develop the necessary neurological pathways in their brain, so they will be unable to regulate their own affect very well, even as an adult.


Which can result in that state of feeling stressed, over-reacting, not being able to calm down, low tolerance for other people, or, feeling numb, emotionally absent, 'checked out' etc.



Struggling as an adult

Regulated people should be able to venture into low arousal (zone 1-3) and high arousal (zone 7-10) without becoming stuck in dysregulation. People should be able to feel sad without becoming numb and withdrawn, or angry without losing their temper. Affect regulation means you can experience both of these without feeling unsafe.


It is said that all addictions and compulsions, deep down, are rooted in attempts at self-regulation, attempts at trying to feel safe. Attempts to regulate your affect. You'll do whatever it takes to feel calm again, even though in reality you may be going in the wrong direction to try and make that happen. But a dysregulated person doesn't see that when their inner being feels so desperate to feel safe again. And don't forget, someone who has experienced trauma will have a much tougher time becoming regulated.


These addictions and compulsions could be anything from drinking too much alcohol, drugs, overworking, training too hard in the gym etc.


The feeling of dysregulation is not something we can naturally sit with. Our body will desperately want to regulate our affect and will do whatever it takes to achieve that, however, that may look, even if it's wandering down the wrong path.



Interpersonal relationships

Affect regulation is vital for good interpersonal relationships. Whether that is with family, work colleagues or anyone else you have communications with.


When you are dysregulated, your prefrontal cortex will not be engaged.


The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain primarily responsible for the 'higher' brain functions of the frontal lobes, including decision-making, problem-solving, intelligence, and emotion regulation. This area has also been found to be associated with the social skills and personality of humans.


Essentially, your rational brain will have switched off.


The other person will pick up on this. Subconsciously their brain will pick up on your body language, facial expressions, a change in your tone of voice etc. This will communicate to their limbic brain. The exchange of affect is fundamental and if one person, or both, are dysregulated, it can cause a 'wedge'. Due to their struggle to regulate themselves, it can result in alienating themselves/others. Rage can push others away. 'Checking out' or shutting down can push others away, as they can feel like you have emotionally abandoned them. The connection can be ruptured, and the other person can Subconsciously revert to protecting their own nervous system. Or, they have simply shut down.


When it comes to adults, their ability to attune their child appropriately will depend on their past. Which is why it is so important for parents to address their own trauma, ideally prior to having children of their own.



Affect regulation in a nutshell

Self-regulation is a critical part of life and navigating interpersonal relationships.


Your ability to regulate your affect makes you feel safe.


Dysregulation can present as numbness and/or shut down etc (hyporegulation), or panic and/or rage etc (hyperregulation). This can show up in infants, children and adults. This may show up consistently.


A primary caregiver needs to be in tune and connected to the child on a deep level and practice attachment, which results in the child experiencing affect regulation.


A Child who does not experience consistent attachment from their primary caregiver (that caregiver may be a wonderful person!), will unlikely develop the necessary neurological pathways, which can result in chronic emotional dysregulation, into adult life.


A child who has experienced trauma, which can be defined as anything that makes the body feel unsafe, will likely not only become dysregulated more often, but have a much tougher time regulating their affect.


Chronic dysregulation is usually a cry for love, for safety - not someone being 'difficult' - this can lead to exclusion/isolation, when what they really need is to be regulated, they are seeking regulation from anywhere, for their emotional brain to feel safe again.


You are not broken - help is out there.


Source: Affect Regulation Theory, by Daniel Hill

Not medical advice. If you require psychological support, please seek an appropriate mental health practitioner.

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