The Biology of Attachment and Trauma

biology & trauma by Dr. Terry Levy.jpg

Biology of attachment and trauma

[Originally published on April 15, 2017 by Terry Levy, PhD, B.C.F.E. on LinkedIn]

The limbic system is the social and emotional part of the brain, governing attachment, nurturing instincts, learning, implicit memory (preverbal, unconscious), motivation, stress response, and the immune system. The circuits of the limbic brain are wired together almost entirely by attachment experiences, and are altered by stress and trauma. In other words, the neurons of the limbic regions are genetically programmed to connect with one another via early child–caregiver interactions. The primary structures of the limbic system are:

• Amygdala: Regulating emotion, learning, memory, interpreting facial expressions, and fear conditioning, it serves as an “alarm bell” activated by threatening and frightening experiences. It is programmed to respond to fear and potential threat. It is where implicit memory is created and stored, in utero and during the first 18 months of life.

• Hippocampus: This organizes explicit memory, in concert with the cerebral cortex, which allows us to remember facts and autobiographical events consciously. By around age 2, a child is learning language, has conscious awareness, and can remember him- or herself in a specific past event. The hippocampus is also vital to retrieving information encoded in the past; it can become impaired due to chronic stress, which can affect the ability to accurately remember.

• Hypothalamus: Interacting with the pituitary, it regulates the autonomic nervous system and neuroendocrine system by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters, such as oxytocin (the bonding chemical). It regulates primal drives and functions, including hunger, sexual arousal, blood pressure, heart rate, thirst, and the sleep–wake cycle.

• Middle prefrontal regions: Located at the intersection of the brain stem, limbic system, and cortex, they include the anterior cingulate, orbitofrontal cortex, cingulate gyrus, and the prefrontal cortex. These structures play a key role in modulating attention, self-regulation, awareness, and the integration of cognitive and emotional information.

• Thalamus: A major relay station to the cerebral cortex, it sends signals to the brain stem to stimulate the release of norepinephrine throughout the brain, resulting in alertness and arousal.

The brain and nervous system are composed of billions of neurons, which form connections with many other neurons to create a neural network. Neurons communicate with one another between gaps, or synapses, via electrical and chemical messages. Neurons that fire together become wired together. Over time, the brain circuits and networks that result from these firings lead to “wiring” of the brain. The social and emotional environment of the infant—early attachment experiences—are critical to the development of those neural networks. Changes in the wiring of brain circuits can occur at any time in life as a result of new and healing experiences (neuroplasticity).

The following is a list of the most significant neurochemicals that relate to attachment, mood, behavior, and stress:

• cortisol: Released by the adrenal glands during the stress response; increases heart rate and blood pressure and results in arousal and anxiety.

• dopamine: Associated with attention, motivation, bonding, and pleasure; drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines trigger the release of dopamine; mobilizes the body for fight, flight, freeze response.

• serotonin: Affects mood, impulse control, and survival; plays a key role in depression, aggression, and anxiety; selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are popular antidepressants and increase serotonin flow.

• norepinephrine: Regulates arousal, alertness, attention, and motivation; makes senses more alert under stress.

epinephrine (adrenaline): Prepares us for danger or threat by focusing attention, sharpening senses, and increasing fear.

• neuropeptides: Endorphins buffer stress, reduce pain, and increase pleasure (e.g., runner’s high). Endorphins increase during parent–child connection.

• oxytocin: Promotes maternal behavior (nurturing, nursing) toward children. Loving touch increases oxytocin in the blood of caregivers.

• vasopressin: Also plays a role in bonding and attachment, as well as inhibiting fear and reducing stress hormones.

Stress alters and dysregulates biology

When the stress response is chronically triggered, such as during childhood maltreatment and compromised attachment, key biological systems become altered and dysregulated. Research on Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), which focuses on the mind–body connection, has found that people who suffer trauma have higher rates of serious illnesses than the general population. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study found that adults who experienced trauma and disrupted attachment as children—including physical and sexual abuse, and parental mental illness, substance abuse, and criminal behavior—had higher rates of cancer, heart disease, bronchitis, diabetes, stroke, and gastrointestinal disorders, than nontraumatized adults.

Similar outcomes have been found in other studies: women maltreated as children had a ninefold increase in heart disease; 60 percent of women treated for gastrointestinal illness had an abuse history; significantly higher rates of chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia occurred when there was a history of trauma and PTSD diagnoses.

What Anxious and Angry Kids Need to Know About Their Brain

Anxious and Angry Kids


[This article was written by Nicole Schwarz and can be found in]

“Settle down,” you say above the screaming.

It sounds more like a threat than a caring suggestion.

“I don’t know how!” your child jeers back.

You shake your head, sighing. How many times do you need to remind her to take a deep breath when she’s upset?

Obviously, something’s missing here.


Big feelings like angerfrustration, jealousy, anxiety, sadness, and stress can be overwhelming to kids. Without warning, their body is flooded with physical sensations – racing heart, tense muscles, sweat, tingling fingers.

Plus, their thoughts can get pretty confusing, “I hate you, mom!” on the outside may conflict with, “Wait, what? I don’t hate my mom, why did I just say that?” on the inside.

When we step back, it’s easy to see why some kids feel so helpless when it comes to managing big feelings.

One way to empower your child (and to reassure them that they are totally normal), is to teach them about the brain.


Here is a very simplified explanation of the brain and how it works. You can alter this script depending on the age and developmental stage of your child.

(Of course, there are people who actually study the brain, and they have much more detailed explanations of these principles if you’re interested.)


What to tell your kids: “Have you ever thought about all of the things your brain is in charge of? I mean, your brain is the control center for pretty much everything you think, feel, or do! That’s pretty amazing. Let’s list some things your brain controls.”

For you: Keep this in mind when thinking about discipline. Changing your response can change the entire conversation, simply because you’ve appealed to a different part of the brain.


What to tell your kids: “Scientists say that when you do something over and over you create new pathways in your brain. When you were a baby, you couldn’t do much, but now your brain has learned so many things. And, guess what? Your brain is going to keep growing and changing until you’re much older.”

For you: You have the opportunity to influence strong, healthy, positive connections in your child’s brain by responding from a calm, confident, empathetic stance. (Feel like it’s too late? Start now!)


What to tell your kids: “Remember when we talked about the brain having a lot of different jobs? One part of your brain is in charge of making good decisions, managing your big feelings, thinking things through, and being empathetic. One author calls this your ‘upstairs brain’ – like the upstairs of a house!”

For you: Sorry parents, this part is very slow to develop. I know you want your kids to have these skills but there’s no rushing this process. You can influence good pathways, though, remember?


What to tell your kids: “Ok, so there’s another part of the brain. That authorcalls it the ‘downstairs brain.’ This part is in charge of some really important things like breathing and digesting food, and it also holds a lot of your emotions! So, this is where your big angry or worried feelings come from!”

For you: This is the most primitive and reactive part of the brain. This is also the part that’s running the show during your child’s meltdown about having peas for dinner.


What to tell your kids: “Inside this ‘downstairs brain’ is a tiny part who’s job is to react to threats! When it thinks you are in danger it will tell you to do one of three things – run away, fight back, or freeze. Let’s think of some times when these responses would be really helpful.”

For you: You have this part in your brain too, it’s called the amygdala! Power struggles are often the result of two amygdala’s going head-to-head (so to speak).


Now that you’ve laid the foundation, you can use this information to teach and talk about their thoughts, feelings and behaviors in terms of their brain function.


What to tell your kids: “There are times when your brain thinks there’s a problem, and sends you the signals to ‘fight, flight or freeze’ but there’s really no reason to panic.

Like when you see a big black thing on the floor of your room. Your body might freeze – not wanting to get any closer. You might scream, ‘Mom! There’s a huge spider in here!’ But, when we get down on the floor, we realize it is actually a piece of black fuzz!”

For you: This is true for you as well! Sometimes, your brain will tell you that the situation in front of you requires IMMEDIATE ATTENTION (sibling rivalryaggressive behavior, etc.) Actually, in most cases, these things are not true emergencies.


What to tell your kids: “I know it’s scary when you have such big feelings. That ‘downstairs brain’ is really loud. It will say things like, ‘Math test! Panic!’ or ‘Your sister has the TV remote! Grab it!’ But remember, you still have the ‘upstairs brain!’ We’re going to work together to switch from the ‘downstairs brain’ to the ‘upstairs brain’ when you’re feeling big feelings. Can you help me think of some things that may help?”

For you: If you know your child is responding from the “downstairs brain” it’s time to switch tactics and get the “upstairs brain” on board. You can do this by responding with empathy, getting down to their level, and offering connection.


What to tell your kids: “Since the ‘downstairs brain’ is not always right and tends to over-react in some situations, we need to make sure we use the ‘upstairs brain’ to make decisions. I know this is hard to remember when the ‘downstairs brain’ is in charge, but we are going to practice and I’ll help you through it.”

For you: Instead of focusing on getting your child to calm down, think more about how you can calm your own “upstairs brain.” You’ll be better able to support, connect and empathize with your child’s big feelings.



Now, you and your child have a shared language to use when talking about big feelings, big actions, or big worries.

But remember, this is not just about your child. There are a lot of things you can do to encourage strong, healthy, happy brain development…even if your child is too young, or not interested in learning about the brain: