It is old news that dysfunctional or insecure relationships in childhood may lead to difficulties down the line. Whilst this has long been known, a recent study has shed further light on the reasons for this, and the specific effects poor attachments may have.
Attachments are the relationships we have with caregivers from an early age. In general, attachment styles may be divided into four categories: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant. The type of attachment style we develop is directly linked to the quality of care we receive. For example, a neglectful parent may contribute to their child’s dismissive- avoidant attachment style (Cassidy, 1999).
Insecure attachment styles have been linked to range of adult mental health issues. These range from anxiety and depression to relationship issues and even health problems. Obviously attachment styles are an important research area, but why does the human brain react so negatively to poor parenting?
The study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that insecure childhood attachments can negatively influence our ability to deal with stress as adults (Leyh, 2016). We are all aware that there is huge variability in how individuals deal with stress. This is evident in any office in the world! Some people remain calm and proactive in the face of adversity, whilst some crumble and become extremely negative.
One of the reasons for this, according to Dr. Rainer Leyh and his team, is that our negative childhood experiences and attachment styles stay with us throughout adulthood, and rear their heads when we are faced with a stressful or anxiety provoking scenario.
In this report on the study, Dr Christine Heinsich gives the example of a car approaching a traffic light. For the driver, when they are in a neutral state, following the signal is easy and may even come automatically. For an emotional driver however, following the signal is much more difficult. They may stop late or fail to stop altogether, driving straight through the light.
What moderates our ability to stay calm under emotional strain? For those of us that had emotionally attentive parents or caregivers it can be a lot easier. The key term is “emotional regulation”. Emotional Regulation is our ability to control our emotions, and our reactions and subsequent behaviours in response to them. Attachment styles have been directly linked to emotional regulation.
In the aforementioned study, adults were recruited who had a wide range of childhood parental/ caregiver experiences. Participants were asked to perform a task which involved identifying a target letter from a series of flashing letters. The task was conducted in different conditions, some which evoked a positive emotional response, some which evoked a negative response and others which evoked neutral. The participants’ brain activity was recorded using a type of brain scanning called “EEG”.
Subjects with insecure childhood attachments had significantly more trouble performing under the negative conditions than those with secure childhood attachments. Another interesting finding was that those with insecure attachments also exhibited lower brain activity under negative conditions when attempting to identify the target letter.
The poorer the task performance, the poorer the strategies for emotional regulation. One theory put forth by the researchers, is that the more effort you have to exert on inhibiting your emotion, the less resources you have to perform on the task. Therefore, negative childhood experiences may make all those day- to- day struggles we encounter just that little bit more difficult.
Were there any potential limitations to this study? It could be argued that as the target letters were unrelated to the emotional cures, it is difficult to generalise them to everyday life. Future studies will have to find a way to make the testing environment more realistic.
Despite this, it does see clear that poor relationships with our caregivers can have long- lasting consequences.
How do I know if I have difficulties with attachment and/ or emotional regulation?
It can be difficult to know whether any of this applies to you. You may have difficulties with emotional regulation if:
Implications for relationships
Those who are negatively attached may bring these issues and insecurities into relationships. Attachment style can have massive connotations, particularly for romantic relationships, and it is important to be aware of how it can affect you.
It is easy to see the connection between a turbulent relationship, and the findings of the study we have just discussed. Being resilient and calm when faced with stressful situations, arguments and all that comes with a relationship, is often central to its success. For those with poor emotional regulation, this can be difficult.
What can you do about insecure attachment?
New research is increasingly shedding light on how our past experiences can shape our present and future. It is fascinating what we area learning, but also important to stress that your past does not necessarily dictate your future, and we all have the ability to change long- learned behaviours.
By Dr. Syras Derksen,
Cassidy, J. (1999). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Rough Guides.
Leyh, R., Heinisch, C., Kungl, M. T., & Spangler, G. (2016). Attachment representation moderates the influence of emotional context on information processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10, 278.
For many of us, the word “assessment” conjures up negative associations.
In reality, though, the fact of the matter is that even though from the outside psychological assessments might prompt a fear of judgment or an image of subjective evaluation, the exact opposite is true: Psychological professionals use assessments to gather objective information in order to find the best way to help an individual grow.
Let’s take a closer look at what psychological assessments entail, common biases to note, and the best way for you to think about psychological assessment.
What Is Psychological Assessment?
The notion of psychological assessment defines an individualized, holistic information-gathering process. It’s not something that can be summarized in a single sentence: there are as many different ways to perform a psychological assessment as there are individuals.
Although there is diversity in how assessments are performed, there is a general method that is consistent across different realms of psychology and different types of disorders. This method involves integrating the results of a variety of different psychological tests in order to create a balanced, objective view of the psychological profile of an individual
Multiple Sources of Information
A psychological professional generally integrates multiple sources of information when coming to a conclusion. This will generally include observation of the person (e.g., interview), historical information (e.g., grades), and the results from multiple tests hopefully done by multiple people. For example, when diagnosing Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) our clinic will gather information from teachers, parents, and the child. We would rule out various learning difficulties and emotional/behavioural challenges.
Is the Issue A Disorder?
Tests are norm-referenced, which means that an individual’s performance is compared against the average performance of a group of people. For example, a height measurement is a kind of test – it provides a single, discrete measurement of a physical characteristic (not a psychological characteristic). But an individual’s height is only meaningful if it is compared to others; for instance, a child’s height compared to the norms for his or her age group. This can let you know if there is an issue with the child’s growth.
Finding Important Factors that are Hard to Observe
It may be clear that a person is having difficulty managing life. However, the real issues may be harder to see. They may be difficult to see because the person is hiding it, or because they are just not aware. Children, for example, often benefit from psychological assessments because they don’t know how to describe the issues they are facing.
It’s not just children who may not be aware of their issues. For example, a client may be consuming a large amount of alcohol, which is causing anger and relationship problems. This alcohol problem is more obvious and is the issue that attracts the attention of family and friends. A psychological assessment my show that this the alcohol use is an issue, but it may also show that their level of anxiety is very high. This combination of issues may suggest that the individual is using the alcohol to manage their anxiety difficulties. A recommendation of therapy or using an anti-anxiety medication may be the result of this type of assessment. Treating the anxiety may then help the person to stop the alcohol abuse.
Multiple Tests to Rule out Other Potential Issues
Psychological assessments aren’t there to just measure one symptom. The tests chosen are also there to ensure that other issues may not be causing the problem. For example, in an ADHD diagnosis, it is important to know that the observed attention problem is not a symptom of a different disorders.
In the case of ADHD, the primary pharmacological treatment is a stimulant. However, bipolar can look like hyperacitvity and a stimulant medication can make bipolar worse. Psychological assessments are there to make an accurate diagnosis to avoid making mistakes that can lead to months or years of extra pain and confusion.
Tests Can only Be Used With Certain Groups
It’s important when interpreting the results of an individual test to notice the assumptions that the test makes about its subject population. Every individual is different, and it’s dangerous to oversimplify these differences by measuring the averages of a group of people.
Psychological tests are generally meant for specific populations. When these rules are broken, the results may not be accurate. For example, a test that was developed with North American’s may not be accurate with people who grew up in India. Although psychologists sometimes break these rules because no better test is available, clinical judgement is important in interpreting the results.
How to Approach Psychological Assessment
One helpful way to think about psychological assessment is to approach as you would a trip to the doctor’s office.
In both cases, whether it’s a medical professional running a blood test to check for signs of a physical illness, or a psychological professional performing a mental health evaluation to check for signs of a psychological disorder, the basic idea is the same. A professional with the patient’s best interest at heart is simply gathering information in order to inform themselves as to the best next steps.
This comparison also illustrates how one should prepare for the assessment: You wouldn’t study for a blood test. When you go to the doctor, the goal isn’t to present yourself as perfectly healthy and to ignore the physical ailments that are bothering you. How would that help?
Instead, the goal should be to open up lines of honest communication between you and the professional devoted to your care and well-being. With both medical and psychological assessments, you want to be as completely honest as possible, even if you feel afraid or embarrassed. The individual trained to help you is on your team, and will help as best they can.
In conclusion, psychological assessments are an information-gathering process performed by psychological professionals in a number of different contexts. While the process is open to some amount of human bias, if approached like a medical examination, the process of psychological assessment can be a helpful part of psychological care for individuals in all situations.
By Dr. Syras Derksen,
Eabon, M. F., and Abrahamson, D. (2016). Understanding psychological testing and assessment. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from www.apa.org.