Understanding Trauma and Attachment

Neuroscience has demonstrated that all mammals share a ubiquitous developmental attachment mechanism and a common stress-regulating neurophysiology.
—Bradshaw, Schore, Brown, Poole & Moss (2005)

A man with a horseCreated by Dr. Peter Levine, Somatic Experiencing® emphasizes how animals in the wild or living in natural conditions rarely experience trauma (let alone addictions/vices, anxiety disorders, gastrointestinal issues, and so on), though they may face threats on a regular basis. The Somatic Experiencing® method integrates the neuroscience of polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, along with the work of other trauma and body-oriented experts.

One of the main differences between wild animals and those living in comparatively unnatural circumstances (such as humans and domesticated horses and, indeed, other mammals facing adverse conditions) is that the former have full freedom to live in accordance with their natural instincts and drives as well as act on self-protective impulses. Dr. Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, identified a number of natural behaviours and foundational emotions shared by mammals. When allowed to play, seek forage and move around freely, explore novelty in the environment, pursue comfort through nurturing attachment bonds with fellow pack or herd members, and live a meaningful life of rich sensory stimulation, the symptoms of PTSD and other stress-related disorders, and the so-called “unhealthy” coping strategies used to compensate, are relatively non-existent.

This is especially true when it comes to the mobilization and completion of defensive responses, which animals in the wild are also free to experience on a routine basis.

“Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”

When mammals notice novelty in the environment, a whole cascade of hierarchical responses occurs, sometimes in rapid succession. According to the polyvagal theory, after the startle/arrest response comes orienting to one’s surroundings and fellow herd/pack members to gauge safety or threat, followed by a burst of survival energy allowing the ability to fight or to flee. When it is not possible to fight or flee successfully, mammals experience what is commonly known as the “freeze” response, or tonic immobility/collapse. Should a predator become distracted or leave, the body slowly thaws out of freeze by shaking and trembling all the residual survival energy out of its system, until it returns to a state of balance and alert aliveness. The threat having passed, one can return to the act of living without any traumatic symptoms… hence the title for this section, which is a nod to a book by that same name.

Peter Levine discusses self-protective responses in mammals:

Impala discharging out of the freeze response and escaping following an originally unsuccessful flight attempt:

Unfortunately, humans and other non-human mammals face chronic stressors and are often prevented from engaging in natural behaviours or completing defensive actions, remaining stuck in hyper-arousal or the immobility response. This is either due to confinement, isolation, separation from or absence of nurturing and attuned caregivers, unrelenting chronic stress, ongoing abuse, punishment, shame, fear, judgment, social norms or other barriers.

When survival energy remains bound in the organism, a state of dysregulation ensues — hypervigilance, anxiety, depression linked with repressed anger or explosive rage, dissociation, numbing, fragmentation of the personality, impaired memory, low worth and negative beliefs, social adaptations (such as caretaking, co-dependency, avoidance of attachment, etc.), well as a host of physical/medical symptoms.  As a result of losing the ability to self-regulate, humans turn to addictions, self-medicating, self-harm, disordered eating patterns, and other repetitive or risky behaviours in order to numb pain, manage emotions, feel alive and as a substitute for nurturing relationships with other members of our species. Sometimes tics or other displacement behaviours manifest, echoing the larger movement sequence that was unable to be completed. This is also true for any other mammals facing similar challenges in sub-optimal, confined or adverse conditions, including equines.

This is not to say that all stress is bad. The Yerkes-Dodson law indicates that a certain amount of stress is beneficial to support the development of resiliency and encourage learning. Eustress is stress that is viewed as being meaningful in some way leading to a valued outcome. However, this it true only to a point; stress that surpasses a certain threshold or unrelenting stressors that routinely take the body out of its window of tolerance into survival physiology are harmful in the long run. Frameworks drawn from Somatic Experiencing® and the polyvagal theory provide clues that can help identify where humans and equines are in the stress or activation cycle and adjust activities accordingly.

The Myth of the Flight Animal

Common lore states that horses are flight animals, chronically living in hypervigilance. It is interesting to note that no other being on the planet is known as a “flight animal”, other than birds or perhaps bats, and that’s referring to the act of flying as opposed to fleeing. However, equines are capable of more than just flight responses. Horses along with other members of equine family tree, including donkeys, zebras and crossbreeds, are also known to fight and to freeze in the presence of threat, as well as orient – not only to novelty in the environment, dangers or possible escape routes, but also to other herd members to help gauge safety or threat as well as for protection.

Horse demonstrating defensive orienting, a successful fight response against an alligator, an ensuing successful flight response and eventually a return to a state of alert “rest and digest” with the herd. Notice how the herd members off to the side are alert as and paying attention as a group, but not panicked in their assessment of threat:

While horses are indeed alert and aware of their surroundings, most people mistake a horse’s normal mammalian response of startle/arrest in relation to novelty in the environment as hypervigilance. These are not the same thing. Some horses are indeed hypervigilant, where their orienting response to their surroundings is in hyper-arousal, but this is not true for all horses all of the time. Nor is it true of humans – there is a distinct difference between being aware (vigilance), having a strong startle response, and being in a high state of threat (hypervigilance).

Attachment Theory

Humans and other herd/pack mammals develop in the context of nurturing relationships. We rely on consistent, attuned and responsive caregivers to attend to not only our daily living needs, but also to help regulate our arousal levels so that we don’t exceed our window of tolerance and help us sort for safety and threat.

Through gaze, touch, tone of voice, and play, our caregivers soothe us when we are in distress or up-regulate us back into range when we are hypo-aroused. As our systems settle, our caregivers’ systems settle as well, a process known as co-regulation that also supports bonding. Although we are born with a certain degree of auto-regulation on board (for e.g, our heart beats and our lungs breathe without us having to consciously control them), we are effectively unable to self-regulate arousal until much later in development. With a regulated caregiver keeping us safe and modulating our arousal levels, we are able to attend to the neurosequential tasks of development. Indeed, growth proceeds optimally when we’re not living in a state of survival physiology most of the time. Having a regulated caregiver or “herd” around who can help us learn the social norms of our species as well as determine whether something is a “stick or a snake”, is equally important to internalizing a felt sense of what it means to be human (or equine), what the rules are of our social group, and when to relax or when to be vigilant and defend ourselves (neuroception). Secure attachment provides a foundation upon which to build our inner “home”.

However, sometimes caregivers are unable to co-regulate. In some instances, they are the source of abuse or neglect, and sometimes there are external circumstances that prevent them from attuning to us by no fault of their own (such as early hospitalizations or other separations, forced early weanings, having a dysregulated nervous system as a result of their own stressors or adverse life experiences, etc.). When there aren’t attuned and regulated parents, caregivers or alloparents around to “ping” off of, the system can be hard-pressed to regulate distress on its own, and mammals show a combination of hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal symptoms. As a result, individuals turn to a wide range of different strategies to try to manage dysregulation, often at the expense of health, sense of self and other social relationships. Without a developmental foundation of regulation and attunement, for many there is no stable “inner home” or sense of self to return to – no internal runway on which to land. Going inside can be a daunting experience.

Lack of co-regulation can also contribute to malfunctioning neuroception, where the nervous system learns to constantly sort for threat, assuming there’s always danger even when there might not be, resulting in chronic anxiety and hypervigilance. The opposite can also be true, where interoception (awareness of our internal cues) appears to be offline, and there is no sense of (or the person has learned to disregard cues of) impending threat. Similarly, the internal referencing map for “safety” is tenuous to non-existent for many trauma survivors – safety simply wasn’t a reality. Finally, the quality of attachment relationships is what allows us to experience a boundaried felt sense of ourselves in relationships. Whether caregivers are emotionally or physically absent and there’s a lack of contact, or contact is life threatening, scary, smothering, merging, or otherwise overwhelming, boundaries become either overly rigid or non-existent.

As a result, human attachment relationships can carry a high amount of charge in and of themselves, beyond any other traumas or stressors. Different insecure survival patterns in attachment relationships can occur. It is not surprising that many people are drawn to equine-facilitated interventions, with human relationships being so fraught with complexity and triggers.

Humans, like horses, are herd creatures. Being mammals, we grow and develop in relationship and are hard-wired for connection, which is crucial to our survival. It is not surprising that when deprived of attachment relationships, mammals experience a host of mental and physical health problems, and can even die in the absence of love and supportive contact. Although studies often focus on fight/flight behaviours in horses, comparatively less attention has been given to attachment or affiliative behaviours. Interestingly, while horses in the wild do engage in self-protective responses, these are reserved for when absolutely necessary. On a regular basis, wild horses show more signs of bonding behaviour, attachment-related cues and connections that allow the herd or band to remain cohesive and thrive, than conflict behaviours. The prevailing thought is that the hierarchical and conflictual behaviours seen in domesticated herds are due to captivity as opposed to being inherent to a horse’s nature. Early weaning, limited living space, being housed in stalls or in isolation without other horses, aggression and anxiety due to environmental stressors, training or mistreatment, limited resources, competition over feedings, and so on are conditions not found in the wild. Similarly, humans that are exposed to long-term stress, mistreatment and social deprivation or attachment ruptures experience similar behavioural, mental and physical health challenges. It is no wonder that restoring the capacity for regulation, resilience and relationship is so crucial to healing for both humans and horses, and why combining the two is so powerful.

The Polyvagal Theory – In A Nutshell

Trying to distill a complex theory of neuroscience down into a few paragraphs is a daunting task, but the essence of it is this. Aside from the hierarchy of defensive responses outlined earlier, Dr. Stephen Porges proposed that the nervous system, commonly thought to have 2 branches (sympathetic stress response and parasympathetic relaxation response) actually has 3 branches, one of which is mediated by the vagus nerve.

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): The gas pedal, mobilizes the nervous system for regular activity, stress, and fight or flight.

Parasympathetic Nervous System: The brake pedal, helps slow the nervous system down, and mediated by the vagus nerve.

  • Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC): Our social engagement system, the ventral vagus innervates the parts of the body involved in social relationships and communication – including the heart, throat, mouth, ears, and eyes and other parts of the face. These components of the system are also involved in detecting safety and threat (neuroception). When a mammal is in a ventral vagal state, it is receptive to social interactions and bonding. The ventral vagal branch can also be involved in defensive accommodation responses, including “fawn” or “mend, tend and befriend” strategies that kick in when fighting or fleeing are not possible.
  • Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC): Our conservation system, the dorsal vagus can help power down the system for rest and digest (also known as “immobility without fear”), a state of comfortable low tone quiescence. However, when firing on “high”, the dorsal vagus sends the system into shutdown, also known as “freeze”, “immobility with fear” or our passive defense system. The freeze response is also associated with shame in terms of inhibiting behaviours that might risk the loss of attachment/acceptance. Being able to shut down entirely is intended to be a short-term strategy, originally intended for low oxygen situations like drowning. However, when it becomes a dominant strategy for managing emotions, situations and traumatic stress, it has a high cost of doing business and can lead to a number of complex long-term health conditions.

It is helpful to think of these branches like dials – they can all be on at the same time, at varying levels that are fluctuating all the time, tipping into uncomfortable thresholds at times. This means that the nervous system is more complex than simply whether a human, equine or other mammal is in the “stress response” or in the “relaxation response”. An organism can be in more than one at once, as can happen during sex, play, submission, social interactions, and so on. Recognizing where one is on the map of activation from a polyvagal standpoint can provide useful information to guide equine-assisted interventions for all involved.