As COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in 2022, people put aside masks, social distancing, and lockdown social isolation to venture out to restore a more normal life. Most found that the “old” normal had been altered during the lockdown and had been replaced by “new” normal, e.g., some employees now worked from home, some local small businesses had failed. One of these new normals was an increase in interpersonal violence, including aggressive driving, assaults on others, shootings, and murders. In a previous blog, I noted some of the possible external factors that could be contributing to increased stress resulting in these violent outbursts. These included social isolation, financial difficulties, and shortages of goods and services. This companion essay shifts the focus to internal factors in individuals that may also contribute to these violent acts. Violent acts are complex events with many differing pathways and usually have multiple precipitants. Here I focus on one aspect central to many of these interpersonal acts of violence: disruptions in attachments.
The Basic Process
Attachments are the bonds that we form with others in settings such as marriage, family, work, and community. These bonds are both psychological (feelings of respect, love, admiration, anger) and physiological (bodily states of calmness, relaxation, stress). We induce these feelings and states in others and they in us. This regulatory system is for survival, procreation, and care and nurturing of the young.
The first caring attachment is the bond between the mother (or the female/male mother-substitute) and the infant. This attachment gives life to the infant, provides nourishment for survival, promotes the growth hormone and the development of the immune system, teaches the infant the basics of coping with stress, regulates emotional and self-control states, and provides comfort and soothing. With these resources present, the infant is calm and at rest psychologically. Physiologically, its cardiac system is in a resting state and the body has adequate opiates and endorphins, chemicals that make the infant feel good.
Should the mother leave the child, however, the infant goes into immediate, intense physical and psychological distress as it fears for safety. The infant cries, screams, and flails in a state of intense anxiety. Physiologically, the child’s body releases adrenaline for hypervigilance, cortisol to repair any bodily damage, and to activate the child’s cardiac system. Its brain goes into overdrive, as the child struggles with hopelessness and fear. If the caring mother returns, the child quickly feels safe again and his or her mind and body return to their resting states. If the mother does not return or she is not a caring mother, the child will remain in psychological distress, become fearful of others, and be depressed. The infant will become psychologically numb and withdrawn. This continuing physiological overdrive will damage the brain in many significant ways, including cognition, feelings, and judgment. This adaptation for survival comes at a significant cost to the infant and to society.
Types of Attachments
Not all parenting systems are the same, and attachment-theory researchers have been at work assessing mother-infant interactions in identifying various types of attachment differences in mother-child temperaments and interactive styles . Much work in this area remains but, to date, there appear to be 4 different attachment styles that have been identified: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.
1. Secure Attachment. This is the supportive attachment described above wherein the mother provides basic safety, comfort, growth, and coping skills. Periods of neonate psychological fear and physical stress are quickly addressed and the child is returned to a basic, resting, normal homeostatic state. The child will utilize this basic sense of safety and resourceful coping throughout her or his life.
2. Anxious Attachment. In these mother-infant interactions, the infant does not know if he or she has pleased the mother. Comfort and soothing may be delayed in onset. The infant becomes confused, anxious, and tries harder to please. This anxious infant fears being abandoned. A child in this circumstance will likely remain anxious and need reassurance throughout life.
3. Avoidance. The infant’s maternal interactions are exemplified by unpredictable responses from the mother. The infant may be comforted, greeted by hostility, neglected, abused, or ignored. An infant in these circumstances will come to fear attachments to others, will withdraw from interpersonal interactions, be avoidant, and become self-reliant. The infant will be easily agitated, angry, depressed, lonely, and over-reactive. Incompetent parenting, harsh punishment, and limited caring-family supports often result in delinquent behavior.
4. Disorganized Attachment. It implies a significant major disruption in attachments. It includes several different types of major issues and will need further inquiry for clarity as to how such different issues should be categorized. These major disruptions may include psychological trauma due to physical or sexual abuse or substance abuse in the mother or infant. Similarly, a major neurological problem that impairs normal sensory/motor/communication pathways, a major mental illness, or an intellectual disability in the mother or infant may complicate the attachment process [2,3,4].
In general, the mother-child interactions in all of these major disruptions may result in anxiety, depression, anger, and/or psychological abandonment. It becomes chaotic for the infant.
The differences in these attachment styles are important to the infant as she or he grows into adulthood. These early coping states become the trait characteristics or strategies for coping that we utilize automatically in dealing with other attachments throughout our lives. A secure attachment person will adjust to life’s predictable conflicts with relative calmness, the anxiously attached adult will cope but remain anxious, the avoidant attached person will withdraw and go it alone, the disorganized attached person will have great difficulty responding to, and be perplexed by, the various types of tasks in life that involve interacting with others. To be sure, these attachment styles are not irreversible. Later life events in interactions with other attachments may alter the original attachment styles. Psychological trauma may impact any of these 4 styles as can poverty, discrimination, substance abuse, treatments for serious mental illness, and the various neurological conditions noted above [2, 3]. The same is true for major life events, such as marriage or vocational advancement. However, other things being equal, when faced with subsequent stressful life events, we cope with the basic parameters of our primary first attachment styles. As noted, these early attachment states now become coping strategies in life, especially in times of stress.
COVID-19, Violence, Attachment Theory
Let us return to our initial observation that our new post-COVID-19 restriction included an increase in interpersonal violence. Given that attachment theory is central to human interactions, what can attachment styles teach us about possible sources of this emerging violence toward others? Let us begin first with how COVID-19 impacted attachments in general.
To begin, there has been a significant decline in the number of persons in households over the years, as extended families declined to live together and as more people live as couples or alone. This loss of potential interpersonal resources was then impacted by COVID-19 restrictions that confined people to their smaller family units and greatly limited access to others. These restrictions closed off several other possible avenues connected to forming attachments. Schools, colleges, libraries, doctors’ and dental offices, gyms, municipal pools, social centers, government offices, even city halls were closed. Weddings, funerals, sporting events, movie theaters, and restaurants were closed; vacations were canceled. People who could shifted their worksites to home so business colleagues were no longer present either. Families who were isolated at home additionally lost contact with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives and friends in the neighborhood. The COVID-19 virus itself exacerbated all of this, as family and friends contracted the disease and in many cases succumbed to it. Even here, funeral gatherings were excluded. It was a period of intense stress with limited opportunities to be with others to learn coping strategies from them. In addition, as described earlier, these individuals were also addressing major financial and resource shortages. Add to this mix easily available guns and the possibility of interpersonal violence emerges.
Given the confluence of stressful events, are attachments able to provide us with any helpful information about who may be at risk for committing violent acts toward others? Let us remember that attachments are only one of many possible pathways to violence.
Those with secure attachments will likely not become violent. They will feel lonely, mildly depressed, and left out but their sense of confidence and ability to resolve stressful life events will lead to adaptive resolution of the stress. Similarly, those anxious attachments will not likely become violent either. The fear of being rejected and harming others would create intense anxiety and fear.
Some of those with avoidant coping styles may in fact hurt others [2,3,4,5]. These individuals are isolated and many experienced the harsh upbringing noted above that may result in violent interpersonal acts. As discussed, they are often fearful, depressed, and angry. In the face of enforced aloneness, depression, anger, and a major life stress, they could harm others. They act as lone wolves. This would be also true of some types of the disorganized-attached persons. People here suffering from poverty, discrimination, and/or substance abuse were in fact engaged in criminal behavior during the lockdown period and would likely continue such behavior. Untreated psychological trauma has been associated with subsequent violence in some victims. The various neurological conditions may include violent acts but these individuals are not usually held accountable due to brain limitations [1,2,3,4,5].
As discussed, there are many pathways to the commission of violent acts. Attachment style needs to be assessed, perhaps by forensic psychologists and psychiatrists, as they consult on such cases. It seems reasonable to assume that attachment style may contribute in an important way to some acts of violent rage. If attachment does prove to be an important component in predicting some acts of violence, this knowledge may result in better treatment interventions that may enhance coping in nonaggressive ways.
1. Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Brenner, J. D., et al. “The Enduring Effects of Abuse and Related Adverse Experiences in Childhood: A Convergence of Evidence from Neurobiology and Epidemiology.” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 2006, 256, 174-86.
2. Flannery, R. B, Jr. Preventing Youth Violence Before It Begins. Riverdale, NY: American Mental Health Foundation, 2022.
4. Provenzi, L., Montirosso, R., Tronick, E. Editorial: “Risk and Protective Factors Associated with Early Adolescent Adversity and Development: Evidence from Human and Animal Research.” Frontiers in Psychology, 2019; 10, 2906.
Dr. Raymond B. Flannery Jr., Ph.D. FACLP, is an internationally recognized scholar and lecturer on the topics of violence, victimization, and stress management. Dr. Flannery is available for lectures and workshops for all types of groups and may be reached at The American Mental Health Foundation: 212.737.9027 elomke[at]americanmentalhealthfoundation.org.
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