Given the pressures in today’s world, would you welcome the opportunity to lessen your life stress and anxiety? Reduce your dysphoria and depression? Improve your physical health and sense of well-being? Even lengthen your life? What if I told you that you could attain all of these health benefits at no cost to your health-insurance carrier? I speak of the power of two. Medical and behavioral science research has demonstrated the presence of these health-care benefits in sound interactions between two or more human beings. In the medical jargon these human links or interactions are known as attachments and we turn our attention to them now in some detail.
The process of healthy human interactions begins for all of us at birth. Our mothers physically nurture us with nourishment but their physical presence also promotes growth hormone and the development of the immune system, factors that insure the child’s survival. British psychiatrist Dr. John Bowlby noticed that infants would become physically and psychologically overwhelmed when their mothers withdrew . He named this painful process “separation anxiety.” The infant returned to a normal, calm, resting state upon the return of the mother.
Researchers wondered what would happen to the infant if the mother never returned and was not replaced by some other caring adult. Research on orphans in orphanages revealed that some of these infants died, even though the infants had adequate medical care, adequate nutrition, and a caring orphanage staff. This finding led other researchers in medicine to study death and its relationship with attachments. One study found that sudden death in otherwise healthy people occurred with the sudden loss of a meaningful attachment. Another study sought to find out what happened to adults that had dropped out of school . These investigators sought out these high-school dropouts in later life and found that many had died prematurely. They believed that these adults were deficient in the interpersonal skills needed to create and sustain attachments, skills that they would have learned had they remained in school. Additional medical research has further demonstrated that loneliness kills and that caring, helpful attachments can produce the health benefits noted above.
We form attachments in two basic ways: networks and buffers. Networks are the interpersonal groupings that we find ourselves in by birth, marriage, occupation, and/or community. These networks provide an array of individuals who support and assist us in a variety of life-tasks. Buffers are specific individuals with skills not found in the network and are called to help with a specific task. Examples might include a clergy person for a marriage service, a tax accountant, or a tradesperson for a specific task.
The attachments that we find in networks and buffers can be either helpful with the benefits noted above or harmful with deleterious physical and mental-health consequences. Helpful attachments are those that provide emotional support, companionship, information for problem-solving, and/or instrumental support as needed. Minding your neighbor’s children while the neighbor is shopping or loaning a friend money, are examples of instrumental support. In addition to these psychological benefits, helpful attachments also lower blood pressure and pulse, enhance the ability of the immune system to fend off respiratory disease and to stimulate chemicals in our brains, called endorphins, which make us feel good.
Harmful attachments create stress, turmoil, and poor heath in daily life. These harmful encounters include any form of physical or sexual abuse, emotional demandingness, emotional overinvolvement in the life of the other person, basic-values conflict (e.g., one person is a peace advocate, the other person works in a napalm factory), and/or a general interpersonal-skill deficiency.
A question that I am often asked is how many helpful attachments does one need? Some individuals seek out a great many attachments, whereas others need fewer encounters. This is a matter of choice but is also a biological function of the person’s individual nervous system. Each of us is born with a biological process known as the sensorimotor arc. Our bodies take in information about the world around us through our senses (hearing, seeing, touching, smelling). This information is processed and evaluated in the brain. We decide what course of action that we want to take, and then we implement that course of action through our body’s motor system. For example, we see dog, we judge it to be friendly, and then we pet it. This biological process varies in individuals. Some people’s sensorimotor arcs need a good many interactions before they begin to feel uncomfortable from too much stimulation, others need fewer interactions before they feel uncomfortable. Our culture refers to the former group as extroverts and the latter group as introverts and is often based on the amount of interactions they have with others. This is unfortunate as it overlooks the biological component that regulates these interactions.
For victims of interpersonal violence, interacting with others can be anxiety provoking, regardless of one’s sensorimotor arc abilities. In these situations, it is most often better to proceed slowly, take any needed extra time to assess the helpfulness and trustworthiness of others, and gradually reengage with others when you feel safe.
Our good physical and mental health is enhanced through the power of caring attachments in whatever level of interpersonal interaction that feels comfortable. This is especially true, given the limitations on interacting with others that has occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic .
2. Lynch, J. J. A Cry Unheard: Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness. Baltimore, MD: Basic Books, 2000.
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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