Relationships, Loss, and Vulnerability
One of the common reasons that clients come into therapy is the experience of pain associated with the loss of an important relationship; such as the ending of a marriage, the death of a family member, or repeated feelings rejection and abandonment. Relational losses are universal and they can leave us feeling vulnerable and destabilized. However, your brain may have the capacity to be “re-wired” through connection.
“Neuroplasticity points toward our potential to be changed by relationships throughout our lifespan. Healthy relationships allow us to shape and be shaped in the directions that most serve us.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Relationship as Container
In psychotherapy, the relationship is the container that can hold the feelings that we cannot yet hold on our own. Within the ground of another we can begin to embrace our experience of confusion, discomfort, anger, grief, shame, or pain. As a psychologist I feel honored when I can witness another person in this open and tender place.
Neurobiology of Social-Emotional Connection
Research in affective neuroscience reveals the biological roots of empathy. According to professor Louis Cozolino, our brains are wired for connection, are strengthened by connection, and cannot be fully understood outside of the context of relationships. (Learn more about Cozolino’s book here) From a very young age, prior to the development of language, parent-infant communications occur through a combination of movement, eye gaze, and evocative sounds. As a parent attunes to this nonverbal dance they are able to differentiate the sounds of their infant’s cries and coos to distinguish, for example, sleepiness from hunger. Both parents and infants brains have been shown to actually change and develop through these interactions.
Parenting doesn’t need to be perfect. In fact, research has shown that too much perfection doesn’t help our brains and bodies develop as fully. When a parent errs in responding to an infant, the child signals distress. Social loss or disconnect has shared neurology with physical pain (link to research article here). Stress hormones release during rupture of connection, engaging the fight or flight response. Ideally, when a parent attends to the distress and creates a “repair” the stress response resolves as the nourishing relationship is re-established. This cycle is understood to “tone” the nervous system and to create expectations that we can handle future separations. This is what we call “secure” attachment.
Attachment Repair in Psychotherapy
What if this good-enough situation was not there for you? What if your early upbringing lacked this attuned, loving connection, or only offered it inconsistently? One thing to remember is that we all have relationship vulnerabilities and imperfect attachments to varying degrees. In fact, we all need each other to heal the wounds of the painful disconnections from the past.
Our brain may have the capacity to be “re-wired” through connection (See Fuchs article here). Psychotherapy is capable of producing measurable changes in how the brain processes both serotonin and thyroid hormone levels. Results indicate that psychotherapy and medication may affect the brain similarly with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, among other conditions (See my blog on this topic). Neuroplasticity in this case points toward our potential to be changed by relationships throughout our lifespan. Healthy relationships allow us to shape and be shaped in the directions that most serve us.
The challenge is that initially we tend to re-create relationships that match what we know. Deep inside we may expect to be rejected and we enact this expectation by either choosing a partner who is rejecting or acting in a manner evokes that response in another.
Psychotherapy helps us take responsibility for our part of perpetuating this dynamic. We do this by feeling into those deep wounds within the safe grounds of relationship. We expose our fears to someone who will not reject us for them. We allow ourselves to reach towards someone who will not take advantage of us. Sometimes psychotherapy involves the ruptures and disconnects; however, a good enough therapist stays with the process (and encourages you to do the same), and ultimately facilitates repair. This process of tolerating stress tones the nervous system and helps to form new relationship expectations. Ultimately allowing these expectations to help us find meaningful connections in the world.
Psychotherapy for Attachment
Looking back at the earliest relationships we see that healthy relationships are formed through a nonverbal dance that allows us to see, feel, attune, and respond to another. Healing early attachment in psychotherapy requires the same set of skills. Because early attachment occurred before we could talk, as adults we cannot simply think our way through this change, it needs to be felt and experienced to be healed. Somatic, or body-centered psychotherapy, allows for increased attention on the non-verbal domains of communication and within a relational model provides a greater present-centered, felt experience of connection. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy is a comprehensive approach to therapy that integrates elements of psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, interpersonal, experiential, and body-centered therapies to maximize treatment effects.
Healing Takes Time
Truth be told, healing of early attachment wounds in psychotherapy takes time. The advancement of neuropsychotherapy bridges neuroscience and human relationships; however, it is important that we do not develop unrealistic expectations. It is not easy to feel the pain of loss, rejection, or abandonment. It is common to feel shame around these experiences. You are not alone, relationship vulnerabilities are universal.
- Unlocking your Nervous System from PTSD
- The Relationship between Stress, Trauma, and your Health
- What is Somatic Psychology?
Connect to this post? The Complex PTSD Workbook, is now available on Amazon! Click here to check it out and increase your toolbox for healing. Whether you are a client or a therapist this book will offer a guided approach to trauma recovery.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.