Attachment as a Hardwired Emotion (Part 3)

neurons.3The seventh basic emotion circuit that was found by Jaak Panksepp (see prior posts) is what he, unfortunately, calls the “panic” circuit.  He calls it that because of the panicked reaction of young animals who are separated from their mothers.  I prefer to call it by its more appropriate and descriptive name, the Attachment Circuit.   Panksepp describes the distressed cries of animals – identical to the distressed cries of separated young, which are evoked by the stimulation of a particular neuronal circuit in the brain.  The distress is caused by separation.  The resolution of the distress is caused by reunification.  Panksepp’s work confirms what has been argued by attachment therapists like Dr. Sue Johnson – the co-developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy.  We have a deep and biologically determined need for connection.  When that connection is threatened, we become distressed and anxious.  When we become distressed and anxious, we are inclined to react automatically.  This is the painful dance that we see in the distressing cycle we almost always observe with couples who are in conflict.  Brent Atkinson, a marital therapist and author, has created an entire approach to couples therapy based on Panksepp’s  work.  Atkinson repeats that individuals are overtaken by the intensity of their emotional reactivity.  This is precisely the same kind of description that Sue Johnson uses to describe how a couple is overtaken by the force of their cycle.  Imagine, when both people’s brain circuits are firing so fast and strong that they are swept up into the maelstrom, seemingly without any control – at least not until they are helped to s….l….o…..w it down and realize when they, themselves, are being overtaken by these strong, automatic, emotional discharges in the brain.  The belief of emotionally focused therapists is that once we are able to slow it down and gain awareness of our process, we can create safety for ourselves and our partner.  That’s at least what goes on in my office, anyway.