Simply put, attachment is a survival mechanism that begins to develop while an infant is still in the womb. Human beings are wired for survival. Because the human infant is quite vulnerable (no claws, teeth, or ability to flee if endangered), the infant is dependent upon his or her primary attachment figure for survival. When an infant senses danger or discomfort, its survival mechanism comes "online." The sympathetic nervous system is activated. The infant's heart rate increases, its respiration increases, blood pumps to the extremities, adrenaline and cortisol is released. This is a state of hyperarousal that helps human beings survive (prepare to fight, flee, or freeze) in dangerous situations. The infant cannot fight, flee, or freeze. Instead, it looks to its attachment figure for protection. If the attachment figure is highly responsive to the infant and offers a calm and reassuring attitude, the infant's parasympathetic nervous will engage, calming the fight or flight response. The infant's central nervous system will attune to the central nervous system of the attachment figure. If the attachment figure is unavailable, unresponsive, abusive, frightened, anxious, or clinically depressed, the infant will become increasingly hyperaroused and will have difficulty engaging the calming effect of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Patterns of parental responsiveness become "wired" into the growing infant's brain over time. From this first attachment relationship, the infant develops a style of attachment that, unless actively addressed, will last a lifetime. If the infant develops an insecure attachment style, he or she will have difficulty forming healthy, lasting relationships. If the infant develops a secure attachment style, he or she will be much more likely to form secure, healthy relationships in the future.
Modern American culture is not designed to foster healthy attachments. Many people have attachment styles and related central nervous system wiring that could accurately be called, "insecure." The good news is that this is NOT a life sentence. The human brain has something called "neuroplasticity," meaning it can be reshaped and molded in limitless ways. It is never too late to change the brain and the way we relate to the world. It is possible to change our wiring through engaging in even ONE healthy, responsive relationship. One way to do that is by engaging in attachment-focused psychotherapy. Parents can also learn attachment-parenting techniques to help their children develop healthy attachments.
Attachment is a life-long process. By exploring, evaluating, and addressing your own attachment style, it is possible to transform yourself and your relationships in highly positive ways.