Bonding is the most positive aspect of human relationships. We learn how to bond emotionally in adulthood through early bonding in childhood, as simplistic as that sounds. It cannot be taught! And it certainly cannot be taught in later life. Attachment is pretty well set in our childhood. It is not something we learn; it is something we feel. It is also something biochemical. Those who did not bond very early on with their parents may well be condemned to a lifetime of broken, fragile, tenuous relationships. It may be in large part due to deficits in the hormonal wherewithal such as oxytocin. Oxytocin researcher and National Institute of Mental Health scientist, Thomas Insel has remarked that, “Many of the affectional ties to the mother observed post-natally (after birth) could be laid down by pre-natal experience.” Life in the womb may determine life outside the womb for decades to come. It is a continuum, not two separate unrelated events. If the early relationship with one’s parents was distant, alienated and glacial, it may be a harbinger of the love relationships we have or don’t have later in life. The earlier the alienation from one’s parents, the more trouble there may be in relationships later on. I have seen it in hundreds of my patients. It approaches a biologic law – if my sampling of our patients is any index.
In certain mountain rodents such as the mountain vole, a species that lives an isolated life (as differentiated from the prairie vole, which is more social), a shot of oxytocin proved to encourage bonding and pairing between voles. After repeated injections there was a long-acting anti-stress effect, which calmed overall behavior and gave rise to a strong tendency to bond. This again indicates that early love supports calmness and serenity. Those humans who are able to bond with others have high levels of oxytocin. Love seems to be the ultimate painkiller and a permanent one. It prepares us for the challenges of life and is the ultimate survival tool.
All of our hormones are sensitive to the environment; when it is hostile and dangerous the system “ withdraws” or retracts, and that includes the levels of oxytocin. A mother giving birth who is under stress and great pain will have less oxytocin; (one reason why when it is injected it aids in childbirth). We have to assume that a mother who is chronically stressed while carrying will result in less oxytocin in her offspring. It seems to work in see-saw fashion, more adrenaline (stress—provoking the flight or fight response) less oxytocin.
That means that during childhood when love is offered by our parents, and still later by lovers, we cannot feel it. Repression has blocked our ability to receive input, even if that input is love. Repression, in short, has predated later love by a parent and blocked its input. Repression, therefore, can set up before birth when a chronically anxious mother has induced her fear into the baby and adversely affected oxytocin. And then we wonder why our baby is so fidgety and cannot be hugged.
There is enough evidence to show that a newborn’s heart rate, body temperature, and respiration rate are governed by the mother; when she is loving and nurturing towards the baby she carries, there is a positive affect on the baby and the set-points of heart rate and blood pressure become normal. Any neglect she inflicts changes the biochemistry of the baby, perhaps permanently. Her anxiety and depression during pregnancy may very well alter the offspring’s sex hormone levels. We know, for example, that anxiety in the mother can and does alter the sex hormone level of the fetus and can feminize infant males. So what we see is that once a male is feminized he is vulnerable, more vulnerable to a lack of love during infancy and childhood. He may become homosexual as a result of a cold, distant father, while the one who is not vulnerable will remain heterosexual. We need to understand that at certain levels of vulnerability, stress, trauma or pain can produce an overload and channel them into a symptom. In this sense, homosexuality could be considered a symptom, in the sense that there is a latent tendency, a feminizing, which only becomes overt homosexual behavior due to trauma; i.e., the lack of a father’s love. If the father’s love is there, it may remain a latent tendency.
The female prairie vole, when treated soon after birth with steroid/stress hormones, showed an increase in masculine behavior, such as mounting. Most of us don’t have to be injected with stress hormones; stress in the womb and just after birth accomplish the same thing, and may indeed masculinize females. It seems like whatever happens in the womb has a lifetime of consequences; whereas events after birth seem to provoke compensating mechanisms that vitiate its effects. Thus drugs given to a pregnant mother has an enduring effect on the offspring, while drugs given to an infant may not reset the set-points. The earlier this happens the more enduring the imprint and its physiologic effects.
Although we may think that an injection is something special, the same chemical process takes place naturally. We can inject oxytocin, or we can massage the animal, and increase oxytocin levels that way. We can create stress for a pregnant woman, or inject her with steroids – the psychological effect is precisely the same as from a needle. A mother can be kind and loving and raise the serotonin levels in her offspring so that he can better handle adversity or a doctor can inject serotonin into the offspring and produce a temporary calming effect that is no different than that created by a loving look from the mother. A mother can “inject” oxytocin into her baby through her milk, which contains high levels of the hormone. Love, or what looks like it, can be injected. When “injected” naturally and at the proper time it will produce a loving human being.
A therapist can ask us, “Were you loved?,” and we may insist, “Absolutely,” yet we are betrayed by our oxytocin levels, which are far too low, and by our stress hormone levels, which are far too high, and also by our hormone levels which may be quite deviated. They speak too. The body and its physiology do not lie. Indeed, we may have been loved after birth, but suffered severe traumas in the womb of which we remain completely unaware.
To be continued next week…