Category Archives: neuroscience

For new parents: attachment and bonding talk

This post is a summary of the talk I gave on attachment and bonding at the Ethical Mums coffee morning 24th May 2012.

To be completely in tune with your baby, understand their cries and be able to respond to them – this is what new mums often strive for, or expect of themselves.  This kind of ‘perfect bond’ is idealised in our society.  It is a myth of course, although when we have a good day we are tempted to believe it’s possible!    But the reality is that being responsible for a new baby is hard work, and ‘mis-attunements’ happen all the time.  We can’t always soothe our baby’s crying straight away.  We sometimes feel angry and frustrated, or useless and ashamed.

‘Mis-attunement’ is a word that describes situations when mother and baby are not ‘on the same page’.   You can try everything: feeding, putting down for a nap, changing the nappy, cuddling, winding, more clothes, fewer clothes – and feel as though you have no clue what baby is trying to tell you.  Newborns have no concept of themselves as separate people, separate from you the mother.  It is by the repeated process of mis-attunement and re-attunement that your baby develops into a separate person, with their own sense of self.  The really important thing is how we manage the mis-attunements.  It is how we as parents manage ourselves and relate with baby in these situations that counts.  And how we ‘make friends’ or re-establish attunement afterwards.  Can we be accepting of our imperfections, recover (after a cry or a few deep breaths or counting to 100!) and approach baby in a loving, calm manner?

As parents we need to be able to contain our feelings of inadequacy, anger, frustration or anxiety, and put them aside – at least during baby’s waking hours.  To do this day after day after day, we need support.   Without plentiful and regular support from family, friends, other new mums and professionals, our capacity to do all this containing can get stretched to breaking point.  In the Ethical Mums coffee morning we talked about how we cope when those difficult days come along, shared tips and listened to each other’s experiences.  Being listened to and knowing that it is not just you makes a huge difference.  I’d like to thank all the mums that came and wish them all the best with their new families!

Esther is a UKCP-registered psychotherapist, counsellor and mother of two based in South Ealing.  07932 116171

Are your mind and body the same thing?

This piece is prompted by Oliver Burkeman’s column in Saturday’s Guardian (28th April 2012) which divides people into ‘dualists’ and  ‘physicalists’.  The underlying philosophical assumption of a ‘dualist’ is that their mind is a separate entity from their body, and ‘physicalists’ believe that:

“everything that happens in the mind must arise from the spongy grey tissues of the brain”.

He reported research findings which indicate that ‘physicalists’ are more likely to take care of their bodies by eating healthily, whereas ‘dualists’ are prone to treat their bodies less respectfully.  Whether we think our body is ourself or just a container for it makes a difference to how we behave.  He goes on to say that if you believe that physicalism is correct, instead of turning to psychotherapy for problems of the mind, physical intervention is the way to go: “FIRST, GO FOR A SWIM”, he recommends.

I am a physicalist – I wonder if there are many people who have studied neuroscience who are not? – and I agree with the swimming part, or walking, cycling….  But I think Oliver Burkeman has missed out an important point.  If the mind and the body are essentially the same thing, connected through the nervous system, then the influencing can go both ways.

Physical activities – exercise, breathing – have an impact on our state of mind.  With almost every client, I enquire about diet and exercise.  But in the opposite direction, our thoughts or mindset can have an impact on our bodily wellbeing.  For example, practising mindfulness can reduce physical symptoms of anxiety such as racing heartrate, sweating, muscle tension.  Years of research under the Positive Psychology banner has demonstrated the link between optimism and general wellbeing.

And making-sense-of, understanding something (a mind-based activity) enables us to make different choices.  Recently I ran some workshops on resilience, which included this information: that the body doesn’t distinguish between the kind of stress it’s under.  Mental stress, being too cold, blood sugar being too ‘spiky’, it’s all the same to our adrenal glands which have to  deal with the stress regardless of the cause.   A week later I received a text from a group I trained, to say they had swapped their sweets and biscuits for nuts and fruit in meetings, and were feeling the benefits.  Knowledge is power to choose how we behave  – one of the ways our mind influences our body.

As usual (although it doesn’t make for pithy newspaper articles) the answer is not ‘either/or’ but both.