Published:  2022-02

Psychophysiological responses underlying unresolved loss and trauma in the Adult Attachment Interview

Authors:  Lianne Bakkum, Mirjam Oosterman, Marije L. Verhage, Florentina C. Kunseler, R. M. Pasco Fearon, Carlo Schuengel, Robbie Duschinsky

Tags:  adult attachment, autonomic nervous system reactivity, childhood abuse, loss, trauma recall

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Unresolved loss/trauma in the context of the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) has been theorised to result from dissociative processing of fear-related memories and ideas. To examine the plausibility of this model, this study tested hypothesised associations between unresolved loss/trauma and indicators of autonomic nervous system (ANS) reactivity. First-time pregnant women (N = 235) participated in the AAI while heart rate (interbeat interval; IBI) and indicators of parasympathetic reactivity (respiratory sinus arrhythmia; RSA) and sympathetic reactivity (pre-ejection period; PEP, skin conductance level; SCL) were recorded. Using multilevel modelling, ANS reactivity was examined in relation to topic (loss/trauma versus other questions); discussion of actual loss/trauma; classification of unresolved/disorganised; and unresolved responses during the interview. Responses to loss/trauma questions and discussion of loss were associated with respectively larger and smaller IBIs. There was no moderation by unresolved/disorganised status. Unresolved responses about loss were associated with smaller IBIs. Participants classified as unresolved/disorganised showed decreasing PEP and blunted SCL throughout the whole interview. The findings suggest that unresolved speech about loss co-occurs with physiological arousal, although the inconclusive findings regarding parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system responses fail to clearly support the role of fear.