“Reversed Attunement” – what is it, how does it impact the body-mind connection, and how can breathing help?

When I reflect on my childhood, I now realize that my parents struggled to accept themselves and each other, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that I instinctively found myself adapting to their moods, doing what I could to get their attention, to feel seen, valued, and accepted as part of the family and to maintain peace in the house.  It was the normal, natural human survival instinct kicking in – the need for connection.  Unfortunately, no matter how good I got at becoming aware of their moods and adjusting accordingly, peace was elusive and anxiety was palpable.  Ultimately, my parents divorced, but that didn’t end the war and, in fact, just fanned the flames of the fire instead.  I then spent many years attempting to navigate two homes, trying to please my parents separately, but always falling short, fertilizing a growing belief that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I work, it will never be (good) enough.

What I experienced in my family I now refer to as “reversed attunement”, because I tuned into my parents emotional needs to survive instead of my parents being aware of my needs as a child to support my growth.  What I learned on my journey is that my parents were also victims of “reversed attunement” and, as such, didn’t know any other way of being when they had children of their own.  In fact, one of the family rules passed through the generations in my family was “children are to be seen, not heard”, so the children in my family learned creative ways to be noticed and heard, to ensure they were not left behind.

What we now know is that humans are wired for connection with a basic human need to be accepted and included, whether in a family, tribe, or some other group.  And when group members are attuned to each other, that is aware of and responsive to the emotional needs of its members, then healthy growth is possible.  Yet, this attunement needs to be initiated, led, or modeled by the elders to the children, not the other way around.  If the elders are not capable of attunement, the children will sense the disconnection and their bodies will perceive it as a threat to their survival.  If children do not feel accepted and valued, especially within their nuclear families, they experience feelings of rejection or abandonment and do not have the rational capacity yet to figure out why, leading the body to absorb the distress, creating an experience of tension and anxiety.  This physiological reaction in the body is referred to as the fight-or-flight response or acute stress response.  Without the ability of the mind to understand this distress response in the body and with the chronic nature of the anxiety, the mind begins to distance itself from the body, ignoring the innate wisdom of the body, creating a separation or dissociation between the mind and the body, pushing the painful feelings down beneath the surface of awareness.

In this chronic state of anxiety, the body is seeking connection and desires to belong, yet the mind says it is not safe, keeping the body in a heightened state of alertness to possible danger.  When the body is under such distress, the breath becomes very shallow, which supports the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that prepares us to either run away from danger or to fight it.  It prevents the logical part of our minds from fully participating in the assessment of any situation, building a larger divide between the body and the mind.  But when we begin to understand and embrace that this divide has a purpose – to keep us safe – then, from this place of compassion, we can explore ways to realign the body and the mind, creating space for the expression of our fears, beliefs, and a fuller, deeper, and more expansive breath.

When I first began my healing journey away from disconnection and anxiety, I started with psychotherapy alone, where the focus was on my mind, specifically my thoughts and beliefs that were underneath my anxiety.  This process helped me to gain a greater understanding of why I believed what I did, but it didn’t really address or relieve the long-held tension in my body.  It wasn’t until I began to integrate yoga, and specifically the conscious breathing that is integral to a yoga practice, that I was able to get in touch with the depth of my anxiety.  What I learned was that I was experiencing “reversed breathing”, which was a result and a reflection of experiencing “reversed attunement”.  When I would inhale, I would suck my belly in and when I exhaled, I would let my belly out.  I came to learn that the natural, human breath is facilitated by the diaphragm, which engages and presses down on the inhale, creating space for the lungs to fully expand, and, as such, inflates not only the chest and ribs, but the belly too.  Then, on the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes back up into the chest in its resting dome shape, as the belly and chest deflate and soften.  Reconnecting to this natural breathing pattern wasn’t always easy and took practice.  Sometimes it made me feel claustrophobic or lightheaded.  But with a little patience and compassion for myself, I soon noticed a shift.  When I would practice releasing my exhales for a longer period of time than my inhales, I noticed a tangible release of tension in my body.  I now know that is because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that supports the relaxation response in the body.   I slowly became more aware of the long-held tension in my body, how my anxiety would highjack my ability to think and speak, and how, if I simply took a full, conscious breath, I would create space to choose to respond instead of react to situations.

As I continued to practice bringing awareness to my breath, I used my breath as a resource to help calm my body when my mind became anxious, which allowed my logical mind to stay present and reflect on what was creating the anxiety.  With this internal resource, I was able to prevent the dissociation of the mind-body and bring them back into alignment, breathing through those old, familiar feelings of disconnection.  With the support of my breath, I am able to remind myself that I am worthy of connection and acceptance, whose early childhood experience of “reversed attunement” has expanded my capacity to be attuned to and compassionate towards others.

If you are interested in reading more about the benefits of integrating conscious breathing exercises into psychotherapy, click on the button below to read a recent research article that speaks to this topic.