Attachment, Social Connection & Allostasis

The Link between Attachment, Social Connection
& Co-Regulation through Social Allostasis


As human beings, we are inherently social. We need social connection from the cradle to the grave. Being socially disconnected and/or feeling lonely can literally kill us.

Unsurprisingly, there is a strong interest in better understanding how and why our body and brain depend on social connection, particularly from a social neuroscience perspective.

This perspective involves looking at brain activity, blood pressure, immune response, stress hormones, behaviour, and even gene expression.


A lot of research and theory has been devoted to loneliness – the feeling of being socially disconnected.

The neurobiological changes accompanying loneliness are initially adaptive and often necessary. However, if we feel lonely for a prolonged amount of time, these changes may have detrimental effects on our mental and physical health.

Yet, why do we need social connection – and thus feel lonely if we are socially disconnected – in the first place?


We think that attachment theory in combination with social neuroscience (SoNeAt) is ideally suited to both theoretically explain and empirically investigate the tight link between social (dis)connection and mental & physical wellbeing and health.

We therefore recently provided a theoretical model that links attachment, social (dis)connection and co-regulation through social allostasis.

This model is described in more detail below.

A short and accessible summary of the tight link between attachment, social (dis)connection and co-regulation through social allostasis is available in this series about “Is your brain securely attached? A social neuroscience perspective on attachment. So far, there are two posts available – Volume 2 published on 07 December 2022 and Volume 1 published on 19 May 2022.

Click on the image on the left to access Volume 2 (07 December 2022).

1) It is our “Baseline or Default State” to be Socially Connected

From the cradle to the grave, we need social connection. Without social connection, we cannot survive and thrive. Our strong dependence on social connection is particularly evident in early life – we need to be cared for by significant others who help us meet our basic physiological needs (food, sleep, warmth, etc.). The same applies when we grow older – with increasing age, we again start to more strongly depend on others’ help and support.

Although particularly important for our survival in early and later life, social connection is equally crucial for our bodily and mental wellbeing and health across the entire life span. Several large meta-analyses have shown that being and/or feeling socially disconnected can increase our mortality risk by up to 30% – more so than heavy smoking and excessive drinking.

Well then, according to the above, why is social connection so important for us in the first place?

We need social connection to survive and thrive because our body and particularly our brain intrinsically assume that we are socially connected with significant others. It is our biological “baseline or default state” to be socially connected. As put forward by Social Baseline Theory, the human brain expects access to relationships because they provide us with additional resources.

More precisely, our brain construes social resources as bioenergetic resources, much like oxygen or glucose. When we are close to other people and have access to their resources, we can preserve our own resources and devote them to other tasks – as if our own resources were literally increased. In other words, our brain treats social and metabolic resources almost interchangeably.

2) Social Allostasis as our Primary Survival Strategy

When we face a significant challenge that upsets our bodily and/or mental balance, we innately and immediately look for others’ help and support – for a lending hand, soothing words, a hug, etc. Recruiting social resources is our primary survival strategy.

By socially connecting with significant others when we are under stress, we can make use of co-regulation – the helping influence of others’ presence and assistance to regulate our own emotions, thoughts and physiology. This process is also known as social allostasis – our ability to achieve stability through change by relying upon others’ resources.

Crucially, social allostasis not only helps us meeting current but also anticipated/future demands. If we know that we can rely upon others’ help and support should we face an important future challenge, we will think and behave differently even in the absence of a current challenge.

There is lots of social neuroscience evidence for the efficacy of social allostasis. If we physically are, or mentally imagine to be close to significant others, we see the world around us with different eyes and become better at stress regulation.

For example, standing (or imagining to stand) next to a friend when facing a steep hill, we actually see the hill as less steep. And when we are holding our partner’s hand / see pictures of them, our pain threshold and corresponding brain activity (particularly in the aversion network – see here) is decreased.

Attachment theory neatly captures this innate link between the recruitment of social resources under stress described above in association with the primary attachment strategy of proximity seeking linked to attachment security. While proximity seeking in early infancy is initially rather unspecific, it becomes increasingly targeted at those people around us who are most available and responsive – because they help us co-regulate and thereby conserve our energy most efficiently and reliably. And these are also the people to whom we become securely attached.

3) Compensation Mechanisms

The above-described tight link between attachment, social connection and co-regulation through social allostasis helps us understand why we need social connection in the first place. We can therefore move on and ask the question: What happens if our social connection is reduced or if we feel as if it were reduced?

When we are socially disconnected and/or feel lonely, we need to look for other ways of keeping our bodily and mental balance. We do so by employing compensation mechanisms or, in attachment terms, secondary attachment strategies.

One compensation mechanism is to decrease proximity seeking and increase self-regulation. We get ready to face future challenges on our own. This self-focussed secondary attachment strategy reflecting an “individual fight” response is associated with attachment avoidance.

Decreasing proximity seeking and increasing self-regulation has an immediate effect on our bioenergetic resources. Because we cannot draw upon the resources of others, we need to increase our own resources. This adjustment can be seen both in relation to social isolation and attachment avoidance. One study has found that socially isolated individuals consume more sugar (even after controlling for body mass index, weight related self-image, depression, physical activity, educational level, age and income). Another study observed that avoidantly attached individuals not only have higher fasting glucose levels, but also consume more glucose-rich food with the expectation of increased personal effort because of limited access to social resources.

Another compensation mechanism is to intensify our proximity seeking behaviour to re-establish social connection. This other-focussed secondary attachment strategy reflecting a “social flight” response is linked to attachment anxiety.

Intensifying proximity seeking does not appear to be bioenergetically as costly as increasing self-regulation – because social connection can still be established, even if only intermittently. Accordingly, the second study mentioned above did not find any evidence for an association between fasting glucose levels & increased consumption of glucose-rich foods and attachment anxiety.

However, very recent data indicates that attachment anxiety may shape peripersonal space (i.e., the interactive space around the body) and interpersonal space (i.e., the distance between one’s own and someone else’s body). More precisely, individuals scoring higher on attachment anxiety appear to experience the space around the body as though they are never securely surrounded by others and to seek social proximity with others irrespective of social closeness (i.e., how close they actually feel to others). The latter finding may represent a generalised and possibly internalised tendency in anxiously attached individuals for seeking proximity at all times, even if currently feeling socially connected.

Finally, when social connection is completely removed or becomes a threat by itself, compensation mechanisms become more rigid and extreme, or can even break down entirely. In infancy and childhood, this usually happens after prolonged physical or emotional neglect and abuse and can – but by no means necessarily has to – lead to attachment disorganisation. Accordingly, we recently referred to such rigid regulation in association with attachment disorganisation as “tertiary” disorganised strategies (see also below).

Social neuroscience evidence supports the notion of compensation mechanisms becoming more rigid and extreme after experiences of prolonged – and particularly early – adversity.
In the case of prolonged (and early) neglect, neurobiological patterns indicate the presence of a hypo-arousal phenotype that affects both the processing of reward (i.e., approach module) and stress (i.e., aversion module). It is likely that such overall blunting represents a rigid self-protection mechanism to minimise arousal linked to strong emotions because there are no social resources available whatsoever to help with regulation.
In the case of prolonged (and early) abuse, neurobiological patterns indicate the presence of a hyper-arousal phenotype. Interestingly, there is not only heightened brain activity to threat in the aversion module, but also in the approach module that normally only processes positive/rewarding information. We think that this pattern may help explain the often observed approach-avoidance conflict associated with attachment disorganisation that likely emerges due to the dual role of the caregiver providing both care and being a source of threat.
For more information on “tertiary” disorganised strategies, please see the website section on Attachment Disruption & Disorganisation.

4) Return to Balance versus Allostatic Overload

It is very important to note here that the above-described secondary attachment strategies associated with the outlined compensation mechanisms of “individual fight” and “social flight” are meaningful, adaptive and often necessary. We cannot always employ the primary attachment strategy of proximity seeking, even if we are securely attached. And either increasing self-regulation or proximity seeking often do help us regain our mental and bodily balance. Along these lines, attachment insecurity – and its secondary attachment strategies – should not be automatically labelled as “bad” or “maladaptive”.

Of course, having to compensate for a perceived or real loss of social connection is associated with certain risk factors. These risk factors become particularly prominent if compensation needs to be maintained for an extended amount of time and/or to a very important degree. Under such circumstances, there is a higher chance for wear and tear and thus a state of allostatic overload – i.e., the cumulative burden of chronic stress and life events to exceed our ability to cope and thus to become overwhelming.

It is important for us to realise when we reach the point of our resources becoming depleted to prevent allostatic overload and ensuing difficulties. Even better, if possible at all, we should develop an awareness of our bioenergetic resources to prevent them from wearing out too much.

We can do so by reflecting upon our feelings of social (dis)connection and attachment tendencies. This will help us understand which strategies we use to cope with stress and how we could improve our coping abilities in the future. We can also start exploring alternative ways of replenishing our bioenergetic resources, particularly when social resources are sparse. These alternative ways may involve physical activity, spending time in nature or engaging in contemplative mental practice/meditation.

We should, however, also realise that allostatic overload can and does happen to everybody and that we may need to seek professional help at some point in our life.

5) A combined Social Neuroscience and Attachment Theory Account

We recently summarised the above considerations about the link between attachment, social connection & co-regulation through social allostasis in our introduction article “Charting the Social Neuroscience of Human Attachment (SoNeAt)” as part of our Special Issue “Towards a Social Neuroscience of Human Attachment” in the journal Attachment & Human Development. Please feel free to check out the introduction article and any additional references it points to.

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