Your text message made me feel 🙂

Using technology to enhance attachment security 

by Daniel Sonkin, Ph.D.

“I received a text message from my wife, and before I even read it, I smiled!”

John Bowlby’s attachment theory (1969, 1973, 1980) revolutionized developmental and social psychology (Cassidy and Shaver, 2008), and infant mental health research (Beatrice and Lachmann, 2013). More recently both researchers and clinicians have begun to explore its clinical application as well (Wallin, 2007; Fonagy, 2010; Obegi and Berant, 2010).  Attachment theory has become a widely accepted concept, whose clinical appeal has grown over the past decade.  Social and personality psychologists have also been interested in attachment theory, primarily in its application to adult relationships (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2010) and group dynamics (Simpson and Rholes, 1998).  Two particular social psychologists, Mario Mikulincer  and Philip Shaver (2010) through their collaboration, have greatly expanded our understanding of attachment in adult relationships, and in particular, the underlying cognitive and emotional processes that lead to particular attachment behaviors (Mikulincer, Shaver, Sapir-Lavid & Avihou-Kanza, 2009).  What is most fascinating is their research on secure base priming which they have been conducting for the past 13 years (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2001).  The implications of their findings, as well as the methodology they employed, are very applicable to our work as psychotherapists.

Secure Base Priming: In their original study, Mikulincer and Shaver were able to create a research methodology that asks the following question.  Can we alter adult insecure attachment emotional, cognitive and behavioral patterns temporarily, so as to reflect secure attachment?  In other words, can people with insecure attachment temporarily act like they have secure attachment?  The answer turned out to be yes. And this methodology has been repeated many, many times over the past 13 years.   This was done through a process called secure base priming.  Secure base priming has been found to be correlated to a wide range of positive outcomes.  It has been associated with increased compassion, altruism, and openness to different ethnic groups.  It has been found to temporarily increase self-esteem (Carnelley and Rowe, 2010), reduceanger (Dutton, unpublished manuscript) and possibly even protect people from post-traumatic stress disorder (Mikulincer, Shaver & Horesh, 2006). Most of the studies have involved single priming exposure and the changes are generally short-lived (minutes or hours).  There are only a few studies on the long-term effects of multiple priming experiences, which to date look promising (Gillath, Selcuk and Shaver, 2008).

Priming is a form of implicit memory.  It is the mechanism through which we learn things through indirect observation, rather than a focused attempt to develop a skill – though it can also occur via a more deliberate process of attention. Mikulincer and Shaver used both subliminal and supraliminal priming techniques to activate “secure base” mental representations of individuals assessed as having insecure attachment as measured by an empirically validated assessment questionnaire (Fraley, Heffernan, Vicary, & Brumbaugh, 2011).

Typical priming techniques include the subliminal presentation of words (eg, love, hug, etc.) and images (parents and children, couples, etc) on a computer screen.  It may also include visual imagery, such as recalling actual secure base experiences.  In their original priming studies Mikulincer and Shaver also asked subjects to create (make up) a secure base story, which had the same effects as actual secure base memories.  Subsequent studies have included subliminal presentation of the names and images of the subject’sattachment figures.

More recent imaging studies have determined that secure priming does affect particular brain structures, which suggests that secure attachment can be neurologically differentiated from insecure attachment (Canterberry & Gillath, 2012; Gillath, Adams, & Kunkel, 2012).   These studies point to a number of physiological processes in the brain that may give rise to attachment security.  Secure base priming appears to, in part, activate memories (ostensibly of positive attachment experiences) (Quirin, Gillath, Pruessner & Eggert,  2010) in conjunction with the simultaneous activation of structures related to the release of attachment-enhancing  hormones, such as vasopressin, oxytocin and dopamine (Gillath, Shaver, Baek & Chun, 2008).  It is theorized that when the brain is primed to activate positive memories (mental images), feelings and thoughts of attachment, these representations are more readily available when experiencing stress, distress or when there is an opportunity for dyadic soothing or problem-solving (Mikulincer, Shaver, Sapir-Lavid, & Avihou-Kanza, 2009).

Priming and Psychotherapy: Secure base priming techniques are very similar to what naturally occurs in psychotherapy.  Therapists utilize words and their non-verbal expressions to express affection, caring, support and concern for their clients.  They also suggest solutions to specific as well as general problems the client is experiencing.  Often therapists will encourage clients to remember positive outcomes from the past, or imagine positive outcomes in the future (both of which result in the creation of mental images and expectations in the brain).  All of these aspects of therapy both directly and indirectly experientially give clients secure base experiences.  It is the hope of therapists, that these repeated positive experiences will result in change.  One can say that clinicians are exposing their clients to repeated secure base priming.

However, there is a huge difference between temporarily changing attachment representations and/or affect in the laboratory via computer, and doing so in psychotherapy with a real live person.  However, change in psychotherapy can be a long, arduous process that could take years to generalize in outside relationships.  So a critical question is can therapists use the secure base priming research to enhance the security-boosting effects of psychotherapy?

Therapists often recommend adjunctive activities that clients can participate in that support change, such as medication, changes in lifestyle, and mindfulness or meditation training.   Mindfulness meditation, in particular, has been shown to improve mood (reduce depression and anxiety) and promote positivity (states of well-being).  Davidson (2004) found that individuals who meditated for 30 minutes a day, six days a week for two months changed the their activation ratio of their prefrontal cortex  – from favoring withdraw emotions on the right to favoring approach emotions on the left.  This change resulted in reduced anxiety and increased states of wellbeing.  Secure base priming may also be a valuable adjunct to traditional psychotherapy.

Texting Can Make You Happy: In a recent study researchers explored whether texting secure base guided imagery exercises can increase self-reported feelings of “felt security” (Otway, Carnelley and Rowe, 2013).  These researchers expanded the traditional view of felt security – feeling care, love and safety.  They have included an energy component that can best be described as a “subjective vitality as feelings of aliveness and vivacity.”  They differentiate this state as discretely different from an overall sense of positivity (Luke, Sedikides and Carnelley, 2012).  Their rational for this particular experiment was their that it was logistically impractical to prime individuals only in the laboratory.  Due to the wide spread use of smart phones, the researchers decided to explore whether or not texting could substitute for in-lab priming.

Subjects were assigned to either a secure or neutral priming condition before starting the priming process.  During the first exposure (which was conducted in the laboratory), subjects were asked to either write a story about a security-inducing attachment figure or a neutral assignment (eg. a supermarket shopping trip).  Twenty-four hours later, subjects were texted a 3-minute visualization task (either secure or neutral).  Twenty-four hours later, subjects received another text with another 3-minute visualization task (secure or neutral).  And again twenty-four hours later they received another text.  They received a total of five primes over the course of a week every twenty-four hours.  Felt security was measured with a 16-item scale (that was developed by the researchers) which assesses feeling secure and safe (eg, loved), as well as this sense of energy.

The findings were in line with other secure base priming studies.  Secure base priming increased feelings of “felt security” as compared to the neutral primes.  Most importantly, they found that the feelings of felt security stayed active for a number of days.  This is important because it suggests that repeated priming may act as security boosters over time.  The results suggest that texting can be used as an intervention with clients.  CBT therapists have been using texting to facilitate treatment for a number of years now (Aguilera and Monoz, 2011).  Why can’t attachment-oriented therapists do the same?

Secure Base Priming Program: Another way of delivering secure base primes to a client is through the Internet.  The smart phones that are able to receive text messages also have access to online information via a web browser.  I have developed a web site ( that is able to deliver three different types of primes to a user, which can be accessed by the client at any time.  The three priming exercises are words (secure, support, care, etc.), images (mother/fathers and children, opposite and same-sex couples – all of different ethnicities) and guided imagery exercises.  The three guided imagery exercises based on the concept of a Secure Base Script (Waters & Waters, 2006).

“If I encounter an obstacle and/or become distressed, I can approach a significant other for help; he or she is likely to be available and supportive; I will experience relief and comfort as a result of proximity to this person; I can then return to other activities.” 

The first guided imagery exercise is simply an affirmation (saying the secure base script aloud).  The second guided imagery exercise is the creation of a story that reflects the secure base script.  And the third guided imagery exercise is the recalling of an actual secure base experience with a real-life attachment figure.

The web site is the basis of an online research study that will examine the effects of repeated secure base priming on attachment style, mood and relationship behaviors (as measure by the partner of subjects).  Therapists, who are interested in referring subjects, are welcomed to try out the primes themselves and see what effects they may have on their mood and attachment style.

Conclusion: Utilizing technology for enhancing attachment security has potential, but more questions need to be answered before making any claims of beneficial effect to the public.  First, we need to know whether or not repeated priming can have a lasting effect on enhancing attachment security.  We know that the studies date have found short term effects, but it’s not clear whether or not those changes can be sustained over time.  Like most brain-training programs, it is likely that the client will need to prime over a longer period of time in order to experience lasting effects.  Plus, we don’t know if after a specified period, whether or not the effects will begin to plateau or wane altogether.  We don’t know if clients need one type of prime or different types of primes over time.  We also don’t know what types of clients would most benefit from priming.  Most importantly, we don’t know if there are any adverse effects of repeated priming.  All of these questions and more need to be answered through research.  However, in the meantime, there is no question that real relationships can enhance attachment security – this is already been demonstrated though longitudinal studies on attachment (Roisman, PadrĂłn, Sroufe & Egeland, 2002).  Whether or not these effects can be gained electronicly is yet to be determined.

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Aguilera, A., & Muñoz, R. F. (2011). Text messaging as an adjunct to CBT in low-income populations: A usability and feasibility pilot study. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 42(6), 472.

Beebe, B., & Lachmann, F. M. (2013). Infant research and adult treatment: Co-constructing interactions. Routledge.

Bowlby, J. (1969).  Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd Ed). London: Hogarth Press.

Bowlby, J. (1973).  Attachment and loss: Vol. 2. Separation. New York: Basic.

Bowlby, J. (1980).  Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Loss, sadness, and depression. New York: Basic Books.

Canterberry, M., & Gillath, O. (2012). Neural Evidence for a Multifaceted Model of Attachment Security. International Journal of Psychophysiology.

Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Guilford Press.

Davidson, R. J. (2004). Making a life worth living neural correlates of well-being. Psychological Science, 15(6), 367-372.

Fonagy, P. (2010). Attachment theory and psychoanalysis. Other Press, LLC.

Fraley, R. C., Heffernan, M. E., Vicary, A. M., & Brumbaugh, C. C. (2011). The experiences in close relationships—Relationship Structures Questionnaire: A method for assessing attachment orientations across relationships.Psychological assessment, 23(3), 615.

Gillath, O. E., Adams, G. E., & Kunkel, A. E. (2012). Relationship Science: Integrating Evolutionary, Neuroscience, and Sociocultural Approaches. American Psychological Association.

Gillath, O., Selcuk, E., & Shaver, P. R. (2008). Moving toward a secure attachment style: Can repeated security priming help?  Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(4), 1651-1666.

Gillath, O., Shaver, P. R., Baek, J. M., & Chun, D. S. (2008). Genetic correlates of adult attachment style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(10), 1396-1405.

Luke, M. A., Sedikides, C., & Carnelley, K. (2012). Your love lifts me higher! The energizing quality of secure relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(6), 721-733.

Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2010). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. Guilford Press.

Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., Sapir-Lavid, Y., & Avihou-Kanza, N. (2009). What’s inside the minds of securely and insecurely attached people? The secure-base script and its associations with attachment-style dimensions.Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(4), 615.

Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., & Horesh, N. (2006). Attachment bases of emotion regulation and posttraumatic adjustment. In D. K. Snyder, J. A. Simpson, & J. N. Hughes (Eds.), Emotion regulation in couples and families: Pathways to dysfunction and health (pp. 77-99).Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2001). Attachment theory and intergroup bias: evidence that priming the secure base schema attenuates negative reactions to out-groups. Journal of personality and social psychology, 81(1), 97.

Obegi, J. H., & Berant, E. (Eds.). (2010). Attachment theory and research in clinical work with adults. Guilford Press.

Otway, Lorna J., Carnelley, Katherine B., & Rowe, Angela C. (2013). Texting “boosts” felt security. Attachment & Human Development, (ahead of print).

Quirin, M., Gillath, O., Pruessner, J. C., & Eggert, L. D. (2010). Adult attachment insecurity and hippocampal cell density. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 5(1), 39-47.

Roisman, G. I., Padrón, E., Sroufe, L. A., & Egeland, B. (2002). Earned–Secure Attachment Status in Retrospect and Prospect. Child Development, 73(4), 1204-1219.

Simpson, J. A., & Rholes, W. S. (Eds.). (1998). Attachment theory and close relationships. Guilford Press.

Urry, H. L., Nitschke, J. B., Dolski, I., Jackson, D. C., Dalton, K. M., Mueller, C. J., … & Davidson, R. J. (2004). Making a life worth living neural correlates of well-being. Psychological Science, 15(6), 367-372.

Waters, H. S., & Waters, E. (2006). The attachment working models concept: Among other things, we build script-like representations of secure base experiences. Attachment & Human Development, 8(3), 185-197.

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Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in an independent practice in Sausalito, California. Since 1981, his work has focused on the treatment of individuals and couples facing a variety interpersonal problems. In addition to his clinical experience, he has testified as an expert witness since 1977 in criminal cases where domestic violence is an issue. He has also evaluates defendants facing the death penalty conducting social histories with a focus on their childhood abuse and its impact on adult criminal behavior. He has also testifies as an expert witness in malpractice cases and licensing actions. Learn more about Daniel or contact him through his website:

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Please visit for more information about our association and membership benefits or to locate a licensed clinical psychologist in Marin County.

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Blog Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the Marin County Psychological Association. The information posted on this blog is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional mental health services.

Deconstructing Lust

by Mary Lamia, Ph.D.

Lust may be experienced as intense desire, ardent enthusiasm, or unbridled sexual longing. This passionate craving is attention directing and a motivational force as is the experience of any emotion. When untethered, lust can lead to actions that may appear irrational.  Even so, it can be regarded as a manifestation of unconscious emotional memories.

Like love, technically lust is not considered to be an emotion, but involves emotions such as bliss, excitement, joy, and interest, as well as the erotic anticipation of sensory pleasure. People who are in the throes of lust may lose their sensibilities, since lust seems unable to recognize the reality of a situation or motivates one to neglect it. Lust is an octane for the relentless pursuit of another person in spite of intellectual reason and sometimes regardless of emotional barriers such as guilt or shame.

At times lust is unbridled sexual attraction that seeks expression, where the physical appearance and attributes of one person ignite emotions of intense interest and excitement in another.  Yet whatever is triggered in your psyche regarding the lustful qualities of another person is something specific to your own history.  As a result, a friend might confess to you that he lusts after a certain person, and you may be baffled by his interest in someone who seems unattractive to you. Additionally, lust can lead you to fill-in unknown information about the object of your desire, assigning them perfection in your fantasies.  This is because such passion is a construct of implicit memory that becomes enhanced by conscious imagination.

Implicit memory plays a primary role in the process of falling in lust and can be considered akin to what resides in you unconsciously—emotional memories concerning early attachment and love that direct your behavior, goals, passions, and interests in the present. Phenomena regarding implicit memory have been reported as early as Decartes’ 1649 work regarding The Passions of the Soul where he observed that childhood experiences remain imprinted on the brain (cited by Schacter, 1987). Since that time, numerous philosophers and psychological researchers have found that people are affected by early impressions that are not consciously remembered. In A General Theory of Love contemporary theorists, Lewis, Amini, and Lannon (2001) describe the limbic connection that occurs in intense human relationships and how we are driven by our implicit memories. Such unconscious emotional connections that are based on attractors—patterns imprinted on the limbic system— can serve to regulate human physiology and emotional health. So limbic resonance, even in the form of reciprocated lust, serves an evolutionary purpose. Psychologist Lynn O’Connor (2002) contends that limbic resonance (unrelated to lust), such as in friendships or the relationship between a therapist and patient, results in physiological regulation.

However, early limbic connections that are less than optimal also tend to be repeated throughout life (Lewis, Amini, Lannon, 2000). Therefore, lust and the implicit memories that determine its object can be the result of either healthy or unhealthy early relationships.  It is possible that the nature and outcome of a relationship can illustrate whether a passionate interest is based on implicit memories that resulted from healthy attachments or pathologic ones.  However, the fact that relationships involve at least two individuals, each with unique implicit memory, distorts the picture and adds great complexity to deconstructing lust.

The ineffable quality of lust may be the result of another person matching the template within your implicit memory and the emotions associated with it. Lust provides a rare window through which you can view your vulnerabilities as you are swept away by your imagination.  And if you are able to face and endure the shame and disappointment that are often the outcome of such attraction and subsequent disconnection, you will have ample opportunity to learn about yourself.

For information about my current book for young adults, Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings (American Psychological Association Magination Press, August 2012), see my website:


Lewis, Thomas L.; Amini, Fari; Lannon, Richard (2000). A general theory of love. New York: Random House.

O’Connor, L. E. (2002). Review of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. Human Nature Review. 2: 89-91.

Schacter, D. (1987). Implicit memory: History and current status. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 13(3),  501-518.

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Please visit for more information about our association and membership benefits or to locate a licensed clinical psychologist in Marin County.

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Blog Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the Marin County Psychological Association. The information posted on this blog is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional mental health services.


By Annette Holloway, PsyD

Many families are faced with questions about how to best raise children when the adults don’t live together any more. This is particularly difficult when you are feeling angry, hurt or betrayed by the other parent.

You might know in your mind that it’s best for the children if the parents can cooperate about parenting issues, but how do you actually do that when the littlest thing the other person says sets your teeth on edge? And what do you do if you feel that the other parent isn’t treating your child well?

Here are some general guidelines and helpful resources to get you started, if you feel this applies to you.

What you can do

Keep the children out of the middle.

This basic principle covers many situations and can also be a touchstone to consider whenever you are about to do something that involves the kids and the other parent. Keeping kids out of the middle means not using them to carry messages of any kind to the other parent, not bad mouthing the other parent in front of the kids and not using them to find out what the other parent is up to in his or her private life. It’s important to remember that a person can be a good parent even if he or she wasn’t so great at being a spouse. By keeping the kids out of the middle, you avoid asking them to choose between two parents whom they love. Children want to be loyal to each parent; they are in a very painful position if being loyal to one means being disloyal to the other.

Take care of your needs with the help of people other than your children.

You do need to vent about what the other parent said or did, to de-stress after juggling your complicated schedule and to take care of your finances. You need to learn (or add to your) good self-care techniques, and develop a support network or strengthen the one you already have.

But you need to do these activities and learn these skills without leaning on your children for help. They need you to help them manage the changes that are happening in their lives, and over which they have no control.

Children of divorce whose parents can be neutral with each other and who maintain households with totally separate routines and rules usually do just as well as children whose divorced parents cooperate well and interact easily. You don’t need to co-parent by meeting frequently face to face, creating similar schedules and meal routines, and doing things together; some couples can manage to do this but many can’t.

The good news is that co-parenting separately, with different styles and conventions in a “parallel play” style can create just as good outcomes for the children as being more coordinated.

How you can do it

Talk with people who can empathize with you – understanding, nonjudgmental friends, a therapist, a spiritual or religious leader – or write in a journal. Find ways to lower your stress level: exercise, seek beauty, look at interesting things, be in nature, pet an animal, or do something nice for someone else.

Inform yourself about co-parenting by reading a book (“Mom’s House, Dad’s House” by Isolina Ricci or “Parenting after Divorce” by Philip M. Stahl) or taking a class. Two local groups that offer classes specifically about co-parenting are Family Service Agency of Marin (FSA) and APPLE Family Works (492-0720), both in San Rafael.

At FSA, Parenting Apart is a 6-class series that helps parents better understand their children’s experience of divorce, learn skills that promote the healthy development of their children and help manage conflict with the other parent. The class focuses on positive actions parents can take for the benefit of their children (for more information call 491-5723).

Talk to your children about what is happening and ask how they feel about it. Children need to be told explicitly that the separation or divorce did not occur because of anything that they said or did. They also need an age-appropriate explanation about why their parents don’t live together (“We tried to make things work but we couldn’t be happy together, so we separated, but we both still love you” might be appropriate for a preschooler.) These kind of discussions need to occur on an ongoing basis, as their understanding of the world and of people grows.

As a parent, you know your child better than anyone. If you feel like they need extra support to help them adjust to belonging to two households, find appropriate help. Clinics like FSA and APPLE Family Works offer a variety of services at a sliding scale if your insurance doesn’t cover what you need.

Whether you and your child are going through a high-conflict or low-conflict divorce, there are steps you can take to help them do well in the long-term. Your sense of confidence about being a “good enough” parent and your intent to help them negotiate the new status quo will help both of you get through a difficult time more easily.

To contact Dr. Annette Holloway (PSY 25056) call 415/843-1453, or email


Lamb, M. E., & Kelly, J. B. (2009). Improving the quality of parent-child contact in separating families with infants and young children: Empirical research foundations. In R. M. Galazter-Levy, J. Kraus, & J. Galatzer-Levy (Eds.), The scientific basis of child custody decisions (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Pruett, M., & Barker, R. (2010). Effectively intervening with divorcing parents and their children: What works and how it works. In M. S. Schulz, M. Pruett, P. K. Kerig, R. D. Parke (Eds.), Strengthening couple relationships for optimal child development: Lessons from research and intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ricci, I. (1997).  Mom’s house, Dad’s house: A complete guide for parents who are separated, divorced, or remarried (rev. ed.). New York: Fireside for Simon & Schuster.

Stahl, P. M. (2007). Parenting after divorce: Resolving conflicts and meeting your children’s needs (2nd ed.). Atascadero, CA: Impact.

Whiteside, M. F. (1998), The parental alliance following divorce: An overview. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 24, 3–24.

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Please visit for more information about our association and membership benefits or to locate a licensed clinical psychologist in Marin County.

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Blog Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the Marin County Psychological Association. The information posted on this blog is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional mental health services.