The CARE System: The Source of Security?

This is the fourth in my series on the late Dr Jaak Panksepp’s model of the neurological origins of human and animal emotions. Follow these links or earlier articles on the FEAR, RAGE and SEEKING Systems.


A Heritage of Nurturance

The word mammal is derived from the Latin for breast. The defining characteristic of our entire class of animal is that we suckle our young. Parenting styles may differ between all species of mammals, but nevertheless, all have this requirement to physically nurture their young. How does this inheritance shape our human emotional lives to this day?

Humans are social animals who form attachment bonds with other humans. Not all bonds are equal, however. The parent child bond (perhaps especially the mother child bond) is commonly particularly strong. Across cultures, we see strong warm bonds between intimate partners, siblings and other relatives and close friends.

Our emotional wellbeing is powerfully linked to these bonds.

One of the most important questions I ask new clients is: How happy are you with your relationships with others? I’m asking about attachments to partners, family and friends. Lack of relationships, or poor-quality relationships, is strongly indicative of poor mental health.

Relationship in jeopardy is cause for anxiety.

Relationship loss is cause for depression.

Complete absence of relationships is cause for psychosis (think of the madness of the solitary confined).

What is happening in our minds that make us so vulnerable to the whims of the social world?

CARE in the brain

Unlike the other systems I’ve written about in this series, the CARE system is quite dispersed. It is located throughout the medial subcortical regions of brain, but especially in the ventromedial hypothalamus and the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. These two regions are significant because of their large number of oxytocin receptors.

Oxytocin has been popularly described as “the love hormone”. And indeed, oxytocin seems to be important in sexual functioning and mothering in humans and other mammals (most of the research on the CARE system cited by Panksepp is on either sheep or rats).

Panksepp downplays the “love” element of oxytocin, citing animal research that shows that animals sometimes become more anti-social when dosed with oxytocin. Panksepp highlights several other hormones which might be equally or more important to feelings of love and tenderness to others.

But oxytocin does seem to be very important for our socialising and attachments.

Interpersonal Security and CARE

A big heavy bully starts pushing people around – we say he’s insecure. The idea that aggressive, anti-social or suspicious people are insecure has support from research into the care system and oxytocin specifically.

Oxytocin increases a sense of confidence and social security. Animals and humans who are given oxytocin are more trusting and calmer around others. Oxytocin has been shown in experiments to make female rats braver.

This sense of interpersonal security can be carried through life.  Panksepp notes that “abundant maternal care … makes well-loved animals more resilient, with robust, life-long resistance against various stressors”.

But it is never too late to work on your CARE system. Just spending time with loved ones and pets can increase oxytocin production. You’re never too old for a happy childhood and it is never too late to work on forming strong attachments.

Addiction and CARE

The positive affective effects of oxytocin may be due to its enhancement of opioid systems in the brain. Opioids are the chemicals found in addictive drugs like heroin and morphine.

This link between oxytocin and the body’s own opioids has encouraged Panksepp and others to view social (and romantic) bonding as an addictive phenomenon. Craving, tolerance and withdrawal pain are aspects of addiction which have clear parallels in relationships. Opioid addiction in particular shows these relationship/attachment characteristics.

Opioid addiction is heartbreaking for family members of the addicted person. A common lament of a relative of an addicted person is “they care more about the drug than me”. It seems likely that for opioid addicts, the attachment bond to the drug may be stronger than the bond to a beloved family member.

The CARE System and Mental Health

The literature on the CARE systems demonstrates the importance of strong romantic/family/friend attachments throughout life.

The individualism that underpins much of our current culture orients us toward self-derived solutions to our emotional and material problems. We are encouraged to be self-controlled and self-empowered. Reliance on others makes us feel vulnerable, weak. Many of my clients have come to the conclusion that they will solve their attachment problems by becoming rich or powerful. To hell with others!

It’s a comforting thought. We can certainly act as-if we don’t need human attachment bonds. But the CARE system, which is wired into all of us, will rebel. Loneliness, nagging grief are all but certain. Depression and even madness may ensue.

So don’t lose sight of the importance of your relationships, be they with friends, family or spouse. Tend to them, nurture them and treat them with the importance they deserve.

Speak Your Mind


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