The Elusive Key To Healing Trauma – Attachment Security Feeling securely attached is pivotal to our healing from childhood trauma

Disruption of the attachment bond is the most common cause of childhood trauma. The people who were supposed to love and care for us instead harmed us. Being treated like shit by one’s own family is the ultimate betrayal. It affects us at the very core of who we are and our place in the world.

When our primary caregivers are unstable, inconsistent, neglectful, or abusive our neurophysiological system is in a constant stress-response state of flight-fight-freeze or fawn. We don’t feel safe within ourselves and in the world in general.

To heal from our childhood wounds we have to find attachment security, first within ourselves and then slowly with our outer environment. However, this is not at all an easy endeavor. It means finding safe people to attach to – akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

According to neuropsychologist, Allan Schore, our early attachment experiences with our primary caregivers leave psychoneurological imprints on our brain and body. Were they loving, attuned, and responsive to our cries or did they neglect, scream and ignore us in our distress.

The Elusive Key To Healing Trauma – Attachment Security
Attuned. loving caregivers foster secure attachment in a child

If we were lucky we would have had good enough parents/caregivers, attuned to our needs and emotional cues. This leads to secure attachment.  Being securely attached has a positive effect on our personality, mental and physical health, and overall well-being.

While being insecurely attached negatively impacts every aspect of our life.

Childhood Trauma and Attachment

Those of us who struggle with childhood trauma grew up with warped attachment experiences. The very people who were supposed to love and care for us abused, neglected, and hurt us very much. This led to us being insecurely attached.

The interactive experiences with our caregivers were a source of fear and anguish. We consistently felt unsafe and unsure of their moods and reactions.  We walked on eggshells and modeled our behavior so as not to enrage them. Thus we develop a distorted internal compass with which we maladaptively navigate the world.

Though attachment is typically determined in the first two years via the relationship with the primary caregivers, a lot of other factors are at play too. Nor does it necessarily stay the same throughout life. Having negative or positive experiences later in life can impact our attachment security.

Healing – Feeling Safe

Healing from a traumatized state of heightened hyperarousal entails feeling safe. Not just physically but also psycho-relationally – we have to feel safe to let down our guard and trust.

Fortunately, research shows that attachment style can change for the better, subtly or dramatically – in the safe space of positive, caring, supportive relationships. Through earned secure attachment we change the neuronal wiring in our brain and can feel more secure and confident.

With some self-awareness, if we practice different ways of relating. Thus develop better internal working models of ourselves and our place in the world.

John Bowlby’s  Attachment Theory

The human attachment system is designed for survival. As helpless babies, we needed the protection and care of another human being. This creates our bonding relationship with that person/s – mother, father, extended family, or paid caregivers.

British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby first formulated the attachment theory. According to Bowlby, our earliest bonds with our mother/primary caregivers deeply impact us.

Later, Bowlby’s protégé, Mary Ainsworth further expanded on the theory through her groundbreaking ‘strange situation’ study which revealed the profound effects of attachment on behavior. If our bonding is strong and we are securely attached, then we feel safe to explore the world. If our bond is weak, we feel insecurely attached. We are afraid to leave or explore a rather scary-looking world.

Additionally, Harry Harlow’s monkey experiments showed that early attachments formed not by simply feeding but developed through receiving comfort and care from a caregiver.  The Romania orphans’ heartbreaking chronicle indisputably confirms this premise. Children need not just food but loving care to thrive and survive.

The Attachment Styles

There are four main attachment styles:

1) Secure Attachment 

A child becomes securely attached when the parent accurately interprets a child’s cues and sensitively responds in a timely fashion and an appropriate manner.  Bowlby believed that there are four distinguishing characteristics of attachment: proximity maintenance, safe haven, secure base, and separation distress. According to Bowlby, one does not need to be 100% tuned in, just being attuned 30% of the time is sufficient to create a secure attachment in a child. Of course, the early months are critical in developing a safe internal self-regulatory model in a child.

Sensitivity experienced during the early years of life is, translates into attachment security, whereas insensitivity is related to insecurity.

There are three types of insecure attachment:

Typically, insecure attachment styles develop as a response to misattuned parenting and as a form of adaptation.

1) Anxious-ambivalent or preoccupied 

Anxious attachment develops when infants receive inconsistent care from their parents. They become unsure regarding the availability of their caregivers, particularly in times of need. They have a negative self-image but a positive view of the world.

2) Anxious-Avoidant or dismissive-avoidant 

Avoidant attachment forms when the attachment figure rejects an infant’s connection-seeking behaviors. These parents tend to be emotionally rigid and they get angry at their infants. They are avoidant and maintain an emotional distance to protect themselves. While they distrust others, they have high self-esteem and see themselves in a positive light.

3) Disorganized or  fearful-avoidant

Disorganized or disoriented attachment develops when the parent is also a source of threat or fear. This attachment style typically forms as a consequence of maltreatment. They have negative views of themselves and others.

Most attachment specialists believe that the disorganized attachment style is the most difficult of the three insecure attachment styles to treat because it incorporates both the anxious and the avoidant styles. Most personality-disordered people fall in this category.

Know Your Attachment Style

To know your attachment style take the quiz. As of writing this, my attachment style is anxious/preoccupied.

Not surprising, considering my mother was a working mom who also was hospitalized when I was 3 years due to cancer. Maybe for some time from 4-9 years, I was securely attached. Those were the happiest years of my life. However, my mom’s death when I was 11 years and the ongoing neglect and abuse pushed my already hypersensitive nervous system far down the hypervigilant CPTSD hole. Having no one to really support and care for me, I became an anxious fawner who feared abandonment.

Anxious attachment is on a spectrum with mildly anxious on one end and the anxious version of disorganized on the other end. Where exactly does anxious become disorganized is hard to say, yet one is more extreme than the other.

Differing Attachment Needs

Depending on our attachment styles, we develop different internal working models which in turn influence our view of ourselves, and how we relate to others.

The source of most interpersonal problems is dissimilar attachment needs.  Different attachment styles mean different beliefs about romantic love, intimacy,  availability, trust, sharing, time spent together, etc. If your styles match it is a match made in heaven, if not it could be one hell of a ride.

We usually have a stable attachment style that inevitably shows up similarly in each relationship, once the honeymoon phase is over, but not always. Some of us have more flexible styles, especially if we grew up with radically different relationships with close caregivers – like the father being an abusive drunk and a mother being a helpless victim.

Trauma Can Change Attachment Style

According to psychologist Daniel Brown’s research, people with CPTSD often have a disorganized attachment style. Though attachment style is set by age two, trauma can change our relational style.

As more and more trauma builds up throughout life our attachment styles shift from anxious/avoidant to disorganized. Brown posits that the way to help people with CPTSD is to first deal with the attachment disorder that happened as a baby, then either the trauma leaves or can be easily treated with things like CBT, EMDR, etc.

Earned Attachment Security

Though we may not be able to completely erase our earlier embed program of insecure attachment, we can work on developing earned attachment security with reliable others. This is through cultivating healthy relationships with a therapist, a partner, a friend, or an adult child.

Beware, no matter how tempting it seems, re-connecting with parents, siblings, or family who were instrumental in causing your trauma is a foolish endeavor. In most instances, it will further derail your healing.

A good attachment-oriented trauma therapist is a good bet to help act as a bridge to developing secure healthy relationships. The therapist becomes a temporary attachment figure, assuming the functions of a nurturing mother, repairing lost trust, restoring security, and instilling two key skills encoded through secure attachment:  regulation of emotions and healthy intimacy.

Building Epistemic Trust

When one has been consistently betrayed and let down by our caregivers, we develop epistemic mistrust. Our faith in the world gets shattered. In order to heal and develop attachment security, we have to somehow revive our epistemic trust first within ourselves and the world.

I found being consciously transactional is very helpful when engaging in new relationships – clear expectations, firm boundaries, and an uncompromising bottom line at the very beginning is the best way to start.

Being clear about the give-and-take in a relationship will help you immediately spot red flags and stop being taken for a ride.

Some time ago, I connected with someone, I had clearly stated my expectations, my bottom line – two violations and it is strike-out. I’ve spent too much time giving numerous chances to people expecting changed behavior. Sadly, the more chances you give the more you get taken for granted.

Even though it ended recently, I wasn’t devastated and hit with waves of abandonment. I was clear about what I expected and just because that was not received did not mean that I was not good enough.

I always try to remember Don Miguel’s 2nd Agreement: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Be cautious, in your desperate desire to attach you don’t fall for the love-bombing manipulator.

Ideal Parent Protocol

In case, one does not have anyone trustworthy to build earned secure attachment, one can try Daniel Brown’s Ideal Parent Figure (IPF) Method. Here you visualize your ideal parent in your mind.

According to Brown, the brain actually can’t distinguish between real memories and imagined ones, so it starts to take on the imagined memories as though they were real and begins to operate just like a brain that had a secure childhood.

Doing it over time (rewiring the subconscious requires repetition + emotion) you internalize those images and slowly shift to a more secure internal working model of feeling securely attached.

I have not worked with it enough to vouch for its efficacy. But one thing I can attest to is guided imagery works. I’ve used it to reduce stress and feel confident.

Sometimes, just feeling confident makes you less needy.  The mind is a complex and fascinating piece of work.

You could check the IPF meditations here.

Before doing any guided meditation, some journaling/writing about your pain/hurts/rage really helps open up space within for new positive feelings.

Resolving Insecure Attachment

There are many pieces to uncover in our trauma recovery journey, however, resolving insecure attachment can be central to our healing.

We cannot change our past but we can change our maladaptive patterns of relating. Becoming aware of our inner workings initially will take constant self-awareness and mindfulness. How am I feeling? Why am I feeling? What can I do to feel/act differently?

Learn to stand up for yourself, say no, and not feel guilty about what you want.  Changing how you perceive yourself, your identity, and your self-worth can help you regain your power and stop being a victim of circumstances.

Secure Most Of The Time

Feeling securely attached is not a constant state of uninterrupted bliss. There will be ups and downs in our emotional moods. Our goal should be feeling secure, most of the time.

Furthermore, know how to get back into our window of tolerance and not let our fears/distress linger long enough to send us back to the hell-hole of feeling insecure, abandoned, unworthy, or unlovable.

Attachment security comes from knowing that the absence of some things is temporary. We have the power to change our relationship dynamics – whether work things out or let go. We are no longer helpless children but empowered adults who have myriad choices.


Image Source: Pixabay

Ref: Modern Attachment Theory: The Central Role of Affect Regulation in Development and Treatment
An attachment perspective on psychopathology

Further Reading:

A Secure Base John Bowlby 

Power of Attachment – Diane Heller

Becoming Attached – Robert Karen

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