Trauma's Effect on Attachment Styles
We are so honored and eager to bring to you Part Two from guest host and author, Jade Miller, who has created a three-part series on attachment and how it relates to trauma to share with you. If you missed the introductory article on Attachment Theory, as well as our goals with this series, you can check it out here. But, fear not! There's enough of a recap here that you'll be able follow along if you've only got a minute - though we still encourage you to go back when you have time. So, let's just jump right into it! Please be sure to check out all the wonderful things you need to know about Jade below! We are truly thankful to her for allowing us to bring you her insights and wisdom, and want you to be able to locate and appreciate all of her other work, too.
Trauma and Attachment Styles
In the last post, we discussed secure and insecure attachment and what each mean in terms of the inner beliefs a person holds as result of each. To review:
Secure attachment occurs when a caregiver consistently and appropriately meets a baby’s needs over a long enough period of time that the baby learns to expect a compassionate response. This causes them to internalize the belief that the world is basically a good place, that they themselves are worth caring for, and that others are willing to meet their needs.
Insecure attachment occurs when – for any reason – a caregiver is incapable of or unwilling to meet a baby’s needs predictably and in an appropriate way. Babies interpret this in slightly different ways, depending on their unique personality, and thus can result in one of three types of insecure attachment. But the bottom line will be that their view of the world, themselves, and/or others is negatively affected.
In this post I’m going to share how trauma affects people differently based on their attachment styles formed in infancy.
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To put it very simply, trauma occurs when something happens to someone that is beyond their ability to process it in a healthy way, so the experience is not integrated correctly on a physical, emotional, or neurological level. (Some people prefer to understand it in terms of emotional and even physical energy that becomes trapped in the body with no way of being released.) In most cases, trauma happens when a person perceives a threat to their life, bodily integrity, or sanity.
It’s important to understand that the factors that cause an event to be experienced as traumatic are unique to each individual. No two people are the same, so even those who experience the same event (e.g. a natural disaster, or siblings who witness domestic violence in the home) may react to it differently according to their unique biological makeup as well as their individual personalities and sensitivities.
Trauma and Individuals with Secure Attachments
People who are lucky enough to have a secure attachment to a caregiver as infants/children are at a significant advantage when it comes to experiencing a traumatic event. Sensitive caregivers are available and able to help them process the trauma so that it becomes appropriately integrated in their bodies, minds, and emotions.
When a person experiences trauma, but has a secure attachment to someone, that attachment can restore their sense of security and counteract the effects of the trauma. When a child experiences something potentially traumatic, they seek comfort from their attachment figure. Secure attachments help children regulate emotional arousal that occurs in the face of a threat. Later, the attachment figure will help the child form a narrative about the event so that the brain can adequately process it. Rather than the event becoming stuck in the right brain as just experience and raw sensory data, a sensitive caregiver will help the child contextualize and understand what happened - which is one way of bringing the trauma into the left brain, synching the two halves, and helping the mind integrate the experience.
Here is an example: Suppose a child is playing on the playground in the park, and suddenly a person walks by with an aggressive dog on a leash. The dog sees the child and lunges toward them, barking and growling, before being pulled away by its owner.
A child with a secure attachment will most likely run to its caregiver, crying, and the caregiver will pick up the child and comfort them. A sensitive and empathetic caregiver might say something like, “Wow, that must have been so scary! I’m sorry that dog scared you!” They will comfort the child by holding or hugging them until the child is calm. The very best way of helping a child integrate the scary experience they just had would be for the caregiver to actually put the experience into narrative form. They may say something like, “You were playing on the playground and then a big scary dog came by and barked at you. It scared you really bad. Then you came running over to Mama and I hugged you until you felt better.” The brain’s memory bank is sometimes described as an elaborate filing system. And, trauma has the potential to become stuck in a separate part of the brain, instead of being filed correctly. Forming a narrative helps the child make sense of what happened to them so the brain knows how to file the memory appropriately and can then “close out” of the “file,” so to speak, once it understands. With very young children, they may need to talk about the event and hear the story repeated over and over before they are able to finish processing it.
Trauma and Individuals with Insecure Attachments
If a person without a secure attachment relationship experiences trauma, the event is more likely to remain unprocessed and unresolved from an emotional, physical, and neurological viewpoint. The person is often unable to regain their sense of safety in the world and may experience the threat of trauma as ongoing, even after the actual threat has subsided. In the face of unrelenting hyper-arousal, dissociation is often next in line as the person attempts to cope.
It’s important to understand that without a secure attachment style, an overwhelming event is more likely to be perceived as trauma, no matter whether the person is still a child or not. People who grow up securely attached have developed much-needed skills to help them process overwhelming events and reduce the likelihood that they will become traumatized by something. However, this does not mean that securely attached people are never traumatized. It simply means the risk that something will be experienced as traumatic is lower, and the amount of time it takes for them to recover from a genuine trauma is often less than those with insecure attachment styles.
People with an insecure attachment styles do not have a healthy template with which to relate to others, the world, and themselves. They are more likely to experience something overwhelming as a trauma, because they lack the internal (and often external) resources with which to process it. Below are the tendencies of each insecure attachment style in how they cope with emotional distress (traumatic or otherwise).
People with an avoidant attachment style often see other people as a source of apathy, fear, or discomfort. So traumatic experiences do not drive them to seek help from others. Rather, they withdraw internally even more, and attempt to utilize their own resources to cope with an overwhelming event. Many attachment experts theorize that people with this attachment style are more likely to develop addictions. Those with the avoidant attachment style see people as a source of indifference or distress rather than a source of help, so they turn instead to ways of comforting themselves that do not involve other people.
People with the insecure attachment style see other people as a helpful resource, but their low self-esteem creates a seemingly bottomless void of need. These people are often drawn into co-dependent relationships because they see others as their only source of comfort and soothing. They have not internalized the ability to self-soothe because their early interactions with caregivers were inconsistent or confusing. They did not receive comfort consistently enough to learn how to comfort themselves, so they feel the constant need for contact and connection to others when they are overwhelmed.
People with the disorganized attachment style – as noted previously – do not have any consistent way of responding to emotional upset. They view others as dangerous or scary, and themselves as unworthy of help. They have never formed a reliable strategy to deal with powerful emotions, so they are often haphazard in their attempts to cope with overwhelming events. They may seek comfort from others at times (although such comfort is rarely internalized), or they may withdraw. At other times, they may seem unaffected or numb to the traumatic experience, and they are prone to dissociation as a defense mechanism. (Please note that anyone with any attachment style can utilize dissociation; the disorganized style is just more prone to it.)
In the example of the child on a playground, lunged at by a big scary dog: those with insecure attachment styles, if faced with the same situation, could be at risk of a lifelong phobia of dogs. Or, they could be triggered to an anxiety attack by the sound of a dog barking or growling. The fear and panic they felt then, if experienced as trauma and left unintegrated, could cause all kinds of symptoms in their adult life.
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If you are interested in learning more about emotional development and/or attachment and trauma here are some links:
・・ Joystarters.com – Please note that this is a faith-based blog, but there are some great articles on attachment, crisis, and neuroscience
Stay tuned for Part Three of the Trauma and Attachment series, coming soon!
Jade Miller would describe herself as a blogger, artist, SRA survivor, peer worker, and member of a poly-fragmented DID system. ..who also desires to bring education and awareness about the reality of SRA/DID to the public and increase the number and availability of resources to survivors for healing. We would firmly agree, and also add that she's a fantastic advocate, with an abundance of passion, knowledge and experience of which we can all benefit. Her blog is not only an invaluable resource, but she's also a published author with some must-read material. Notably for survivors are her two illustrated books for younger parts of DID systems called Dear Little Ones and Dear Little Ones (Book 2: About Parents)! You can even listen to her read it on YouTube, and see the illustrations. She's also written books on Attachment and Dissociation, and has also compiled her experiences of struggle and healing into more personal books in the past. All of these are very well worth your time, and we strongly encourage you to seek out all of her published work as well as her online presence (listed below). We are super honored to partner with her to bring you this series and deeply value her support to us, and to survivors everywhere!
FIND JADE ON ALL HER PLATFORMS!
MORE INFORMATIVE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:
- DID Myths: Dispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative identity Disorder
- Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
- Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
- Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201: Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
- Imagery 101: Healing Pool and Healing Light