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4 Tools to Cope with Flashbacks

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    There is no delicate way to put it: flashbacks are just awful. Whether you've just started experiencing these upsetting and intrusive symptoms, or you've been fighting them for years, we know how challenging and exhaustive they can be!  Thankfully, a wide variety of tools and skills exist to help you break free -- each one highly customizable to your specific needs. That said, some of the very best options out there can take some time, and a lot of practice, before you've shaped them into that go-to symptom management tool you can pull on any time. Skills like imagery, containment, split-screen, and a few modulation tools are all incredibly valuable, but they can be quite advanced, and sometimes even turn survivors away from them altogether if introduced too soon. For those new in their healing, options that are very straightforward and uncomplicated can be their greatest lifeline. For those with a full workshop of tools, we know how possible it is for giant waves of new or stubborn trauma material to put even your best skills out of reach. So, items that are extremely easy to recall in a time of panic or crisis, as well as very rudimentary to enact, may be the only efficient skills at your disposal. We hope to be able to offer survivors in all stages of recovery that perfect flashback kit.

    Before we get too far, let's first define what a flashback is! Whether you're a trauma survivor yourself, or a loved one/supporter of one who is are trying to learn more, you may be surprised to learn there are different types of flashbacks:

 

 

 

    So, what can you do?

     We recognize that half the battle when you're struggling is being able to just remember that these tools even exist and are available to you. When you're terrified, feeling very young, or you aren't oriented to the present, it can be really hard to even recognize that you're symptomatic. Try to be compassionate with yourself (or your friend, family member or client) about this. Years upon years, sometimes decades, were spent responding to distress/trauma in the same exact way; it is very hard to retrain the brain to respond differently when you're only presented an opportunity to try every so often. Also, flashbacks stem from a completely different section of our daily-functioning brain. It takes very hard work to override that circuitry, and none of us think very logically or critically when flooded with fear and adrenaline. But, with practice, and by utilizing these skills as early in your symptoms as you can, you'll find they become more habitual and automatic — taking less conscious effort and acting more like muscle memory.

     Let's get to it!

 

 

Grounding

     Your absolute number one, first line of defense for any posttraumatic symptom is to be grounded -- or at least substantially more grounded than you are in that moment. None of your other skills will be effective if you aren't grounded first. (You can learn more about what it means to be grounded, as well as have an entire list of 101 Grounding Techniques at your fingertips, right here on our website!) We do know it can sometimes feel impossible to practice grounding before you've put a memory away, especially if that memory is what's fueling your dissociation and making you ungrounded. But, if you're heavily dissociated, and stuck in the past, you're only putting the memory away in the past - not in the here and now. It will continue to find you in this timeline. As you start the grounding process, you'll find that some of the intensity of the trauma material backs down, freeing you up to use other skills that you may have more completely (i.e. containment or modulation); this takes things down another notch, allowing you to get even more grounded, and so on. A positive loop.

    What are some of the best, most-easily accessible grounding tools?:

  • Open your eyes. Uncover your ears. Make as many senses available as you can!

  • Look around. Try to label 5 things you can see, 5 things of a single color, 5 things of one shape.

  • Listen. What do you hear? Is it close or far? Loud or soft? Pleasant or grating?

  • Open up, feet on the floor. If you're curled into a ball, or have your feet tucked up on the chair, try to put them on the floor and press your feet firmly into the ground. Become rooted to the space you’re in (no longer lifted or untethered to anything, just like your currently dissociative mind), but especially free yourself of those childlike, fear-based positions that continue to alert to your brain that you’re in danger. We know they feel self-soothing, but they’re doing the exact opposite to your mind,

  • De-trance. If you are rocking, tapping, swaying a limb, clicking, or engaging in any other rhythmic, trancing motion, try to start slowing it to a pause or make sure it’s no longer a pattern.

  • Sit upright. If you are slouching deep in your seat or laying down on your bed, try to sit up. Lying prone can be very disorienting and triggering for many.

  • Orient. Remind yourself of the date, your age, where you are, and that you're safe now.

  • Movement. If you feel frozen and unable to move, start by just trying to wiggle your toes or finger tips. Slowly work up the body, little by little, until you regain movement.

  • Smell. Inhale strong fragrances (they don't have to be pleasant!). Coffee, candles, lemon, lotions, the kitty litter, it doesn’t matter! Just awaken yourself to what’s before you.

  • Taste. Chew gum, eat mints, or suck on sours. Eat a meal or snack. Drink a very cold or warm beverage.

  • Touch. Run your fingers over unique textures within reach. Your clothes, the furniture, a zipper, a pet, a grounding stone or fidget item.

   There are many, many other grounding tools, as well as a more detailed explanation as to why and how they are helpful, in our aforementioned article, so we'll move on to our next step!

 

 

Self-Talk

     Our inner monologue is far more important and powerful than we tend to give it credit. Self-talk during a flashback can be part of your grounding or be used to keep you calm and steady while you employ other techniques.  It can be hard to access your grounding skills (or other tools) if you’re in a panic and can't remember what's even happening to you or who you are. Self-talk can be a vital skill that allows everything else to fall into line.

   You can say things to yourself like:

  • "This is a flashback. It is just a flashback; it is not real. This is not happening right now."

  • "I am safe now. No one is presently harming me. There is no external threat to my safety right now."

  • "I am an adult now. My name is ______. I am ____ years old. It is 20__."

  • "This will not last forever. I have the power to make this symptom go away."

  • "I am competent. I am able. I have done this before."

  • "It's important that I get grounded. Dissociating can feel safer, but I've learned it puts me and others at risk. I can do this."

  • "I can ask for help. I am worthy, even if that's hard to believe right now."

  • "This is temporary. I can feel it getting easier already. I will be okay."

  • “I am in control. I get to decide when and how this leaves. I have the power now.”

   Find a mantra or phrase that feels right to you, something you know you'll remember when it's time. Talk yourself through the process. It is healthy, helps keep you planted in reality, and reminds you of the power you have now that you didn’t before.

 

Separating Past from Present

     Separating past from present can work on many levels as a combination of self-talk, grounding and reality-testing. It's also a tool outsiders or loved ones can help you with, too! No longer all up to you! During a flashback, it's very easy to be disoriented from the current time or place. You could feel like you're all the way back in the 80's, believe you're a small child, or just in a completely different environment than you truly are. Taking the time to label - in your mind, out loud or in writing - all the things that are different now from the past you're reliving, can help your mind tease apart the complete lack of safety you feel from the security of your present environment.

   Some examples:

  • "It is 20__, not [date/timeframe of the flashback]"

  • *look at body* "These are adult hands and feet. I am taller now." Observe other physical changes like tattoos, body modifications, health changes, wrinkles or grey hairs.

  • "There were no smartphones back then. TVs didn't look like this. I didn't have a laptop or desktop computer like this." Notice other anachronisms and things that couldn’t have existed at the time of the memory.

  • "I live on my own now. This is MY house/apartment. I can drive now. I have children/a spouse/a partner now. These are my car keys. This is my drivers’ license/ID."

  • “I am currently outside. That happened inside. (Or vice versa.) It was nighttime then, but it’s noon now.” Name several other environmental differences, Rooms, time, days, furniture, clothes, etc.

  • "I have a voice. Before I would have been too scared to even make a sound right now." [Then use your voice in any form to prove to yourself that it's safe to do so.]

  • "I am a strong, competent adult now; I am no longer a helpless child. I have options to ensure my own safety, and the safety of others, and I employ them."

  • Label any changes about your abuser(s): their age, location, relationship to you, if they has passed, etc.

  • Label any other major life changes: geographic locations, professions, people you know now that you didn't back then, other appearance changes, pets, etc.

  • List (or listen to) popular music, movies, entertainment you enjoy now. Remind yourself these things did not exist back then.

  • Acknowledge the positive supports you have in your life now: new pets, friends, a therapist, a partner, family members, etc.

 

 

Internal Communication

     Internal communication is a bit more specific to those with DID/OSDD, but can still be applicable to those with C-PTSD or PTSD in different ways. It is also not quite an "easy, basic skill", as was the case in the other tools offered. This is definitely more of an advanced skill, however, it is very important to include because failing to check inside has the potential to render alllll your other grounding/symptom management tools ineffective. It may come as a surprise to some, but alters in a DID/OSDD system, or even just parts of a less compartmentalized C-PTSD individual, are capable of sending flashbacks your way on purpose. It is not always with nefarious or hurtful intent. It's often with the counterintuitive desire to protect or is being used as a means of communication. This may look like handing you pieces of memory they feel are important for you to know, feel, or be reminded of, or showing you what they’ve been struggling with alone for weeks - ‘asking for help’ in the only way they know how.  When this is the case, using symptom management to make the flashback go away may just exhaust you.

     If you already have some well-established communication inside of your mind, you can certainly ask them these questions more directly. But, if you aren't there yet, or if you don't have differentiated alters at all, you can still send these thoughts back into your mind and see what bubbles up. For those who are just starting to establish communication with their system, sometimes opening that line during a flashback can be the first successful connection to come through.

   Some questions you can ask alters/your mind: (Then, open yourself up to allow the answers)

  • "Is there a reason I'm being shown this flashback right now? Is someone sending this to me?"

  • "What are you trying to communicate by making me relive these images/feelings/physical pain?"

  • "Is someone else in a flashback but came/got too close to the front of the mind? Can we do a role call and see that everyone is grounded and present?"

  • "Are you trying to make me feel as unsafe as YOU feel right now about something else happening in our life?"

  • "Do you want to scare me back into silence?" "Is this your way of reminding me we aren't supposed to talk or tell anyone?"

  • "Are you trying to incapacitate me? ...make it so that I can't go to work/go out with a friend/accomplish x task/leave the house/see x person/etc?" "Why are you afraid of me doing that?"

  • "Did something trigger you that I don't know about? Did you see/hear/feel something really familiar that I didn't notice?"

  • "Are you feeling ignored? ..like I don't care? ..like I'm not listening to you or taking your feelings into consideration? Are there other ways you could get my attention that don't include re-traumatizing me?"

  • "Are you oriented to the present? I know that it's 201_, but do you? How can we work on getting grounded together? Do you need to look through my eyes or feel in the body that we are safe and not in danger right now?"

  • "Did someone else inside order you to share this memory with me? If so, you can say so without revealing yourself to me. I want to talk to them, not you; you're not in trouble."

  • "Am I being punished for something? Can it be shared with me what I did ‘wrong’ or which rules I broke without this flashback? I can't have a conversation with you about it or make amends if I can't think straight."

   There are many ways to appeal to parts inside to get to the root of why a flashback may have been sent your way. It is also possible to send these thoughts throughout the mind even if you do not have parts or a system. Many aspects of the mind may still be operating under similar pretenses and using these symptoms as a protective defensive mechanism -- maladaptive as that may be. Appealing internally may strike a chord and enlighten you to what the real issue is. The answer may just "click" the moment you ask, even if you can't hear a direct/"audible" reply. Once that has been discovered, you will be better able to tackle things appropriately, to meet that need or fear, instead of just exhausting yourself on symptom management skills that won't work until that primary issue is resolved.

 

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     We sincerely hope these four basic, foundational tools will be able to help you find relief and distance during a flashback -- no matter what stage you're at in your healing. Once armed with more stability and a framework from which to work, you can then explore more detailed and elaborate skills with confidence!  We will absolutely be covering more of those, namely imagery, containment, modulation, and the various journaling tools that are extremely helpful in the fight against flashbacks. (We've already introduced a couple!) So, stay tuned. 

     Please don't hesitate to share some of your go-to strategies for flashbacks below and consider bookmarking this page for quicker, more direct access should you need it while you're struggling!

 

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MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

  ✧  Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
  ✧  Distraction 101: 101 Distraction Tools
  ✧  Self-Care 101: 101 Self-Care Techniques
  ✧  Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
  ✧  Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light
  ✧  DID MythsDispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder
  ✧  Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
  ✧  Trauma and Attachment: 3-Part Series on Attachment Theory with Jade Miller
 
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Article Index  ❖

Trauma and Attachment (with Jade Miller): Part Three

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The Healing Process

   We are so honored and eager to bring to you the third and final installment from guest host and author, Jade Miller, who has created a three-part series on attachment and how it relates to trauma. We have already covered the basics on Attachment Theory, the way childhood trauma affects attachment, as well as our goals for this series in previous articles. If you missed those, we strongly encourage you to go back and take a look; they provide a more comprehensive background that will help make this information more applicable. But, worry not, there's enough review here that you'll still be able follow along if you've only got a minute!  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.

 


Changing Unhealthy Patterns

 

    At this point you may have absorbed the information in this series about attachment styles and trauma and made the realization that you have some unhealthy patterns. In that case, you’re in good company.  There are very few people who had healthy enough parents to raise them in an ideal environment that fostered a secure attachment style.

    There is a lot of information out there on attachment styles and its effect on children and even their lifelong relational patterns. But, unfortunately, there is not as much information on what this looks like in adults or its implications for them. Some suggested reading is the information on adult attachment provided by Fulshear Treatment Center, which can be found here

    The good news is, many professionals do believe unhealthy patterns can be changed, and I have found this to be true in my own life. Due to the brain’s lifelong neuroplasticity, neuroscientists believe it is possible to change ingrained thought patterns and learn newer, healthier coping skills. So let’s dive right in to some places where positive change can lead to healthier relationships.

    Please keep in mind as you read these suggestions that I realize they all sound much easier than they really are. There is zero intent to sound reductive - quite the opposite, really. I’ve been in the position of knowing that these things were a struggle for me, and feeling lost and unsure of how to change. I offer these thoughts in an attempt to simplify it and make it sound more attainable. But I know that there are layers and complexities to these thoughts and behaviors, and that changing ingrained patterns takes a lot of time, attention and, quite often, sheer will. However, it absolutely can be done.

 

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Avoidant (also called Dismissive) Attachment Style:

The avoidant attachment style has a positive self-image but a negative worldview. So, this person typically does not seek help from outside resources. Their trust in others is low, and they are usually unwilling to be vulnerable or let people come close. 

People with the avoidant attachment style can work on changing these patterns by practicing taking emotional risks in their relationships. They'll need to learn how to communicate when they are feeling needy or vulnerable, and practice allowing someone to be present with them in those times. Those with the avoidant attachment style have a tendency to believe, deep down, that no one else is safe or trustworthy. This type of thinking will have to be challenged and replaced with a healthier perspective. They can also learn to identify people who display characteristics of true safety versus perceived, and form quality friendships where they can start to practice letting those people see their real selves.

 

Anxious (also called Ambivalent) Attachment Style:

The anxious attachment style presents with a negative self-image but a positive worldview. This person usually seeks help from outside resources but they have few internal resources upon which to draw. They trust others – oftentimes a bit too much – but they haven’t developed very much trust in their own self. They are often described as needy, clingy, and codependent.

People with an anxious attachment style can start to find ways to feel secure within themselves, without needing constant contact with others in order to feel like they are okay. One way to do this is to work on improving their self-esteem. They will need to intentionally set out to learn what is important to them as an individual and why they are valuable as their own person. They require practice in valuing their own selves equally as much as they value the needs and expectations of others around them. Allowing others to become a complement to their independent and secure selves is where they'll find their healthiest relationships.

 

Disorganized Attachment Style:

The disorganized attachment style has the double whammy: a negative worldview and a negative self-image. In short, those with a disorganized attachment style will require help changing both of those things. Some of the strategies for each of the other insecure attachment styles may be helpful, but often people with disorganized attachment styles have underlying trauma that needs to be addressed before those changes are truly feasible without causing more unexpected distress.

While those with each of the insecure attachment styles would benefit from therapy, those with the disorganized attachment style may be most in need of the extra support. Changing one’s self-image and one’s view of others to a more positive outlook can be challenging all on your own. Without an anchor point on at least one side of a relationship, it can extremely hard to determine for yourself what a safe, healthy and balanced relationship would even look like -- let alone trying to go about achieving it. A therapist who is educated in attachment theory can help those with a disorganized attachment style to work through attachment-related traumas and make progress in attaining a healthier self-image and a more positive view of others. 
 


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     So, we have come to the end of our series on attachment and trauma. We know this information can be a lot to digest, and even very painful. Having to uncover all of the ways in which you may have been disadvantaged before you even had a chance, can be such an emotionally-charged experience. Allow yourself the permission to grieve those things; to be angry, upset, and sad about them. Yet, on the flip side, we sincerely hope we've also been able to provide you with clarity, understanding and even real hope. Sometimes, just knowing what you're up against, and to have someone explain to you why all the changes you've been trying to make may not have been the most successful, it can be relieving and even alleviate self-blame. And, knowing there are real things you can do to change how you see yourself and the world around you - that it doesn't have to feel so chaotic and confusing all the time - can present a real opportunity for feeling optimistic. And, we know how hard optimism can be for so many of you!

    We want to thank Jade for all of her hard work on this series. Not only did she bring to you the best-researched information on this topic, she did so having gone through this exploration herself and wholly empathizing with every way this can be difficult and painful.  ...but also knowing it is ultimately really worth doing. We hope you have found this series valuable, and if you have, please be sure to let Jade know below, or find her on her various platforms to pass along the appreciation (or questions!).  We are also glad to answer any of your questions, so don't hesitate to ask!  Thank you, Jade, and to all of you who brave the hard task of facing the things that are difficult head on, and working to make those positive changes in your life. You are a beacon of light to us all.

 

 

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    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!

  -  Thoughts From J8  (blog)         -  Amazon Author Page
  -  Facebook                                    Pinterest
  -  Twitter                                       -  LinkedIn

 

MORE INFORMATIVE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

  -  DID MythsDispelling 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 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
  -  Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light

 

FOLLOW US ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

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  -  Twitter
  -  Instagram

Posttraumatic Grief: Healing from Childhood Neglect (with Sarah Flynn)

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Grief from Trauma with Sarah Flynn

   We are so excited and honored to bring to you yet another meaningful guest article - this time authored by therapist Sarah Flynn (MREM, MA, RCC), and coming to you all the way from Canada!  In this, Sarah compassionately addresses the often-overlooked grief that can stem from a childhood missed out on, or lost entirely, due to ongoing trauma.  Grief is so often thought of in a much different context, yet survivors so frequently feel this deep, painful ache and/or longing that most struggle to even find words for or verbalize.  It's grief.  And, this article lovingly and thoughtfully walks you through that realization and validation.  Sarah has been a lovely and very helpful individual to get to know, and the information she brings to the trauma community is invaluable. Be sure to read more about her below and visit all the places you can find more of her work!

 

Posttraumatic Grief: Healing from Childhood Neglect

  Most people think of grief as a response to the loss of a loved one, but grief can be a response to any type of loss, including the loss of something that never was (such as a happy childhood).  This post explores the experience of grief in the present as a response to having bad experiences (from abuse, neglect, or trauma) in the past as a child.  Grief of this sort is a necessary and restorative process that permits a person to bring new life and a renewed sense of hope to childhood hardship and deprivation.  Looked at in this way grief allows us to cleanse ourselves of hurt and loss and continue to grow and to expand our sense of ourselves.

   Many people do not realize that they may be suffering in the present from having been mistreated, deprived or traumatized as a child.  Partly this is the case, because it is hard to know that something is missing if one has never had the experience of its presence.  If you did not have loving, attentive, nurturing parents who were joyful about life and about you as their child, you might not know that this is something that you lacked.  If you were emotionally abandoned or neglected, you may not know what it is like to be emotionally accompanied or cared for.

   A child’s need for love and nurturing is as essential as a plant’s need for water and sunshine.  If you did not receive love, nurturing and attention consistently in your childhood, you may be experiencing pain in the form of grief as an adult and not realize that this is why.  Many children who were mistreated were led to believe that they do not deserve to be treated with love, respect and compassion.  Allowing yourself to fully feel the pain of what you did not receive in the past allows you to empty out these old hurts and disappointments to make room for experiencing joy and the promise of each new day.  As Pete Walker puts it, “…the broken heart that has been healed through grieving is stronger and more loving than the one that has never been injured.  Every heartbreak of my life, including the brokenheartedness of my childhood, has left me a stronger, wiser and more loving person than the one I was before I grieved.”

   Often a person does not begin to grieve their childhood losses until they have reached a point in their lives where in they can emotionally afford to do so.  This may be because the person has found a therapist with whom they feel safe enough or because they find themselves with a social support system that is stable and strong enough for the first time.  The self-compassion borne out of grieving the losses of your childhood makes it clear that you did not deserve the abuse or neglect that you suffered and that you are hurting now because you were hurt then and not because you were bad then.

   If you were neglected or abused as a child your emotional or intellectual development may have been truncated.  This may be because you needed to use your energy to protect yourself rather than to grow and develop naturally emotionally and intellectually.  There may not have been opportunities for you to participate in normal, age-appropriate activities such as playing, asking hundreds of curious questions, using your imagination, experimenting with language and cause and effect, or getting to know yourself and your own emotional internal world in an intimate way.  Moreover, these losses and the feelings of grief associated with them may have been unacknowledged or even actively denied by those around you.  In some cases the lack of acknowledgement of loss can be more emotionally devastating than the loss itself.  The grief associated with unacknowledged childhood loss may be outside your awareness, but actively affecting you to this day.


 

 


    Sarah Flynn (MREM, MA, RCC) is a counsellor in private practice in Victoria, BC, Canada
who specializes in complex post traumatic stress and dissociative disorders. She has
advanced training in several trauma therapies and has been working with those who suffer
from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
(CPTSD) since 2009. She offers counseling services by phone, Skype and in person. She
has several articles on dissociation and complex trauma on her website.

FIND SARAH ONLINE!

  Website  ✧              ✧  Facebook  

 

MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

    DID MythsDispelling 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 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
    Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light
    You Did Not ShatterA Message for Survivors with DID

 

FOLLOW BaB ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

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  ✦  Twitter
  ✦  Instagram

Trauma and Attachment (with Jade Miller): Part Two

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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: 

・・ Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development (Allan Schore)

・・ Joystarters.com – Please note that this is a faith-based blog, but there are some great articles on attachment, crisis, and neuroscience

・・ The Link Between Types of Attachment and Childhood Trauma

・・ Neuroscience Attachments & Relationships



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!
 

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MORE INFORMATIVE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

  -  DID MythsDispelling 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 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
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