Attachment Trauma: Origins and Repair

As children, we are born with a specific set of instincts, needs and wishes that are inherent to us as unique individuals. Our emerging interests and needs, though, are shaped by the interactions we have with our caregivers (i.e., parents and other important people in our lives). Our caregivers may impose demands or expectations on us that differ from our wired-in needs and wishes. This difference between what we need and what we get creates conflict in our minds and stirs up strong feelings. As we grow up and get exposed to alternative models of life and relationships, questions surface:

  • Do we follow our own instincts or the beliefs and rules of our caregivers? 
  • Even more important, but rarely thought about, should we actually have been treated the way we were treated in childhood? 
  • Should we have received more love, attention, care and acceptance than we actually did?
  • And, how does the way others treated us when we were small affect us - and our interactions with loved ones ?

Dr. Alan Sroufe is an expert on attachment theory, early relationships, and the development of children.

"If you think of development as a series of pathways, the longer you follow a pathway that's leading off, the more difficult it is to come back." 

- Alan Sroufe, Ph.D.

How your past shapes your present relationships:

We encode how we were treated as children and how we expect to be treated by others in the "attachment system" in our minds. It operates outside of our conscious awareness yet it contains all of our expectations that pertain to relationships, and it unconsciously shapes our behavior in each relationship we enter into. In other words, our attachment system becomes the  internal model that we automatically use as a system to determine how we treat ourselves and others. It also determines how we expect to be treated.  It is the basis for how we automatically treat others even if we prefer to act differently.

Certain life events shake up these internal psychological attachment systems. These mobilizing events include dating or joining a group or a company, marriage, relationship conflict or divorce. Attachment systems also get activated when:

  • children enter your life,
  • you recognize that you (or your spouse) are providing your children a quality of care you never received
  • current situations or people trigger memories related to emotional experiences from your past.

All of these events have the capacity to be powerful triggers for unresolved attachment trauma (i.e., unresolved stored-up feelings about not receiving what you needed and wanted as a child, such as affection, understanding, encouragement, and acceptance). These unresolved feelings from the past often create disruptive, unpleasant and unwanted psychological symptoms in the present that prevent us from keeping past emotion separate from present circumstances. As a result, our reaction to current disappointments or problems becomes stronger than expected.

For example, many people become symptomatic upon entering into an emotionally intimate relationship or upon having or raising children because these experiences wake up buried feeling about broken attachments . For both men and women, the resulting mounting distress is often ignored until it is consuming. Usually, in fact, the cause of the new distress is misdiagnosed or mislabeled which creates and perpetuates ongoing unnecessary suffering.

When an intimate relationship begins, deepens, or when a current trauma or emotionally provocative change occurs (like childbirth or divorce), the buried emotions associated with past disappointments are unearthed and begin to leak into or flood our brains. At that point, any of a number of symptoms can develop in response to those rising feelings, e.g., anxiety, depression, “resentment of responsibility” and acting out, emotional or physical distancing, “commitmentphobia”, workaholism, addictive behaviors such as eating disorders, alcoholism, gambling, compulsive sex, extramarital affairs, angry or tearful outbursts, psycho-physiological disorders, etc… These symptoms usually lead to even more anxiety and distress and can create or worsen work and personal relationship problems.

We are destined to repeat what we do not understand, have not healed, or really have not changed.

Attachment research has taught us that relationships in the present have the potential to activate buried feelings from the past, raise anxiety, and cause us to act in ways that are nonproductive, stifling, uncontrollable or destructive.

Effective structured psychotherapy provides a unique opportunity for you to resolve (in the present) hidden or buried feelings related to problems of the past. 

It provides you an opportunity to stop: perpetuating your own distress, sabotaging or destroying relationships you value, or (perhaps worst of it all) creating an intergenerational transmission of trauma (i.e., trauma passed down from one generation to the next – from parents to their children).

Through effective psychotherapy, change can occur inside of us (see: brain change) so we can respond more flexibly to people in different situations. It provides an opportunity to change how we treat ourselves and others and to learn how to productively deal with feelings. Effective psychotherapy results in remodeled "attachment systems" creating positive changes in mood and behavior as well as vastly improved relationships.

Dr. Robin Kay

(424) 262 - 6461