Attachment Trauma in Adults

We're noticing a a growing awareness surrounding trauma and what may cause it. When someone is placed into a state of distress, it can cause the person to experience the emotional response we call trauma

Previously, we thought that trauma came solely from catastrophic events such as natural disaster, war, or being the victim of a crime. Now we know that this emotional response can occur from many types of events and experiences 

Attachment trauma is a subcategory of (sometimes) more subtle trauma referring to the way someone connects to others.

Attachment Trauma 

Attachment trauma is a form of trauma that occurs when there is a break in the bonding process between a child and their primary caregiver when the basic needs of the child are not met. 

Developing Bonds

While child development is ongoing, the first two years of life are the most critical when it comes to forming attachments and attachment styles that will likely follow them into adulthood. Most people do not consciously remember this time in their life, yet it heavily influences how we connect and form bonds with others throughout our life.

As an infant, we are completely reliant on our main caregiver for everything. Basic needs during this time don’t just include food and shelter, but also affection and trust. The way we form a bond (or don’t form a bond) with that primary caregiver dictates how we create relationships later in life. Experiencing neglect, abuse, or abandonment in this phase is detrimental to our development. 

What Childhood Trauma Can Look Like

Unfortunately, some children may experience extreme traumatic events such as physical or sexual abuse, being abandoned, or not having food or shelter. 

However, attachment trauma can also be caused by less stereotypically traumatic events as well. These events might look like:

  • Having caregivers that are not affectionate
  • Not being comforted when in distress
  • Witnessing traumatic events occur within the household 

These all can contribute to attachment trauma. If a parent is inconsistent in how they nurture or show up for their child, that child may begin to feel insecure.

Childhood Trauma and Adult Relationships

When your relational needs are not met as a child, the likelihood of that affecting your behaviors in adult relationships is significant. But that doesn’t mean you are chained to these behaviors. You developed habits as a kid that served to protect you in whichever situation you were in at the time. However, if these behaviors are no longer serving you, it is possible for you to swap them out for healthier habits. 

Attachment Behaviors Caused by Trauma

Are you clingy because of your insecurities or worried someone might leave and not come back? Do you avoid engaging in relationships or getting too deep as a defense mechanism in order to avoid getting hurt or abandoned? Do you forgo your own boundaries and needs in favor of pleasing a partner because you feel unworthy, or you think it is the only way to get them to stay? Perhaps, you chase one relationship after another, or run away from them altogether.  

These healthy and unhealthy behaviors apply to relationships of all sorts—A romantic partner of course, but also friends, coworkers and superiors, and family members. With work and an awareness of yourself, you can have comfortable, healthy relationships that enrich your life, rather than add stress. 

Voluntary and Involuntary Responses

Acknowledging your patterns, and the cause of them, will help you identify your destructive behavior in the moment. This can help you curb how you react, or allow you to take a step back to work through your feelings and decide how to act when you're ready to circle back. 

Our initial response to the formation of a relationship is rooted in our innate need for security, safety, and validation. Now, as an adult, you have the ability to take care of yourself and the freedom to choose who you do and do not have relationships with. 

When those emotions arise and you feel insecure or unsafe, try to identify if they are an involuntary response learned from your past or if it truly has to do with the person on the other end and the relationship the two of you have.

Effects of Attachment Trauma

Someone who suffers from attachment trauma may experience more repercussions from it than simply having trouble in the relationship department. Attachment trauma makes people more susceptible to stress. They may be in a constant state of anxiety when they are with or thinking about their relationships. Relationships can even activate their nervous system and trigger a physical stress response sending them into flight, flight, or freeze mode.

Attachment Trauma and Mental Wellness

Attachment trauma is frequently associated with other mental health issues as well. Adults with attachment trauma are prone to depression and anxiety as they tend to be unsure of how to regulate their emotions and instead internalize or avoid them. This can also lead people to use distractors to cope such as food, alcohol, or drugs. People who choose to “self-medicate” this way are at risk of developing a substance use disorder.

Destructive Relationship Patterns

Additionally, people who suffer from attachment trauma often gravitate towards what they know and are comfortable with—even if it’s not healthy for them. This leads people to repeatedly pick partners or get into situations that resemble those relationships from their early years. Those similar relationships tend to be unhealthy and can potentially be dangerous 

Attachment Injuries 

Broken bonds that affect future relationships don't only happen in childhood. When you engage in relationships as adults, regardless of the nature, there are times you will get hurt. It shouldn’t discourage you from having relationships, but they can feel emotionally tumultuous. This can be the hurt from a comment that cuts too deep in an argument or a forgotten birthday. 

There is a difference between this type of hurt and an attachment injury. An attachment injury occurs when one partner is in a critical time of need and feels unsupported, abandoned, or betrayed by the other partner. This kind of injury is more severe and causes one partner to view the other in a different light or lose trust in them completely.    

Attachment injuries are more complex and harder to heal, but still entirely possible to make a full recovery from. 

Healing From Attachment Trauma and Attachment Injuries

Your experiences in your formative years shape how you bond and connect with other people, but this does not have to be set in stone. If you see a pattern of behavior in your relationships that you want to change, there are ways to do so. 

Trauma, and how each individual person is affected by it, is complex and highly individualized. Treatment should also be individualized. 

Therapy is a highly effective option when it comes to resolving attachment trauma. This includes multiple talk therapy approaches that focus on finding a solution for your attachment injury and creating a healthy attachment style.

Get Help Navigating Healthy Relationships

Observing and finding connections with people who have a secure attachment style can help teach you what a functional, healthy relationship looks like. Pay attention to when you truly feel safe, seen, and secure with someone, rather than just familiar. Think about why, and what qualities make you feel that way. 

Communication is key in any relationship. Find someone who listens, and communicates their own feelings with you too. Having someone that listens and respects you and your boundaries can exemplify what you should accept for yourself all the time. You can start by finding this in a friend, a therapist, or a partner.

Manage Stress and Anxiety

Get out of your head and into your body. Finding activities you enjoy that get you up and moving can help distract you from the busyness in your brain in a healthy way. Of course, feeling and dealing with your emotions is an important skill you will develop. Though sometimes when things become overwhelming, it's helpful to have a healthy distractor until you are ready to sit with your emotions. 

Even small practices such as mediation and breathing exercises can help you ease the nervous system.

Feel Better Today

Remember, even though the attachment style you form initially is out of your control and molded as a young child, it is more than possible to reteach yourself a new, healthier attachment style. You can have healthy, secure, long-term relationships with good people, regardless of your past. 

When you are ready, reach out to our team at Sequoia Behavioral Health to find the right resources and assistance for you. Our mindful, holistic programming means that we can help you get to a point where relationships and the connections you choose to keep enrich your life, rather than hinder it.     

Call us today to begin healing.