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Trauma and Attachment - Part 1

Introduction

After my last few blogs I have had some interesting feedback from various folk. Some people who have known me for many years have expressed feeling like they’re just getting to know me through the blogs. For others the blogs have served as gaps into the man behind walls that I have built over many years. A well-respected friend asked if I had ever framed my relational pattern from an ‘Attachment Theory’ perspective and another good friend said they were curious about trauma and how that fits into the whole dynamic. This blog is an attempt to marry those two ideas to understand the interplay between #attachment, #trauma and relationships. Due to its somewhat technical or theoretical nature, I have adopted a more essay-like approach and divided it into two parts.


Definitions

Attachment theory is a psychological model that explains the dynamics of human relationships. John Bowlby is mainly associated with this theory and he suggested that children have a need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for them to be able to navigate their feelings. Caregivers are defined as those that are primarily responsible for taking care of the child. While there are numerous variations on the attachment styles, the four categories usually recognised in children are: Secure attachment – When children believe that their caregivers will adequately respond to their needs. These needs include the need for nourishment, emotional support and protection. Anxious-ambivalent – Where the child feels anxious when separated from their caregiver. Anxious-avoidant attachment – Where the child avoids their caregiver. Disorganised attachment – Where there is an absence of any one obvious attachment style.


Most definitions of psychological trauma refer to damage that is caused to one’s mind as a result of an event. The significance of the impact of the damage lies in its ability to render the person experiencing it unable to cope. This is a key component to understand as it takes the focus away from the event and focuses more on the impact on the individual. Coming from a more relational perspective and in my own experience, there may not necessarily be a single event that causes trauma. It could be the cumulative effect of being in an unhealthy dynamic that, like tooth decay, perniciously grinds away at you creating cavities in your psyche. This kind relational trauma can prove even more complex and harder to deal with as there is no single reference point to work with.


Application

So how do the two concepts combine and what do they look like in relationships? Well imagine a little boy who grows up with the belief that the world is a safe place and mum, or dad, will always be there for me when I need them. At some point or over a period of time he realises that the world is not always safe and when he comes back home to the place where he expects to be comforted, mum and dad are either too busy fighting with each other to notice him or are just not really able to attend to his needs due to their own stuff. Suddenly this little boy has the realisation that he needs to fend for himself. He consequently develops mechanisms for dealing with the sad reality that mum and/or dad cannot be relied on for protection or comfort when the world out there issues its vicious blows. In the words of Tupac Shakur, ultimately its him against the big bad world. This belief lodges itself deep within the brain and resurfaces whenever there is a perceived threat to his wellbeing. It may show up as anxiety, anger, fear, isolation, depression, physical illness etc.



Impact

Eventually this little boy becomes a man and find himself in adult relationships and is expected to trust that his significant other is on his side and will be there for him when needed. Initially the excitement of a new love may be enough to overwhelm the warning signs that he has become accustomed to, but this is usually very short-lived. This is because the same place in the brain where the belief related to the trauma resides is the same place where intimacy and connection live. And so paradoxically, the closer he feels to the other person, the more threatening the other person becomes. As intimacy grows, so too does the hypersensitivity around the perceived threat. After a while, little things that were not issues initially, suddenly become triggers resulting in feelings similar to those experienced in his youth when the world proved cruel. And so, he finds himself confused when the feeling/s he has, and at times his response to certain things his partner may say or do, seem alarmingly disproportionate to the actual event triggering the reaction. Similarly, his partner may be totally perplexed by what can only be described as a gross overreaction. Partners may experience him as being hot one minute and then distant and cold the next. This can be extremely difficult for BOTH parties to deal with especially if the significant other also has trauma related issues of their own. This relationship that was supposed to bring healing has now become another potential source of further pain.


Conclusion

The enormity of the damage caused by the lack of healthy attachment is enough to scar many for life. This damage supplemented by traumatic experiences, magnify the impact significantly. Additionally, the longer the maladaptive belief system is allowed to marinade in the brain, the harder it becomes to rewire. So, is there any hope for this man? Will he ever be able to get past the trauma and have healthy relationships? Will he ever be able to trust in the goodness of the world and the ability for another person to be there for him and to provide him with what he needs? Stay tuned for part 2 where I answer these questions and share some of my thoughts on how to deal with the ill-effects of trauma and attachment related issues.