Attachment trauma comes from a rupture in the bonding process between a child and their primary caregiver. Its effects can last well into adulthood.
If you struggle with relationships, there’s a dominant cultural narrative that assumes there is something wrong with you.
But science offers us a more expansive view: Our relationship challenges may be rooted in what’s known as attachment trauma.
Attachment trauma is “a consistent disruption of physical and emotional safety in the family system. It is not what happens to you, but what happens inside you,” says Heather Monroe, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in Nashville, Tennessee, who specializes in treating relational trauma.
A child’s early life experiences shape their adult life, and the relationship with their primary caregiver is among the most important for their development.
If a child doesn’t have their early relational needs met, this can show up later in life in their mental health, relationships, and sense of self.
As we develop as children, we look to our caregivers for access to a variety of human needs, from shelter to affection. When those needs go unmet, some children can feel alone in highly charged emotional states.
Attachment trauma can occur when a caregiver is a source of overwhelming distress for the child. This is a form of relational trauma, which is trauma that occurs in the context of a relationship with another person.
It’s also closely linked with complex trauma, which is trauma from repeated events, such as ongoing emotional abuse or childhood neglect.
While conversations around terms such as “attachment styles” and “attachment theory” are growing in popularity, what is less talked about is how attachment trauma can affect how we move through the world physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Attachment trauma can be felt physically. “Relationships can trigger your nervous system to go into fight, flight or freeze,” explains Monroe.
Monroe, who is also a trauma educator, says relational trauma can be a constant, cumulative stress building up in the body over time in both visible and invisible ways.
Attachment trauma often leads to a “disoriented-disorganized” attachment — a pattern that, in turn, imparts an increased risk of further abuse and neglect.
In addition to relationship difficulties, attachment trauma is also linked to our overall mental health, according to a
“Your nervous system is constantly learning how to be in connection with people. And the biggest thing around that is, is it safe to be in connection or not? There’s all these overt ways that it can feel not safe, but also really covert ways that it can start feeling unsafe and shutting us down or revving us up,” says Monroe.
Monroe explains there are overt and covert causes of attachment trauma.
Overt causes of attachment trauma include:
- divorce in the family
- loss in the family, such as death of a parent or sibling
- postpartum issues
- physical neglect, such as going without basic needs, like food or water
- abuse, which could be physical, sexual, or emotional
- caregiver(s) facing a life threatening illness
- caregiver(s) having a substance use disorder
- domestic violence
Covert causes of attachment trauma include a caregiver (or more than one caregiver) who:
- is physically or emotionally unavailable
- has mental health difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or eating disorders, that may make them less available to be present for their child
- has inherited trauma they haven’t processed yet and unknowingly pass on to their child
- has poor boundaries and tends to treat child more like a friend
- objectifies a child’s body
- uses psychologically controlling tactics, such as not being affectionate, shaming the child, making the child feel guilty, or not validating a child’s feelings
- may be controlling, which can remove a child’s power and individuality
Relationship issues are one of the dominant aspects and often the most painful of attachment trauma. Attachment trauma, like other forms of childhood trauma, can affect adult relationships.
It can, for example, show up in avoiding relationships for fear of rejection, intense fears of intimacy, or being overly attached, such as ending up in codependent relationships.
Along with relationship difficulties, signs you may be facing attachment trauma include:
- a tendency toward shame, guilt, and humiliation
- hyper-reactivity to stress
Like other forms of trauma, attachment trauma may be linked with mental health conditions, including:
There’s a myth that if you face challenges in relationships, you will always find relationships difficult.
That simply isn’t true.
“What attachment science shows us, especially the new attachment science and adults, is that we can change our attachment style at any point in our life, and we can actually change the wirings in our brain at any point in our life,” Monroe says.
The process of healing from attachment trauma isn’t easy, especially as we might not have immediate access to secure relationships.
It’s important to remember that just as we have taken a lifetime to build our attachment style, changing our attachment style can also take time.
Here are some ways to recover from attachment trauma:
Find a connection that provides strength
Humans rely on connection for support and belonging. While one heals from attachment trauma, they don’t have to work on their romantic relationships right away. They can start with a friendship, or a relationship with a therapist.
Monroe advises asking yourself which relationship gives you strength and security. Then, you can look at what traits make that happen, so you can better understand how a healthy relationship can function.
She says, “Think about relationships that give you resiliency. What are the qualities of those relationships? Usually, it has to do with being seen, feeling truly seen, feeling heard, and a person that is helpful in regulating your own nervous system.”
Consider working with the body
“I look at the body as a vessel for healing, instead of looking at the mind as a way of thinking its way out of the problem,” says Monroe, who works with her clients on mindfulness, breath, and grounding exercises.
While talk therapy can be a crucial part of the healing process, a behavioral component to healing such as walking, yoga, or other exercises can also help, according to a
It’s common for people with a history of trauma to struggle with typical mindfulness sessions. If this applies to you, consider trauma-informed mindfulness.
What makes you feel calm? The answer to that question can be one way to start reprogramming your nervous system from trauma-response mode such as fight, freeze, flee, or fawn into a more grounded state.
Consider trauma-focused therapy
One of the best things you can do for healing attachment trauma is to try trauma-focused psychotherapy.
If you’re looking for a therapist, consider checking out Psych Central’s Find a Therapist resource for support in starting your therapeutic journey.
While there are many forms of trauma therapy to consider, here are two to look into:
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). A 2018 review of EMDR literature for attachment trauma found that it can help people regulate emotions and reduce traumatic stress.
- Internal family systems (IFS). Therapists trained in IFS can help you accept all parts of yourself so you can transform, according to 2013 research.
“You are on a path of healing when your past becomes information with nonneutral energy, and it doesn’t define you,” says Monroe.
Here are some indicators you are on the right path:
- You feel safe in your body.
- You’re practicing boundary setting.
- You trust your intuition.
- Your behavior is consistent with your values or beliefs.
- You respond, rather than react.
There’s no one approach to healing attachment trauma. It’s important to take great care along your journey and make your healing process your own.
As you learn more about how your earlier childhood affected the patterns in your adult life, have patience with yourself. While it may take time, remember that healing is possible.
Books that can help you understand and heal trauma
Reading healing stories about trauma from leading experts can be empowering and inspiring. Some book recommendations for understanding and healing trauma include:
- “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, MD
- “It Didn’t Start with You” by Mark Wolynn
- “Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation” by Janina Fisher, PhD
- “Trauma and Recovery” by Judith Lewis Herman, MD
- “The Complex PTSD Workbook” by Arielle Schwartz, PhD
- “Trauma and the Body” by Pat Ogden, PhD, Kekuni Minton, and Clare Pain
- “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing” by Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, and Oprah Winfrey
- “Waking the Tiger” by Peter Levine, PhD, with Ann Frederick