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Childhood trauma

“Do I Have Attachment Trauma?”

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12 min

“Do I Have Attachment Trauma?”

Do you crave close connections but tend to psych yourself out of them? Do you sometimes find it easier to say yes to things you don’t really want to do? If these scenarios sound familiar, you may have attachment trauma. It can impact our relationships and our views about ourselves and others. 

It can leave you feeling emotionally unavailable or manifest as people-pleasing tendencies. You may find it hard to trust others or avoid intimate connections. What’s more, it can make it challenging to engage in healthy relationships. 

That’s because attachment trauma is deep-rooted. It affects our self-esteem. 

Attachment trauma develops in childhood. It occurs when a caregiver does not meet a child’s safety, emotional, or support needs. Childhood trauma has many lasting impacts on our mental health.

To learn more about the effects of attachment trauma on your current relationships, let us look into the signs and possible causes of it.

What is attachment trauma?

As children, we rely on our caregivers for support and love. We expect them to take care of us, both physically and emotionally. We also expect them to keep us safe. When that doesn’t happen, it can have long-lasting effects on the child. 

These long-lasting impacts can result in attachment trauma in adults. Dealing with it can make you feeling lost. It can also make you feel and act emotionally unavailable. Not only that, this trauma can negatively impact our ability to engage in healthy relationships, too. 

Why does attachment trauma impact us so much? It impacts us greatly because it alters how we learn to understand love. For example, if your caregivers are loving, supportive, and safe, you will easily have a secure attachment style. 

However, if your caregivers are abusive, your knowledge of love and relationships will be tainted. 

Types of attachment

To best understand this trauma, we need to understand the different types of attachment according to attachment theory. These attachment styles are coined by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Both worked extensively on attachment research. 

  • Secure Attachment: Ability to engage in healthy intimacy, communication, and autonomy. Committed to the relationship while remaining independent. Able to resolve conflict in a healthy way.
  • Anxious Attachment: Worries about their partner’s availability and commitment. Often, they struggle to be away from their partner and crave frequent reassurance. Distrust, fear of abandonment, and sensitivity to criticism. 
  • Avoidant Attachment: Can seem emotionally detached or distant. Tends to avoid intimacy, deep connection, and vulnerability. Overly guarded, difficulty expressing emotions, uncomfortable with conflict. 
  • Anxious-Avoidant Attachment: This person alternates between anxious and avoidant attachment styles. They tend towards emotional extremes, have difficulty with boundaries, and are prone to high-conflict relationships. 
Your attachment trauma may look different than someone else’s, and that’s normal. Traumatic situations affect people differently. Understanding your personal reactions to your trauma is of great help to you – Ashley Coon, MA, LPC. 

Understanding your attachment trauma 

If you feel that you fall into one of the insecure attachment styles, it can be helpful to understand your trauma. Early life trauma can manifest in many ways. 

Sometimes, we don’t understand that our experiences were traumatic until years later. Especially when those experiences were common – it can be easy to assume everyone lives like that. 

A common misconception about trauma is that the event itself is the most important. As psychological research continues, they’ve found that it’s more about how someone can address or process the event(s).

So, something that may be traumatic to one person may be a small wound for someone else. 

This is, as previously stated, due to someone’s ability to process and manage the traumatic event. Let’s say two children were severely bullied in school. Child A had a caring and supportive home life. Their parents emotionally supported them and helped them through their bullying. 

Child B did not have a caring or supportive home life. Child B’s bullying continued in their own home, and their emotions were neglected and dismissed by their caregivers. In this example, Child B is more likely to develop trauma from their experience of bullying. 

Now that we understand how trauma can affect people differently let’s take a look at common traumatic experiences. 

Other types of childhood traumas that can affect attachment style

As stated above, many events or experiences can become traumatic for a child. Mother wound and father wound, eldest daughter syndrome, and cold mother syndrome might be forms of childhood trauma. Other common types of childhood trauma include: 

  • Physical violence
  • Sexual violence
  • Emotional abuse or neglect
  • Physical neglect 
  • Caregivers using drugs 
  • Caregivers being incarcerated 
  • Emotionally unstable or volatile caregivers 
  • War, natural disasters, terrorist attacks 
  • Caregiver divorce or separation
  • Bullying
  • Caregiver mental illness 
  • Domestic violence 

When we experience these things as children, it impacts our development on a mental and emotional level. Another attachment trauma, enmeshment trauma, refers to the lack of boundaries or autonomy within familial dynamics. 

Enmeshment trauma can be challenging to recognize as it’s typically covert. Some may think their caregivers just want to hold a very close familial relationship. 

When enmeshment occurs, children lack the autonomy and independence to develop their own identities. 

This type of childhood trauma can also develop into adult attachment trauma. Enmeshment trauma leaves adults feeling lost and like they don’t have a clear identity. This can also lead to adults participating in people-pleasing behaviors. 

Lacking physical and emotional safety in childhood has many negative impacts on our mental health. It can even alter the physiology of our brains in extreme cases. This is often found with complex trauma. 

Complex trauma refers to trauma that is recurring or repetitive in nature or deeply personal trauma. C-PTSD is usually associated with childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, or long-term emotional abuse. 

girl with anxious attachment trauma

Long-term effects of childhood trauma

To fully understand how trauma affects attachment, we need to understand how great of a reach trauma can have on us. 

Trauma impacts us deeply. It can seep into many facets of our personalities and identities. c-PTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder, is a mental health disorder as a result of trauma.

Untreated or unaddressed c-PTSD can have a large impact on our mental and emotional development. The symptoms associated with PTSD include: 

This is closely related to attachment trauma and how it manifests in our lives. Struggling with emotional distress, dissociation, or poor self-concept impacts our attachment styles. 

A traumatized adult riddled with anxiety will certainly display an anxious attachment in their relationships. 

How attachment trauma develops over time 

Can adults still be impacted by events that happened in childhood? The simple answer is yes. Especially as children, our brains lack the ability to address and process what has happened to us properly. 

When our brain can’t make sense of what happened, that information becomes repressed or avoided. It can lead to repressed trauma and emotional baggage that might affect your life.

People may live their whole lives dealing with attachment trauma without ever realizing it. That’s because they may not have been exposed to situations or resources that show them there actually is another way to live. This attachment issues may seem covert, but it bleeds into many facets of our lives.

For example, an adult with anxious attachment trauma may jump from relationship to relationship in hopes of filling a void. They aren’t aware this is occurring, but it’s likely that deep intimacy triggers their trauma, which leads to them abandoning the relationship. 

Anxious-avoidant attachment is commonly seen in adults who experienced childhood trauma. This can be particularly difficult to manage as it encompasses opposite emotions. The anxiety drives you to seek reassurance, but the avoidance drives you to push the reassurance away. 

This stems from the deep pain and hurt that occurred during childhood. We become triggered by present-day events or situations that remind us of our traumas. 

Confrontation or loud noises may trigger someone who grew up in a home where their caregivers constantly fought. Someone who grew up enmeshed with their family may become triggered if they feel like they lack independence. 

8 signs of attachment trauma in adults 

It’s important to note that signs of attachment trauma can look different for different people. A person’s traumas, emotional intelligence, and overall life experiences will shape how they manifest for them. 

Here are some common signs of attachment trauma in adults. 

Hyper-independence

Hyper-independence is a trauma response that results in someone exerting too much control over their life. This is the person who never asks for help. Additionally, they try to handle everything themselves. They may take pride in their hyper-independence, believing they only need to rely on themselves. This is common in adults who have experienced neglect in childhood.

Control Issues

Speaking of control issues… this is also commonly associated with attachment trauma. People who suffered emotional or physical volatility in their childhood home may seek to control everything to avoid pain. This person may meticulously plan out their entire lives in hopes that their plans will protect them from hurt. 

Struggle With Intimacy

Attachment trauma wreaks havoc on people’s ability to be intimate and vulnerable. Trauma has a negative impact on trust, which is necessary for intimacy and vulnerability. This person may crave deep, intimate relationships but flee once the relationship reaches those levels. This can also be referred to as being emotionally unavailable. 

Enmeshment

An adult with attachment trauma may become enmeshed in their romantic relationships. This can look like a partner becoming too dependent on their partner. They may lack independence and be fawn to their partner’s interests. 

Always on High Alert

Adults who have anxious attachment trauma may become hypervigilant in their relationships. Hypervigilance refers to the concept of “always looking over your shoulder” or waiting for something to go wrong. It can look like constantly overanalyzing all conversations and interactions. Someone who is always on high alert anticipates something going wrong. 

Poor Self-Esteem

Someone who suffers from attachment trauma likely struggles with low self-esteem and self-loathing. Childhood trauma greatly impacts our view of ourselves as we can feel guilt or shame associated with the trauma. This can look like thinking poorly about yourself or being highly self-critical. 

Guilt

Guilt is a heavy emotion. It’s common in adults who have experienced childhood trauma. A guilt complex can manifest as a constant feeling that you are doing something wrong or that you cannot move past things you have done. 

Black and White Thinking

Black-and-white thinking, or viewing something as “all good or all bad,” is a cognitive distortion. This distortion typically develops out of traumatic experiences, which impact our ability to view things clearly. In romantic relationships, this type of thinking can result in high conflict. 

These are all signs that you may be dealing with attachment trauma. As you can see, this makes it difficult to engage in healthy relationships. Poor self-esteem, lack of trust, and difficulty with intimacy are challenging. 

The traumatized adult trying to engage in relationships will become overwhelmed by their emotional distress. This will, in turn, negatively impact their partners or friends. 

The adult with attachment trauma seeks a closeness that is difficult for them to reach. 

8 signs of attachment trauma in adults

Consequences of unaddressed attachment trauma 

When left unaddressed or untreated, attachment trauma negatively impacts our interpersonal relationships. 

For the anxiously attached, you may seek reassurance to the point of driving your partner away. Or, for the avoidant, your distance may drive your partner away due to a lack of connection. 

This situation can leave the traumatized adult feeling hopeless and isolated. They may desperately crave connection while also deeply fearing it. 

The reason can be that their childhood experiences taught them that closeness isn’t safe. Or that the people who are supposed to love them will always hurt them. 

The adult with attachment trauma has pieces of their wounded inner child still active. These wounds lead them to continue the cycle of their attachment fears. 

Here is a more concrete explanation of how unaddressed attachment trauma can manifest in adulthood. 

  • Difficulty In Interpersonal Relationships: This one should be clear by now, but it’s still relevant to mention. An insecure attachment style makes engaging in healthy relationships incredibly difficult. This can apply to platonic, romantic, and familial relationships. 
  • Mental Health Conditions: Attachment trauma can lead to a multitude of mental health conditions. PTSD is commonly seen as associated with attachment trauma. We also commonly see dissociation or dissociative disorders. This is likely due to the mental distress trauma has on someone’s mind and body. We also see anxiety and depression present – sometimes, eating disorders and addiction occur as well. 
  • Emotional Dysregulation: Emotional regulation refers to our ability to manage or properly deal with our emotions. In turn, emotional dysregulation is when we cannot. This can look like someone being unable to manage their anger, sadness, or fears. Instead of addressing and processing these emotions, they tend to spill out everywhere. This is harmful to both the person and their relationships. 
  • Impulsivity: Impulsivity is also associated with trauma. In these cases, people are acting impulsively to try and deal with the pain they’re experiencing. They’re essentially chasing a high that they believe will diminish the low. This is where risky behaviors come into play. Those behaviors are things like substance misuse, unsafe sexual relationships, or self-harm. 
  • Heightened Dependency: Usually associated with anxious attachment, heightened dependency is common in attachment trauma. This can look like someone being overly reliant on their partner. They may expect their partner to “fill all their boxes” all the time. This results in too much pressure placed on their partner. This also diminishes both persons’ ability to remain independent. 

How this all ties together 

As we can see, attachment trauma can be a beast. It is the direct result of traumatic childhood experiences. Those experiences impact how we view ourselves and others. It makes engaging in healthy, meaningful relationships particularly challenging.

The traumatized person deeply craves love, connection, and safety. However, they also deeply fear all of those things. They fear them because they were taught to. The fears can be conscious or subconscious. 

This means that some people may not even realize they have attachment trauma. Engaging in self-awareness and reflection activities has great benefits.

In this case, it can show someone how their attachment style impacts their relationships. 

Does any of this sound familiar to you? If so, you may deal with attachment trauma. We know that childhood trauma is a common experience.

Research suggests that over two-thirds of the population have experienced at least one traumatic event before the age of 16.

So, know that you are not alone in this feeling. We understand that dealing with attachment trauma can leave you feeling lonely and hopeless.

The good news is that attachment styles can change. Just because we’re anxious or avoidant now doesn’t mean we have to stay that way forever. 

Healing from attachment trauma 

We don’t have to always struggle with our attachment trauma. We can acknowledge and heal from the pain that it has caused us. But we can also gauge the struggles of our childhood and move forward. Also, we don’t always have to feel emotionally unavailable or suffer from people-pleasing tendencies.

The first step in moving forward and healing is to identify and acknowledge where we’re at now. 

Self-awareness is a superhero tool when used correctly. Engaging in self-awareness practices requires us to be brutally honest with ourselves. We must come from a place of love and not a place of judgment. When we’re able to see ourselves as we are and respect that person, we allow ourselves the freedom to change. 

If you’ve recognized that you deal with insecure attachment, congratulations! You’ve successfully completed step one in your healing journey. This realization allows you to look deeper into your fears and behaviors. 

Pro Tip from Ashley Coon, MA, PLC, on healing from attachment trauma It’s important to address and process the pain of your trauma. It may be beneficial to seek professional mental health care for assistance. You can also process this pain on your own by practicing reflection. Give yourself grace and compassion, and understand that it is not your fault that you have attachment trauma. It will be your responsibility to heal that trauma for your sake and the sake of your relationships. It may feel like a challenging task, but it is not impossible. You hold the power within yourself to heal and develop secure attachment. You deserve to feel safe in your own skin and in your relationships. 
Ashley Coon, MA, LPC photo

Reviewed by Ashley Coon, MA, LPC

Ashley is a two-time alumni of Marshall University. She possesses a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, a master’s degree in Clinical...