Attachment is a pattern of relating to others known as Attachment Theory1.The idea is that babies are born dependent and therefore sociable and the affectionate bonds that develop with their primary carer become a template for all future relationships. This bond is the foundation for all biological, sociological and psychological development and directly influences brain growth. The intimacy of the bond can be observed by the child’s attachment behaviour displayed as proximity seeking to the primary carer, which can be measured.
What is ‘normal’ - Secure Attachment?
If primary carers meet the growing child’s need for physical proximity and emotional security in a safe environment the child learns that she/he is OK, the world is OK and develops secure bonds with her/his family1. The feeling of safety provided by a caregiver, usually a parent (known as an Attachment figure is known as a secure base2 and will be sought by the child at times of stress, loss and danger. The key to this is ‘attunment’- a mutual and reciprocal relationship between baby and caregivers assisted by the release of hormones which starts from birth and is generally known as ‘establishing a routine’. As they grow the child develops an expectation of future responsive attuned relationships strong enough to cope with the frustrations of normal life.
Secure children assume:-
I'm OK, I can trust my parents to look after me….the foundation for I can trust me to look after me.
Others are OK, I’m worthy of respect from self and others (expectations)
The world is OK, The universe has meaning
Children grow through interaction with the environment so securely attached children achieve developmental milestones and learn how to tolerate stress and regulate their emotions. This process, sometimes known as the ‘terrible two’s’ and the ‘ferocious fours,’ occurs when the child tests the boundaries and the carers response breaks the bonding attunment. This sudden break in attunement causes arousal (stress) which feels like a shock to the child who experiences separation anxiety and displays attachmnent behavier to regain attunement.
When the attunment is quickly and mutually repaired by both baby and carer the child learns she/he is OK ‘Mummy still loves me it’s just she didn’t like what I did.’ Thus a healthy attachment cycle of attunment, temporary break, arousal, separation anxiety and re-attunment evolves where 'separation anxiety' (fear that the caregivers rejection will be permanent) is a transitional unpleasant effect and the child integrates these emotions. This child learns to tolerate stress (such as not getting his own way), regulate shame (I did wrong but I’m still OK) and impulse control (not having a tantrum over it) and returns to a state of calm (also known as the 'Rest and Digest' or Parasymapthetic Nervous System PNS).
Insecure Attachment due to unmet Attachment Behaviour
Insecure attachment develops when the infants need for physical proximity and emotional security is not met. Consequently the child develops expectations of unresponsive and dissonant relationships that do not promote the ability to deal with loss or frustration resulting in a state of persistent state of separation anxiety. Insecure children struggle to achieve attunment as they rarely feel forgiven so shame may become constant and overwhelming.
Consequently these children may never learn to regulate stress or control impulse as the cycle is incomplete - they remain stressed and unable to calm down and move on.
Trauma Bonding & Stockholm Syndrome.
In 1973 four hostages were held in a bank in a bank vault for 6 days. Later the hostages refused to give evidence against the robbers and one later married one of her captors. Long afterwards the hostages reported feelings of terror, not of the criminals but of the police and what they might do to rescue them. So what was going on?
This is all about survival. The most primitive ‘fight or flight’ (SNS) response ‘appeasement.’- a baby mammal who feels threatened rolls over and looks cute to appeal to the adult to ‘rescue’ it. These hostages couldn’t fight or fly so they reverted to appeasement. A captive who supports, pleases and co-operates is far more likely to survive and as there is always a fear that rescuers will push the criminal over the edge so a feeling of ‘them and us’ develops. The need to survive is stronger than the hate of the captor so when the victim feels isolated and threatened but is shown acts that see as ‘kind’ for around four days trauma bonding develops. (At I et al we call this a ‘head fuck.’)
Trauma bond strategies for survival are…..
Dissociation impairing the ability to think, loss of reality and denial
Attentiveness and fondness of captor which increases tolerance of bad behaviour, lack of initiative, ruminating on their kindness and feeling emotionally indebted.
Trying to understand their point of view, seeing the captive as a victim, sympathizing and taking on their point of view
Feeling they can help the captor solve their problems
Being afraid with the captor and fearing rescue form outside people
This can happen to any securely attached adult in a hostage situation. When we talk about a ‘trauma bonded’ person we mean someone whose experience of being a child was one in which they were a captive unable to escape so their entire focus was on appeasing their carers, not being a child. Some Survivors are trauma bonded and all Multiples.
When there is extreme neglect and abuse the child can only seek close proximity to their abusers perpetuating the abuse so trauma bonds develop. This means they are in a constant state of overwhelming terror (flight/flight Sympethetic Nervous system SNS) and highly dissociated. As re-attunement which triggers the release of the calming hormone (return to PNS) does not occur levels of stress hormones remain high and the brain becomes hot wired to respond in flight/fight (SNS) . This helps to understand alcoholism and drug addiction to reduce anxiety and eating disorders.
When highly aroused (dissociated) the thinking part of the brain (hippocampus) is switched off so thinking is impossible. Therefore responses are not analysed and considered but primitive automatic unconscious reflex’s to danger-the ‘freeze’ response, commonly known as the 7f’s- ‘freeze’ ‘flight’ fight’ ‘fart’ ‘fornicate/fuck’, ‘feed’ and flop’. It is often very helpful when we explain this to Survivors who use it to understand how they responded to their abuse. Disintegrative shame often becomes part of the core identity- we often hear ‘I am shit/bad’ which is known as ‘core shame’.’ As triggers develop some children associate shame with feelings or internal needs ’I am hungry therefore I am shameful’ and it is common for survivors to feel shame instead of sexual arousal. Although desperate for ‘unconditional love’ trauma bonded Survivors actively disengage from the reciprocal accepting and loving relationship they need because positive strokes disturb this core identity. Unless addressed in counselling disintegrative shame guarantees attachment needs will never be met as survivors continue to believe ‘people and relationships hurt’ because this was our earliest experience. What is most insipid is that parents were probably trauma bonded themselves and unable to provide a secure base so until someone becomes aware and gets help (like coming to I et al) the cycle of abuse goes on and on. This is why most of us find a history of child sexual abuse in our families.
Difference between developing Secure Attachment and Trauma Bonds
Reciprocal and Caring
Domination and Fear
Proximity = safety
Proximity = alarm
Separate and independent person
Not separate person – extension of abuser
Mastery by others
Autonomy and individuation
Separation Intensifies bond
Norma Howes 2004
Trauma Bonded Adults and PTSD
In the trauma bonded family trauma is not processed. A child is regularly abused and no one says anything, reality checks never happen, the child doesn't relax so stress levels never start to fall and the child remains stuck in flight/flight (SNS). The child whose arm is broken because their mother threw them down the stairs in a drunken rage has no idea how the arm is broken, only that it is and it hurts. This is because the child is dissociated and therefore unable to proccess the trauma. The stigma of child sexual abuse has meant that until recently social systems designed to protect a child failed…..big time. Nobody was interested so a child who spoke out was more likely to be punished than rescued. Of course the nature of child sexual abuse is that it is secret and to ‘tell’ risks attachments that the child has sacrificed so much to keep. Paradoxically the child seeks close proximity to care givers to feel safe but they create such an internal terror the child never achieves a state of calm.
Stress hormones are toxic and literally poison the body, which is preferable to not surviving but when the brain is still immature the effects can be catastrophic as the body only heals and recovers when relaxed (in 'rest and digest' fuctioning. Ironically, trauma bonded children cannot tolerate stress or regulate impulse (see integrative shame) so they remain on red alert constantly scanning the world for danger and may perceive situations as more threatening than they really are triggering more stress toxins. Over time the trauma-bonded child is conditioned to respond to any stress with fight or fight which is why so many survivors are hyper-vigilant. This conditioning is known as the ‘pavluvian reflex’ - the foundation for Complex PTSD of multiple trauma's- also sometimes known as DID- an attachment disorder.