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Therapeutic Techniques for Treating Attachment Trauma

Our early years can impact how we learn to respond, imprinting behaviors that we enact throughout the rest of our life — all based on the bond we form (or fail to form) with our primary caregiver. The message we receive as infants about how our needs are met sets the stage for our adult relationships and influences how we handle conflict,  how we communicate, our ability to understand needs and emotions, and emotional intimacy. 

If someone has missed healthy reinforcement in early childhood (and many people have), there are effective therapeutic techniques to treat attachment trauma as adults. Let’s explore attachment theory and the available techniques for treating attachment trauma.

History of Attachment Theory

Attachment refers to the emotional bond formed between a child and caregiver. It’s the way the child gets their primary needs met, and it becomes an engine of emotional, social, and cognitive development. Early social experiences stimulate growth in an infant’s brain and can have a profound and enduring influence on their ability to form and maintain stable relationships with others throughout life. Attachment also provides the foundation for self-regulation. 

Attachment theory is a framework for understanding interpersonal relationships. John Bowlby, a psychologist, described the concept as the initial bond with a mother or other caregiver and an infant child. The impact of this bond goes well beyond infancy into childhood, and it can impact a person throughout their life. When a caregiver competently and regularly responds to the child’s needs, that child can develop a healthy, secure attachment. However, when this isn’t the case, communication, behavioral, and emotional challenges can result.

Attachment Styles

Mary Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation Test as a way to measure attachment. Her categories represent different degrees of emotional securing. Learning about them can help clients better understand themselves and their relationships. 

In the Strange Situation Test, a child is left with researchers who observe their reactions. Based on the responses, researchers determine the attachment category:

  1. Secure: The child interacts with others when the primary caregiver is present but becomes upset when they leave, and then avoids contact with strangers.
  2. Anxious-Resistant Insecure: The child displays anxiety with strangers and will not interact. When the caregiver leaves, the child gets upset and will not be receptive to her when she returns. 
  3. Anxious-Avoidant Insecure: When a child has learned that their needs will be ignored, they show ambivalence towards the mother and strangers. 
  4. Disorganized/Disoriented: The child shows inconsistent responses, like becoming upset when the caregiver leaves but refusing contact when they return. 

According to a Princeton University study, 40% of people have attachment styles that are not secure. The result of any of these attachment styles other than secure attachment is trauma. However, proven treatments can help people to learn how to regulate their emotions. Let’s look at these techniques now.

Proven Techniques for Treating Attachment Trauma

Emotional regulation is a skill that can be practiced throughout life and is especially effective in dealing with attachment trauma. When we learn emotional regulation, we can create a safe space for healthy relationships, better deal with change, and handle uncertainty in our lives. When people  don’t self-regulate, they develop ineffective behaviors causing hypoarousal (becoming numb) or hyperarousal (being constantly on high alert) — both of which impact the individual and the people around them. Though it’s easier to regulate emotions when a person is taught at a young age, it is a skill that can be taught at any age. Currently, there are five proven techniques that can help clients with emotional regulation. You can use these techniques alone or in tandem.
Experiential Therapy
Experiential therapy is action-based. It uses activities like art and role-play to help to deepen the patient’s comprehension of the underlying issues causing attachment-related behaviors. By helping clients identify and understand these ineffective behaviors, you can help them replace them with more effective behaviors.
Gestalt Therapy
This type of therapy is an experiential type of psychotherapy aimed at personal responsibility. Since many of the attachment issues deal with a denial of personal liability, Gestalt therapy aims to help the client recognize their responsibilities in everyday interactions by understanding why their behaviors trigger certain events.
Cognitive Therapy
Feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are all related according to the tenants of cognitive therapy. Using this type of therapy, also known as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), you can help your clients identify faulty logic and unwanted behaviors. Then, you can help clients overcome these undesirable behaviors by working towards modifying their beliefs. By changing the thought patterns, more desirable behaviors appear. With CBT, you act as a guide to help your clients acquire new skills, test their beliefs, and learn new ways to overcome issues.
Behavioral Therapy
Behavioral therapy is often used with cognitive therapy though it is not required to be. It focuses on identifying maladaptive behaviors and controlling unwanted behavior using specific techniques. It’s especially useful for those dealing with adult attachment disorders, building a client’s ability to identify actions leading to maladaptive behaviors and employing techniques to overcome them.
Holistic Therapy
Holistic therapy is the melding of multiple psychotherapy techniques and using them together to test the most effective methods with a particular client for a custom therapeutic approach. Since the focus of holistic therapy is on the result, any number of psychotherapy modalities may be used. The flexibility of this technique may make it more effective by providing skills and resources focused on the desired outcome. Attachment issues can be overcome, and there is hope for clients who have experienced even deep trauma. These techniques are all valuable tools in the therapy toolbox that you can use to help your clients with attachment trauma.

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