Written by therapist Doxa Zannou
The human brain helps us process and understand our environment while also developing basic skills for survival. It identifies, stores, interprets, and acts upon the external cues in our environments that interact with our internal world. Our experiences, therefore, teach the brain what to expect from the outside world, and how to react accordingly to minimize distress and increase survival. In unsafe environments that are emotionally, physically, verbally, and/or sexually traumatic, we protect ourselves using coping mechanisms that become solidified in our brains. These coping mechanisms are like neural pathways, reinforced over a long period of time. Since the brain is forced to use these predominant pathways repeatedly, it does not get a chance to fully develop its more complex functions. Indeed, the brain develops from the bottom up, meaning that the lower parts (ie: spinal cord, brain stem, and cerebellum) focus on survival and reacting to stress, while the upper parts (ie: cerebral cortex) focus on executive functions such as reasoning, information processing, associations, perception, and memory. Unless we experience safe and formative environments, our brains remain stuck in unhealthy feedback loops that impair and disrupt attachment patterns and future relationships.
Developmental trauma refers to the trauma we experience during critical periods of development and growth. As children, we depend on our primary caregivers to provide a safe environment, wherein emotional attunement is present through consistent caregiving and nurturing. We all experience stress to some extent, and stress can be adaptive if it helps us develop healthy response patterns to escape danger. However, recurrent and incessant toxic stress disrupts our cognitive, social, and emotional capacities. Without adequate nurturing, attunement, and reparative care, we form core values and beliefs about ourselves, the world, and others, that set the foundation for future relational patterns.
Signs of Developmental Trauma
Developmental trauma is also referred to as Complex-Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). Instead of experiencing a one-time ‘shock event’ like war, sexual assault, or a car crash, individuals with C-PTSD experience a series of cumulative, distressing, and overwhelming events over a long period of time.
Such individuals experience PTSD symptoms (ie: flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance of triggers, feelings of anger, shame, guilt or sadness, and distrust in others) that compound with symptoms of C-PTSD. Common physical symptoms of C-PTSD include nightmares, heightened hypervigilance and alertness, chronic pain, and addiction. Common psychological symptoms of C-PTSD include dysfunctional or maladaptive beliefs, self-isolation, numbness, disconnection, pervasive feelings of shame and blame, negative sense of self, distrust/mistrust in self and others, despair, hopelessness, and suicidality.
3 Ways Developmental trauma affects Attachment
When our relationship with primary caregivers is severely impacted by their traumatized and traumatizing responses, it leads to toxic stress, which makes it harder to develop a sense of secure attachment. As we grow older, we replicate the attachment patterns we developed in this critical period, with new relationships. This is commonly referred to as our attachment style.
Individuals with this attachment style often had caregivers who were scary, unpredictable, or inconsistent in their parenting. As children, these individuals may have felt sporadically cared for, and then suddenly rejected, neglected, or abandoned. Unable to make sense of these mixed signals, they developed a sense of uncertainty and insecurity in relationships because they could not trust that their Attachment Figure would consistently love them and provide for their emotional and physical needs. Consequently, as adults, they may have such a strong desire for connection that they constantly fear and worry about abandonment, and they behave in needy, codependent ways to prevent others from leaving.
Individuals with this attachment style often had primary caregivers who were physically and/or emotionally unavailable, withdrawn, and detached. Their need for love, acceptance, and connection was often discounted or dismissed, so they learned to care for themselves and grew into extremely self-reliant, independent adults. Unfortunately, such individuals also dismiss their own emotions and needs, and stay away from intimate relationships for fear that they will end up trusting and depending on others who could ultimately harm them.
Disorganized / Fearful-Avoidant Attachment
Individuals with this attachment style often had abusive and turbulent caregivers who terrorized them instead of providing safety and security. However, because of humanity’s innate drive for connection, these individuals still sought to form a bond with their abusive caregivers, while simultaneously wrestling with the innate instinct to escape danger. Their relationships are therefore marked by cognitive dissonance and alternating attachment patterns of insecurity, anxiety, fear, ambivalence, and avoidance. They may feel hopeless, helpless, angry, and afraid because they are unable to resolve the core conflict of experiencing safety within relationships since relationships can be a source of danger and hurt. They want intimacy, but have trouble establishing and sustaining trust, which ultimately leads to increased self-protection and isolation.
Attachment Styles Vary
It is important to note that many of us may have a different attachment style depending on who we are interacting with (ie: parents, partners, friends), while others may have a consistent or default attachment style in most relationships. The goal or ideal is for us to develop secure attachment in safe relationships, so we can experience the healing power of authentic, meaningful connection.
Adults who learn to form secure attachments with significant others show up as they are, value authenticity and vulnerability, and feel comfortable trusting and depending on others while maintaining healthy independence. Unfortunately, if you have experienced C-PTSD, it may be difficult to believe this can be true for you too. You may feel hopeless or stuck in your ways and believe that the past trauma you experienced has a deterministic hold on your life. Thankfully, science shows us this is not true.
Our brains never stop learning, and in therapy, it is possible to rewire the way we think, feel, and behave, to experience heightened safety, peace, and abundance in relationships. If you resonate with this, I would love to connect with you. Please give us a call to schedule an appointment today!