Attachment, Relationship Trauma and Addiction

Early Attachment Issues, Trauma and Addiction

(This blog is not an opinion or a commentary. It is more like a book report from a great webinar I watched today. Please see link reference below.)

Whether or not we are securely attached in childhood is imperative to healthy relationship with self and others throughout life. Insecure attachments frequently develop addiction problems. Early unhealthy attachments are considered trauma in the treatment world.

The four types of attachment are:

  1.  Secure
  2.  Avoidant
  3.  Ambivalent
  4.  Disorganized

Attaching is a biological drive. Another way of saying it is that the drive to get our emotional needs met is biological.

There are three early decisions involved in the development of attachment. The first is whether or not the world is a safe place, whether or not people are glad to see me, and the third is how to get my needs met. The child learns within the first three years of life the answers to these questions. The answers, good or bad, are stored on an unconscious/preconscious level in the limbic system of the brain, which is the emotional center of the brain.

In regard to getting needs met, the questions become, “If I let my needs be known, will they be met, frustrated or I never know whether they will be met.” When children grow up in a chaotic, invalidating environment, the answers to these questions are not positive. Children, early on, will show signs of negative adaptation/reactive attachment issues. These negative experiences become life scripts and shape how all incoming information is processed throughout the years. For example, a child whose parent is inconsistently available, is often angry and shows little affection and comfort at necessary times, may cause a child to develop anger and anxiety issues because of the frustration and fear for the child in this process.

Children who have chronic trauma become hypervigilant, have poor trust, low self esteem, personality problems and overall, avoid getting hurt through the use of defense mechanisms. Their relationships tend to be insecure/unstable because they do not know how to get needs met appropriately and are avoidant and/or ambivalent about whether to let needs be known.

Addiction serves as a way to comfort the unmet attachment need. The brain chemicals involved in attachment are emulated by and emitted the chemical in the substance. One of the brain chemicals involved is oxytocin. Oxytocin is emitted when a parent shows physical affection and comfort. It causes a child, or an adult, to feel calm and connected. It decreases cravings, increases learning and it heals and restores. It also brings about increased receptivity to the sexual experience and creates an overall positive feeling. A person gets addicted to the substance and to the brain chemical that causes all this. When the substance is removed, the attachment issues can easily get activated because the feeling of attachment is gone.

Often times, in treatment or early recovery, a person may actually develop a romantic relationship which replaces these chemicals. This is, once again, the biological need for attachment showing itself. Addressing how to form healthy attachments is a vital part of recovery work. People that are chronic relapsers are often folks that have compromised attachments because, remember, the attachment problems existed before the substance abuse problem. Process addictions ( ex. gambling, sex, shopping) and getting cross-addicted are also a risk in early recovery because these will bring about the same “feel-good factor” that the substance did.

The goal for people with this type of dual diagnosis is to get in community enough to reduce emotional pain associated with attachment and consistently work all aspects of the program, i.e. meetings, calling sponsor, 12 step and other insight oriented literature, work the steps, most importantly, get rid of a victim mentality. Outside counseling is also recommended. and trauma