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How EMDR can help Attachment Wounds

Attachment is the deep and enduring connection established between a child and caregiver in the early years of life. In the light of attachment theory, relationships with early attachment figures provide a base or template for adulthood relationships by initiating beliefs about oneself and others. For instance, healthy attachment experiences are associated with positive expectations and choices in relationships.


Fundamental to the development of a healthy sense of self is the experience of early attachment interactions comprising attuned responses, consistency, trust, and a sense of protection/safety. For example, an attuned caregiver will help a child make sense of an upsetting event and process through intense emotions, making them feel seen, heard, validated, and valued. This coregulation builds the neural framework needed for self-regulation.


In contrast, when a caregiver lacks the capacity for emotional attunement or fails to meet a child’s emotional needs consistently, the child is unable to find a sense of security in their relationships with others or within themselves, often resulting in splitting off of wounded parts in order to cope with the threat. Early attachment wounds thus often lead to dissociation and emotion dysregulation. Other symptoms of attachment wounding may include self-loathing, intense fear of rejection, excessive people pleasing, and feelings of insecurity and emptiness.


Attachment trauma is marked by the absence of nurturing, protective, and functional caregiver relationships, which limits resilience without intervention (Gladney University, 2023).


Attachment Styles

How the caregiver responds to the child’s proximity-seeking attempts will come to shape the child’s attachment system. Attachment styles are the ways individuals relate to others based on their experiences with primary caregivers during childhood. There are four main attachment styles: secure, anxious-preoccupied, avoidant-dismissive, and fearful-avoidant/disorganized.


Secure Attachment

Individuals with a secure attachment style are able to balance the needs for interconnectedness and for individuality. They have a positive view of themselves and others, can communicate their own emotional needs, and are attuned to others’ needs. They have good self-regulation skills and engage in healthy conflict resolution.


Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment

Those with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style often desire close relationships but may feel insecure and worry about being abandoned or rejected. They seek excessive reassurance and validation from their partners, and they may engage in excessive clinginess or become overly dependent on significant others.


Avoidant-Dismissive Attachment

Individuals with an avoidant-dismissive attachment style tend to value independence and self-reliance. They may feel uncomfortable with emotional intimacy and may avoid close relationships. They often have a negative view of others and may prioritize their autonomy over relationships.


Disorganized Attachment

This attachment style is usually seen in individuals who had frightening, chaotic, inconsistent, and abusive caregivers. The unresolved childhood trauma/loss can cause internal fragmentation and disconnection from themselves and others.

 

Without intervention, people continue their attachment style into adult relationships, which can lead to maladaptive behaviours resulting in relational conflicts. That being said, people don’t always fit strictly into one of these categories and may demonstrate varied characteristics. Moreover, repairing and altering these patterns is possible through adaptive healing relationships in later life, a process known as earned secure attachment (Parnell, 2013).

Through the lens of the Adaptive Information Processing model, distressing attachment memories are stored in an unprocessed form in isolated neural memory networks, along with the associated emotions, sensations, and beliefs present at the time of the trauma (Potter & Wesselmann, 2023). The unprocessed disturbing material can be activated by present-day relationships leading to defensive behaviours (Potter & Wesselmann, 2023). 

 

The goal of attachment-focused EMDR is to help individuals heal from attachment wounds through the combination of resource tapping and targeting past traumatic events. By desensitizing and reprocessing past traumatic memories, individuals can reframe their beliefs about themselves and others, eventually resulting in the cultivation of secure attachment and healthy relationships in the face of developmental deficits (Parnell, 2013).

Resource tapping is an important tool when working with relational or attachment trauma and can sometimes be used as a stand-alone therapy. Neurological research has shown that “when we imagine doing something, the neurons in the brain are activated as if we are actually doing it” (Parnell, 2013, p. 21). Using this concept, therapists use techniques in attachment-focused EMDR that evoke imagination and visualization to facilitate the development of new reparative neural networks.


As a trauma therapist trained in EMDR, I have experienced it as a promising and transformative tool in disentangling the complex layers of attachment trauma. Please reach out to book a free 15-minute consultation to explore how EMDR can be a key to unlocking your healing process.





References

Gladney University. (2023, April 27). Healing attachment wounds with EMDR, with Hillary Owen [Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5-7UmTMuPo


Parnell, L. (2013). Attachment-focused EMDR: Healing relational trauma. W. W. Norton & Company. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/405210/attachment-focused-emdr-by-laurel-parnell/9780393707458


Potter, A. E., & Wesselmann, D. (2023). EMDR and attachment-focused trauma therapy for adults: Reclaiming authentic self and healthy attachments. Springer Publishing. https://www.springerpub.com/emdr-and-attachment-focused-trauma-therapy-for-adults-9780826136886.html


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