Attachment-based Trauma

Hear no evil

There is a growing awareness of the way current behaviour can emerge from failures in the human attachment system – when babies struggle to find a sense of belonging to their caretakers.

The neural, social and emotional bases for these outcomes are not easy to explain. The problem here is that much has been written on the subject of attachment processes and attachment styles. The origins go way back. Probably the Greeks thought of it before we did!

It’s a big topic!

I do not want to offer a half-baked summary so I want you, the reader, to do your own research or investigation. This may make your safe experiments better informed and more precise to your own situation, today. The topic is not so sensitive that it cannot be the focus of safe experiments, so let’s consider a few.

For a start, remember the Road Map? That’s a good beginning to safe experimentation as it will identify the route you can remember (much you will not, so please let it go for the moment).

As experiments continue you are likely to recall more detail for the Road Map. That is why I asked you to keep the results ‘available‘ for re-assessment at any time.

What I will say about adverse childhood experiences (ACES), is that any child can suffer unintended harm during their upbringing. This may be a rare event or even an occasional one. However, we can suffer intended and persistent harm. We feel the hurt time after time. Then we can be hit by the perfect storm.

At such times, our social, physical and neural development can impede our ability to heal and our ways to learn to cope or adapt are compromised. We do not develop robust affect regulation systems, as and when required. The long term consequence is that our upbringing can delay or compromise our ability to self-regulate with confidence.

For practical purposes, let’s start with the work of John Bowlby who did much of his work in the UK in immediate aftermath of World War II. There is a readable summary around this topic at:

Further, it may be helpful to consider the outcome of further research undertaken by Mary Ainsworth, one of Bowlby’s students. Her work is well-known for the Strange Situation experiment. For some background, take a look at:

In modern times, we might well consider that some of Ainsworth’s work – very important work – was not necessarily safe.

There was a film on the Internet – of a mother intentionally relating to her child in an inconsistent fashion. It demonstrated very graphically, the impact of short-lived and seemingly small changes in the relationship between a mother and her infant. It was insightful, but so uncomfortable that it has now been removed.

Imagine, if you would, the potential impact of this interaction repeated many times, over longer time periods.

So what is happening here? We are looking at connections that may well not be human – or even mammalian. That is, circuits at work in the bodies of this mother and child have emerged from our evolutionary history – and I do not mean our ape history. The research, say, by Stephen Porges concludes that the some circuits involved have reptilian’ origins.

Immobilised without fear: something to aim for

There are important experiments demonstrating the differences between a human ‘immobilised by fear‘ as compared to being immobilised without fear‘. How these differences arise in our autonomic nervous system (ANS) are not easy to grasp. It is not simply ‘one’ system, but a complex inter-weaving between very ancient neural pathways ‘fighting’ against much ‘newer’ strands of the Vagus nerve.

You may find Peter Levine’s commentary helpful.

Ignore this complication if it seems to indigestable, but it is too important for me to leave out. There is a useful account taken from The Guardian newspaper that might be helpful. Alternatively, let me know what you’d like to know.

Alternatively, come back to the point at some later time.


I should say, for the record, that there is a large difference between a post-trauma symptoms mentioned often on this web site – and a post-trauma disorder (PTSD). The latter requires very specific conditions to be met. These are governed by books classifying mental health diagnoses. Sadly, those classifications tend to minimise the issues of childhood neglect. Consequently, many people experience trauma symptoms without qualifying for a diagnosis.

This would not be a problem for me but some treatments funded by insurance schemes can require a diagnosis. I may be little concerned with labels, but that does not wash when you need treatment and private therapies are expensive.

If labels help you, and some people tell me they do, then consider much of what I have summarised here as part of (Early Years) Attachment-based Trauma.


The topic of ‘attachment’ lies at the heart of other threads contained on this web site. If you read a few of my pages, can you use your curiosity to explore some other connections?

Let me know what you find worked for you – or get you frustrated by NOT finding it!

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Further leads to consider


How to give yourself a nudge

Polyvagal Theory

Flight and fight