As human beings, we rely on our primary caregivers for a longer period of time than any other mammal. Throughout childhood, we look to our parents to provide us with the essentials – food, shelter, and safety. We also look to our parents for consistent emotional support and connection – love, nurturing, compassion, and affection. Even well into our adult lives, we innately rely on our parents or primary caregivers for emotional support.
When there is a strong and stable emotional bond between an infant and his or her parent, a healthy and secure attachment is formed. The infant understands that he can look to his caregiver for comfort and care in times of emotional distress, and this emotional connection provides a vital sense of safety that will typically lead to a healthy and functional development. When an infant or child is adequately cared for, he or she is far more liable to excel in all areas of life. The central nervous system will function effectively, and self-esteem, independence, and the ability to relate and form functional and lasting relationships will likely increase. It has been repeatedly proven that children with secure attachment histories perform far better in nearly all areas. As human beings, are brains are wired to require secure attachment. Crucial early relationships not only ensure a vital sense of safety, but also ensure healthy and functional neurological development.
On the other hand, when secure attachment lacks, children will be emotionally and developmentally stunted. When an infant or young child turns to his or her primary caregiver for emotional comfort and support and is met with taciturnity or abuse, devastating emotional dysregulation will likely occur. When an infant is denied the affection it craves, it will begin to cry, or react with a similar signal of personal distress. When this distress signal is ignored (or worse – when the infant is punished for crying or acting out) the infant will eventually begin finding ways to self-soothe and self-regulate. The infant or young child will withdraw from social interactions, and focus his or her energy on seeking consolation in alternative ways.
This is where the very beginning stages of addictive disorders may begin to develop. Infants who lack healthy and stable attachment bonds are not wired to turn to human beings for solace and support; they will strive to find alternative methods of self-regulation, which will often become ritualistic at some point in young adulthood. Some will turn to over or under-eating, some will turn to drugs or alcohol, some will turn to compulsive sexual gratification. Addictions act as compensatory mechanisms, replacing the calming and normalizing effect that a secure attachment would have provided. Nearly all (if not all) addicts and alcoholics simultaneously suffer from some form of early attachment-related trauma.
Addiction Through the Lens of Trauma
When viewed through the lens of trauma and attachment, clinical issues and addictive disorders tend to make much more sense. For example – Brian began drinking heavily when he was 15 years old. He turned to alcohol whenever he began to feel anxious, sad, or emotionally overwhelmed. Essentially, Brian turned to alcohol in order to self-regulate. Growing up, his mother was an alcoholic, and his father was consistently gone on long business trips. His needs were not met while he was growing up, as he lacked a stable household and the guidance and support of nurturing and capable caregivers. Because Brian was not exposed to the regulatory effect that secure attachment provides, he began looking for viable substitutes. Unfortunately, alcohol always proves to be a temporary and insufficient substitute – after a while, the interpersonal problems that drinking to excess will inevitably cause begin to outweigh the fleeting emotional relief.
Healing from Addiction and Attachment
In order to heal from the lasting wounds of childhood trauma, Brian needed to develop new and effective methods of self-regulation. These methods will vary depending on the individual, but may include things like: calling a close friend or sober support, mindfulness meditation, yoga, or attending a 12-step meeting. Looking into ways to help establish meaningful connections with others and become more grounded and present in the physical body will ultimately help to rewire the brain, replacing addictive tendencies with secure and healthy attachment. Because our brains never stop changing, we are never doomed to a life of relational dysfunction – no matter how lost and helpless we may feel. As soon as the root causes of addiction are identified, healing can begin to occur; and deeply engrained patterns of deregulation and dysfunction can begin to be uncovered and transformed.
We at Next Chapter look at addiction and related disorders through the lens of trauma and attachment. Our comprehensive, male-specific program is geared towards addicts and alcoholics who suffer from unresolved trauma. For more information, please reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.