C-PTSD: A Disease of Detachment
Updated: Apr 17
What is attachment style?
As adults, we tend to have either a secure or insecure attachment style. When someone has a secure attachment style, they are high functioning in relationships and able to communicate their needs clearly as well as meet the needs of their partner easily. They are not overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety which may make them cling to their partner—or the opposite, feelings of anxiety which may lead to distancing and having a hard time with intimacy and getting close. Codependency is another result of insecure attachment styles. These are just some examples of relationship struggles which may present as a result of insecure attachment style.
What determines our attachment style? What is attachment trauma?
As human beings, we are biologically wired to build a strong attachment to our caregivers from the minute we are born. There are so many things that play into this process—breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact, and believe it or not, an infant’s cry. Eye contact, a baby's "coo"- these are all different tools that we are born with to encourage bonding, and specifically, a strong attachment to our primary caregiver. How is crying an encourager of attachment? It gets the caregiver’s attention and provides an opportunity for the caregiver to meet a need! Basically, when we respond to our infant’s cries with compassion, unconditional love, and show that we are there to meet their emotional and physical needs, we are building trust and attachment. That sense of trust and attachment translates into adulthood as a healthy way of relating to others—which is a secure attachment! If you ignore an infant’s cries and do not meet their complex emotional and physical needs you are setting them up for a lifetime of attachment struggles. Basically, in doing so you are sending the message that their communication efforts in getting their needs met will be ignored. The world then becomes a scary place where their means for survival—primary caregiver—are not available. Our first attachment in life is the most important one- and is usually solidified sometime between age 2-3. When this attachment is ruptured, attachment trauma occurs. It’s important to mention that this is not always by the choice of the parent- as sometimes physical or mental illness, or even financial struggles may cause attachment ruptures to occur. Also, attachment can be ruptured later in early childhood- if severe abuse or neglect happens later on.
What is C-PTSD?
Many people have heard of PTSD, a trauma disorder that is a response to a triggering traumatic event. Not many people have heard of Complex PTSD or C-PTSD, which is a trauma disorder caused by prolonged trauma, or multiple traumatic events that a person is unable to avoid or escape from. The most common example of this is childhood trauma – which can be emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, or even emotional or physical neglect. Attachment disorders are nearly always a symptom of C-PTSD. C-PTSD oftentimes looks like this: attachment issues and relationship struggles, intimacy issues, flashbacks, mood swings, anxiety, depression, addiction issues, eating disorders, personality disorder traits. In fact, many common mental health disorders are misdiagnosed C-PTSD. These include anxiety and depression, bipolar, personality disorders, codependent behavior, relationship struggles, eating disordered behavior and addiction struggles. Flashbacks that individuals with C-PTSD experience are typically emotional flashbacks, making them harder to identify and work through.
My parents didn’t physically abuse me, and I was not severely neglected. Can I still have C-PTSD?
Yes! In fact, many individuals come to therapy with this same thinking. I believe it is oftentimes the people who were verbally and emotionally abused who suffer the more severe C-PTSD symptoms. This is because these individuals typically develop a stronger inner critic that contributes to more frequent and intense emotional flashbacks. I’ve have had clients with “workaholic” parents who emotionally neglected them and who had as a result, suffered from C-PTSD. When a need goes unmet in infancy and childhood, it will resurface later to be met in some other unhealthy way.
What is an emotional flashback and how do I know I’m having one?
Generally speaking, an emotional flashback is an intense emotional reaction, typically to minor annoyances or difficulties. Depending on your personality type, your reaction to a flashback may be to become argumentative or lash out in aggressiveness or anger, engage in escapism, addictive behavior, workaholism, severe anxiety or panic attacks, or codependency.
So, what can you do to help?
As your therapist, I will become your ally is battling your inner critic and helping you overcome flashbacks. Many people are unaware of when or how they are flashing back until they enter therapy and begin processing their past and present-day struggles. Once awareness is brought to these flashbacks, they become much easier to manage. Together, we will learn tools to be able to more easily identify flashbacks and manage them. In therapy, we will also do work with your inner child to help combat some of these automatic thoughts that have come as a result of childhood trauma or neglect.
I’m a parent and I think I have C-PTSD. I want to help my child have a secure attachment style. Can you help me with this?
Yes! Attachment parenting, a term coined by the Sears family, is a parenting style which does that just—encourages secure attachment and develops an emotionally intelligent child. Attachment parenting is based on 7 principles to encourage attachment. These are:
· Birth bonding
· Bedding close to baby
· Baby wearing
· Belief in value of baby’s cry
· Beware of baby trainers
· Balance in parenting
These are also called the “7 B’s of Attachment Parenting”. As an attached parent myself, I can help you with common parenting struggles that come up and ways to respond in a compassionate way to encourage attachment and bonding. Even though the primary attachment is typically solidified by age 2-3, it is never too late to begin using attachment parenting principles which can help strengthen your relationship to your child and encourage a healthy bond.
Need more information?
Check out these resources for more info on attachment style, C-PTSD and attachment parenting principles.
1. Information on all attachment styles: https://markmanson.net/attachment-theory
2. FAQ on C-PTSD by Pete Walker (author of CPTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, which I also recommend!): http://pete-walker.com/fAQsComplexPTSD.html
3. The Sears Website and specifically, their website on Attachment Parenting: https://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/attachment-parenting . I recommend the Sears family library for many other books on parenting
At Root Counseling, all of our therapists conduct therapy from an attachment-based lens and help clients work through their trauma type to develop healthy responses to triggers. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.