5 Subtle Signs of Unprocessed Attachment Trauma
How these symptoms can affect the quality of our lives.
Posted January 16, 2023 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- People with unprocessed attachment trauma often report similar behaviors or psychological symptoms that affect the quality of their adult lives.
- Unexplained physical ailments may originate from having experienced early trauma.
- Trauma-blocking behaviors occur by engaging in compulsive behaviors that momentarily distract from traumatic memories or pain.
Attachment trauma is any trauma that occurs during specific stages of a child’s development. The most common form of developmental trauma occurs with attachment, where a child’s sense of safety, security, predictability, and trust are damaged from abuse, neglect, or inconsistent or unpredictable care from a primary caregiver.
People with unprocessed attachment trauma often report similar patterns of behavior and somatic or psychological symptoms that affect the quality of their adult lives, including their choices in relationships. Yet, many may be struggling with the signs and symptoms of trauma without knowing it. It is estimated that 6% of the population will experience symptoms of PTSD in their lifetime, and that nearly 60% of males and 50% of females have experienced significant trauma in their lives.
Unhealed attachment trauma can have devastating effects on the overall quality of a person’s life, including their ability to be present in their relationships, and the choices they make for themselves. Most of us have probably read how unhealed attachment trauma can create a compulsion to repeat these core wounds (“repetition compulsion”) by unconsciously choosing romantic partners that trigger their developmental trauma. However, there are less known—but equally damaging—signs of unprocessed developmental trauma.
Five subtle signs of unprocessed attachment trauma can include:
1. Chronic Pain
Unexplained physical ailments may originate from having experienced early trauma. Existing research correlates symptoms of fibromyalgia, headaches, gastrointestinal upset, insomnia, muscle aches, back pain, chest pain, and chronic fatigue as associated with the aftermath of experiencing chronic developmental trauma, especially physical abuse. For example, in a sample of adults being assessed on attachment security, those with insecure attachment styles—including anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment styles—experienced higher frequencies of somatic symptoms and higher incidences of physical and emotional abuse in childhood than those with a more secure attachment style.
2. Unexplained Psychological Symptoms
It is very common that people with histories of developmental trauma battle obsessive-compulsive behavior, intense mood swings, irritability, anger problems, depression, emotional numbing, or severe anxiety. These symptoms can vacillate from mild to severe, often co-occur, and may happen intermittently throughout the day where moments of peace and calm are interrupted with feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety. More concerning is that many with histories of developmental trauma will “distract” themselves from these symptoms by minimizing or rationalizing them, or may turn to substance abuse or behavioral addictions as maladaptive ways of overcompensating and self-numbing.
At the root of this pattern is a cycle of hurting others, then hurting self. Equally common is heightened emotional sensitivity from unprocessed attachment trauma, which kicks the cycle into gear. Cycles often play out in a circular dance where lashing out, shutting down, or impulsive (self-defeating) behavior results in feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. Because many with histories of attachment trauma are not consciously aware of their wounds, they operate on survival mode—unconsciously “testing” or “challenging” the emotional investment of those in their lives, then pushing them away out of self-preservation and fears of abandonment. This leads to a pattern of making poor choices for themselves based on impulsivity.
4. Trauma-Blocking Behaviors
This is commonly seen with emotional numbing, avoidance, and escapism, which occur by engaging in momentarily rewarding behaviors that distract from traumatic memories or pain. The problem with this pattern is twofold. First, it maintains a pattern of escapism which does not allow the person to process traumatic pain in a healthy way. Secondly, over time it requires more and more “distraction” in order to continue avoiding the pain as it surfaces. Trauma blocking is seen in compulsive behaviors that include: drug or alcohol addiction, “emotional eating,” turning to relationships to self-numb, workaholism, compulsive and dangerous exercise routines, compulsive internet or technology use, or any other compulsive behaviors that are used to push away intrusive thoughts and emotions.
5. Control Issues
Many who develop control issues in their adult lives were children who felt helpless and were left vulnerable. They may have come from an overly-controlling caregiver who refused their autonomy, made harsh demands and expectations of them, or may have been neglected and left to their own devices to handle things. As adults, they may now control for everything in their life to gain a sense of order, or to push away feelings of anxiety or fears. An overwhelming feeling of powerlessness over their life in childhood often manifests as an over-controlling of everything in their adult lives.
Coping and Healing
Recovery from trauma is different for everyone. It is important to recognize whether you have experienced childhood developmental trauma and to reach a place of self-awareness with its effects on your adult relationships. Because the effects of trauma are often pushed away and ignored as too threatening to our ability to function, it’s important to recognize if there is a pattern of pushing away, avoiding, or escapism in play. Equally important is to speak to a trauma therapist who can help guide and support you in your healing journey.
Trauma Essential Reads
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Payne, H., et al. (2019). Medically unexplained symptoms and attachment theory: The bodymind approach. Frontiers in Psychology, doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01818
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.