Counseling Reflections on Attachment, Spirituality, and Trauma

December causes a lot of people like me to stop and think. Annual holidays bring a pause in our daily routines, while the year end draws us into meditation. Questions arise around how we can go into January prepared with new learnings. As I reflected on my 2020 experience, I considered how my training in EMDR and Certified Sex Addiction Therapy opened doors for me to effectively aid children, adolescent and adults heal from traumatic experiences. My goal was often to assist them to become aware of overwhelming memories fueling unhealthy viewpoints about themselves and others. We used therapy tactics to heal old wounds and build healthier perspectives. During these client sessions, I noticed a collision between three major topical areas in counseling: attachment, spirituality, and trauma recovery. Almost every one of my clients experienced transformation in these areas as they worked through counseling. For that reason, I want to explore some personal discoveries and correlated research around how these areas influence one another. I also hope to offer practical tips to make your counseling experience more fruitful. 

Topic 1: Attachment

Let me first set a foundation for my thoughts using some definitions. Attachment, as originally proposed by British psychologist John Bowlby, is a term that defines how we relationally bond with our parents or caregivers (1). Bowlby and his colleagues learned the importance of this by studying mother-infant interactions. His propositions grew in popularity with the invention of neural scans, showcasing that brain development is majorly impacted by the consistency, care, and timeliness of parents (2). Secure attachment occurs when our parents show warmth, affection, kindness, and commitment by responding to children’s needs in a reasonable time. Insecure attachment happens when our caregivers fail to do this, which can lead children to develop a temperament of dysregulation, detachment, avoidance, and overall distress. Attachment may be one of the most common ideas that comes up in my therapy sessions, as it impacts how clients view their own needs, others’ trustworthiness, and the world’s predictability (from a general standpoint).

Topic 2: Spirituality

The second topic I referenced is spirituality. According to psychologists, spirituality is our “personal practice of what we hold sacred,” (3, p. 307), while religiosity encompasses the external behaviors, rituals, and traditions that represent our internal spirituality. Typically, I find my clients fall into one of two categories: 1) they have a solid sense of their spirituality, and it plays a major role in their resilience, or 2) they are ambivalent about spirituality in general, and they would like to investigate it but are unsure how to do this. Those who fall into the former category often worship a higher power like Yahweh, the God of the Bible. However, not all Christians have a secure attachment with God, as they might have a large gap between religiosity and spirituality. This can sometimes play out negatively in their healing. To the Christian believer reading this post, be encouraged. God is lovingly pursuing you! To the individual who falls into the spiritually ambivalent category, also be encouraged. In reading this, you are investigating your spirituality. I believe the only unhealthy spiritual journey is to not take one at all.

Topic 3: Trauma Recovery

Third, we can talk about trauma recovery. Although trauma has become a 21st century buzz word, I imagine it will be helpful to delineate what I mean. As opposed to some misconceptions, trauma is not an event or experience that causes mental unwellness. Instead, trauma is the subjective assimilation of an event’s meaning into our worldview. Said another way, trauma is how we perceive an overwhelming experience and what we learn from it. This is why two people can go through the same event, and one person can be traumatized while the other is not. The traumatized person had fewer resilience factors, or internal and external supports, to help make constructive meaning of the trauma after it occurred. Some examples of resilience factors are a healthy idea-of-self, a compassionate community, or an understanding of suffering. Resiliency is important for our discussion, as two major resilience factors are secure attachment and mature spirituality. It is here, where attachment, spirituality, and trauma recovery converge that I noticed something powerful:

In my experience, as reinforced by my research, a healthy attachment to a higher power (i.e., God) helps us heal from trauma. Then, an impact of that trauma healing is an ability to have a deeper attachment to our loved ones, including our higher power.

Let’s dissect my first statement: a healthy attachment to a higher power (i.e., God) helps us heal from trauma. A healthy attachment to God is not something that we as children naturally grow into; we formulate our understanding of God by how we view our parents. Dr. James “Fowler (4) posited that the foundation of faith emerges from the interaction with the primary caregiver, who nurtures a basic sense of trust or mistrust that is necessary to construe and relate with one’s faith and transcendence…’” (3, p. 307). Paraphrased, that means if we hold a secure attachment to mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, or whomever raised us, then it is much more likely that our concept of God will be secure, nurturing, and protective. As our mind develops, “faith takes on an interpersonal quality…such that ‘God’ becomes a friend. Faith, subsequently, synthesizes into a reflective way of looking at the world, embodying values that are personal and individual such as love, justice, and truth.” (3, p. 307)

Looking at this from the perspective of trauma, many children start life with an insecure attachment to God. Their needs go unmet during their formative years due to the inability (or negligence) of caregivers to carry out their role, which means children learn lessons like “people can’t be trusted,” or “only others can help me,” or “my needs don’t matter.” The children grow up with skewed views on relationships, which leads to skewed views on a relationship with God. I often work with these types of child or adult clients to overcome traumatic memories; many of them developed a mature spirituality later in life despite their caregivers’ abuse/neglect. My clients who have a secure attachment to God showcase the most sustainable healing. They see God as a part of their past experience in a new, nurturing, and protective way…even if the experience that led to the trauma was heinous and unthinkable.

The other side of the coin is similarly applicable: healing from trauma helps us grow in attachment to our loved ones, including our higher power. I mentioned the thought patterns that come from early insecure attachment can sound like, “people can’t be trusted”. When our trauma is interpersonal, in that it occurs at the hands of another person, especially someone we once trusted, then it blocks us from creating healthy relationships. Our brain focuses on fear and survival first and foremost, which can lead to ignoring or hurting those around us; we learn that problems are bigger than people (5). When my clients come in with an open attitude to healing their trauma, it helps them resolve barriers and learn new skills to experience relationships like never before. It becomes possible to experience genuine gladness to be with other people in a non-manipulative way. Some of my most wonderful moments as a counselor have come from watching my clients resolve their trauma, then enter into relationships with newfound empathy, love, and joy.

Research

I found some really interesting research related to these ideas, particularly outlining nuances between attachment, spirituality, and trauma. Multiple professional journal articles (3, 6) outlined how spirituality is instrumental for internal growth after trauma (called post-traumatic growth, or PTG) for children, teens, and adults.  For instance, Dr. Vincent Starnino (6) of Indiana University commented, “the ability to adapt or change one’s spiritually-related thinking in a manner that accommodates the trauma event is viewed as a key factor for achieving PTG” (p. 377). Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis (3) and some of her prior students at Pepperdine University discussed attachment, spirituality in trauma recovery in children. They outlined that healthy parental attachment can reduce negative impacts on the child’s relationship with God after verbal and physical abuse, but not to the same effect with sexual abuse (p. 311). This is fascinating to me as a sexual addiction therapist and speaks to the severity of sexual trauma. The most interesting article I found by Dr. Mark J. Landau and associates outlined five studies relating to how a person’s perception of God can bolster or squash motivation toward long-term personal goals (7). Let me explain why this is so curious.

One effect of trauma is that a person’s past becomes his present. In other words, our trauma memories become stuck in our mind, like shards of glass, and they keep us focused on the past. If we cannot live in the present, it makes it impossible to set goals for our future. We cannot create plans to carry out those goals. Thus, Landau and colleague’s results would directly affect trauma survivors. The authors found that “observing a controlling God motivates [a person to meet her long-term goals] specifically when God is conceived as imposing predictable structure on the world, not when God is thought to intervene in mysterious ways” (p. 81). This aligns exactly with attachment. Children who can trust their caregivers to create consistency and predictability are more curious about the world and willing to take risks. I wonder what the authors would find if they split participants up into those with a healthy attachment to God versus those without? It might indicate a healthy attachment to God leads to a less stressful view of his mystery, making it easier to set goals for ourselves even within an unpredictable world. Again, we see that attachment and spirituality bolster resiliency against trauma.

Application

I’ll wrap up my thoughts with some practical application on how this can be helpful for clinicians and clients alike in the counseling room. If attachment and spirituality are mitigating factors in trauma, and they can greatly aid in trauma recovery, it would do us all well if they were included more in the counseling process. Resources that I have found to be especially useful in helping clients explore attachment and spirituality during trauma recovery are below. Clients can ask their counselors for these resources if they desire.

  1. Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – using an 8-phase protocol, this therapy modality helps clients heal from trauma by removing trauma’s emotional sting
  2. Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy (DNMS) –this series of counseling tactics uses imaginal exercises to help those with insecure attachment meet their relational needs prior to EMDR or talk therapy
  3. Life Model – this series of books/trainings offers a neuro-theological approach for Christians to better understand trauma and learn skills to move from insecure attachment to secure attachment (which the authors call “joy”)
  4. Joyful Journey – a specific book from the Life Model, this interactive journaling approach helps Christians learn to develop rapport with God
  5. Immanuel Healingalso a part of the Life Model, this approach is similar to EMDR but specifically utilizes the Christian faith and relationship with God to resolve painful memories 
  6. Trauma Egg Techniquethis specific exercise comes from IITAP and helps a client use art/symbolism to outline dysfunctional lessons from trauma so that new, functional lessons can be instilled with EMDR or talk therapy

Although this is just a short list of things that benefit my clients, there are many more out there. My exhortation, as I often express to my clients, is to dive into how attachment and spirituality are impacting your life, and inspect where trauma is holding you back from living it fully. I imagine they are all connected. Allow 2021 to be the year that you improve your attachment, grow in your spirituality, and heal from your trauma. Invite someone you trust into the process with you. As challenging as it is, the dividends are life-long.

References

  1. Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759–775. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.28.5.759
  1. Moore, T., Arefadib, N., Deery, A., Keyes, M., West, S. (2017). The First Thousand Days: An Evidence Paper – Summary. Parkville, Victoria: Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
  1. Bryan-Davis, T., Ellis, M. U., Burke-Maynard, E., Moon, N., Counts, P. A., & Anderson, G. (2012). Religiosity, spirituality, and trauma recovery in the lives of children and adolescents. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(4), 306-314. doi: 10.1037/a0029282
  1. Fowler, J. (1981). Stages of faith. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row.
  1. Friesen, J. G., Wilder, E. J., Bierling, A. M., Koepcke, R., & Poole, M. (2013). Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.
  1. Starnino, V. (2016). When trauma, spirituality, and mental illness intersect: A qualitative case study. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 8(3), 375-383. doi: 10.1037/tra0000105
  1. Landau, M. J., Khenfer, J., Keefer, L. A., Swanson, T. J., & Kay, A. C., (2018). When and why does belief in a controlling God strengthen goal commitment? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 75, 71-82. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2017.11.012

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