Attachment Wounding and Developmental Trauma

After attending the 2012 USABP conference, one workshop was a standout for me: “Attachment and Somatic Development” taught by Anne Isaacs, LCSW. She took a couple of different theoretical ways of working with Attachment Issues and integrated the work together. I won’t be able to cover the entire lecture but will just give some highlights.

She noted a very powerful study done by Dr. Ed Tronick who is the Director of Development Unit at Harvard University. He did a study called “Still Face Experiment“. You can actually watch this video on YouTube:


  • He has a mother and a baby interacting with each other. The mother greets the baby and the baby responds back to her. They are interacting, coordinating their emotions and intentions like a choreographed dance, only it is not choreographed, rather it’s spontaneous.
  • Then Dr. Tronick asks the mother to still herself emotionally and not respond to the baby. The baby immediately feels this shift and starts to interact in a way to get the mother’s attention. First the baby smiles to get the mother to smile, points at what they were pointing at, puts both hands up in the mothers face to get her to respond and even makes screeching sounds all the while the mother has a “still face”. The baby becomes distressed very quickly and has negative emotions around this lack of interaction.
  • The mother is then instructed to respond again and the baby and mother “repair” the moment. The baby is okay because of this repairing action by the mother.
  • Dr. Tronick’s study shows that the baby is very responsive to the mother and that this interaction is important to the development of the baby’s well being. He notes that there are “good” interactions, “bad” interactions that can be repaired and then the “ugly” interactions where there is no repair and the baby is left distressed. The last scenario can be quite damaging to the baby’s development.

This study is important research in showing how primary caretakers interacting with their babies will impact the development of the baby emotionally and physically. This research also reveals how the baby learns to attach, self soothe, and interact as an adult later in life. A template is being laid down in the nervous system for how this person will respond in adult relationships later in life.

Isaacs also presented research by Mary Main and Erik Hesse on Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). The AAI is a set of 20 questions therapists use to learn how a person’s childhood impacted the person’s ability to attach and bond to others especially under stress.

Mary Main likes to look at what she calls Attachment States of Mind. She noted that most people have a secure attachment but that there is a continuum of what secure feels like for people. One can attach from a place of avoidant, dismissive or anxious states of mind.

Through these Attachment States there can be a continuum of responses when attachment isn’t quite secure. This lack of security can lead to muscles developing in either a hypo-response or hyper-response throughout different developmental phases. Those phases can impact the development of the person structurally – physically and emotionally – how one carries oneself in the world. What they believe about themselves is reflected in how they carry their body and how they carry their body is reflected in what they believe about themselves.

Anne Isaacs also presented work from Bodynamic Somatic Developmental Psychology, which is a body-centered psychotherapy based on 20 years of empirical research by a group of twelve practitioners. They studied the correlation between the body and mind, and created very specific body interventions to help heal developmental wounding. They tracked what muscles are involved in different developmental stages and how activating different muscles can influence a person emotionally, physically and cognitively.

Ms. Isaacs presented only a small sample of this work that is highly complex and takes years to study to fully understand it. But what she did share was powerful. She had the group explore 3 different developmental movements that can activate a person or contain a person’s emotions while discussing distressing events. The movements are structured to different developmental phases and would be used with the client in specific ways. Each movement brought up different responses in people to explore in their own developmental wounding.

The importance of looking at the body in relationship to attachment wounding is essential. As noted in an earlier blog, these developmental wounds or traumas can lead to distress in adulthood. These are seen and felt in nonverbal ways, which can be quite confusing to people until a deeper understanding of them comes into awareness.

Combining Attachment body-centered work with EMDR can be quite powerful. EMDR can be a useful therapy to help heal these traumas and help a person attach in healthier ways.

To study more on “EMDR Therapy Tools for Attachment Trauma” take a look at the EMDR Advanced Workshops being offered to find a date and time it is being offered.