Containing-Trauma

Containing Trauma in Children and Adults with Attachment Disorder

Trauma and Attachment Disorders result in a large amount of powerful and confusing feelings that create emotional and behavioral instability. Being able to contain these overwhelming feelings is one of the most powerful tools a parent or professional can have when working with children who have trauma and attachment issues.

Containment is the act of taming the scary monster that the child feels inside. Early childhood attachment trauma produces a confusing set of beliefs and feelings. This results in an uncontrollable rage, internally freezing, and inhibiting expression of that rage.

These conflicting emotions of rage, the simultaneous inhibition, and the denial of rage makes one’s feelings even more confusing, powerful, and overwhelming. 

The Role of Containment

This is where containment comes in. Containment is the idea of taking something overwhelming and making it manageable. It’s the act of keeping people, places, and things safe from potential danger. 

For example, think of the purpose of a container. At home and in the office, it’s a means to organize things in a way that provides order and calm. It requires one to understand the function of an item in order to know where it belongs.

This is the same idea for the containment of emotions. A person (child or adult) with trauma and attachment issues don’t usually understand the powerful and yet, confusing emotions that can suddenly overcome them. These overpowering and conflicting emotions can cause them to do things in that moment that make absolutely no sense later on. Containment is a way to organize, simplify, and bring calmness out of chaotic emotions.

Another purpose of containers at home and in the office is to contain something dangerous that could cause harm to others. Cleaners, medications, and tools are examples of items that need to be kept out of reach, and are usually placed in special containers,  to avoid spills and deter curious children.

In a similar fashion, emotional containment allows the expression of powerful feelings in a way that is safe and prevents that person from hurting themselves or other people. 

Stored Emotional and Physical Charge in the Nervous System

The therapeutic importance of emotional containment values the ability to allow an adult or child with trauma and Attachment Disorder to be able to express their powerful feelings, while preventing them from hurting themselves or others.

When a child experiences attachment trauma, the abandonment and shame they experience is so toxic, their brain and body experiences it as a threat to their survival and will go into the freeze response.

As we know from the biological response to threat, this freeze response occurs moments after an adrenalin rush from the sympathetic fight or flight response. 

For a child, it might threaten their survival more if they were to allow the sympathetic nervous system to fight or run away, because the brain engages the freeze response, which inhibits the nerves and muscles from acting out on that adrenaline rush. As a result, the adrenaline charge gets stuck in the nervous system because the muscles were inhibited from acting out, which causes the freeze response to paralyze the body.

The adrenaline charge is directly associated with the anger of feeling that their life is being threatened. And this compounded over time, becomes rage.    

Anger in Attachment Trauma

Deep-seated anger is a big part of the long-term consequences of attachment trauma. Their anger is closely connected to the shame of feeling unworthy of love, care, and belonging. In such events in the future that feeling of anything remotely similar to abandonment, unlovable, or unwanted will also trigger a rage.

Because this rage is not just about the current situation, but about all the unresolved attachment trauma from childhood that has yet to be processed and moved through the nervous system, this rage feels immensely powerful to them. They feel like they could hurt others.

Some children with Attachment Disorder thrive on this feeling of power and act out in their desire; some even cultivate their ability to hurt others. These are the ones that fall into the category of Disorganized Insecure Attachment Style and many consider these to have “Reactive Attachment Disorder.”

Others tend to get scared by this powerful rage, because of what they might do and the potential consequences of what would happen if they were to surrender to it. 

The Avoidant Insecure Attachment Style tend to isolate themselves from others, because they don’t want to hurt anyone else. The people with Avoidant Insecure Attachment Style will also turn their anger inward and hate themselves for letting themselves be hurt as children. 

The Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style will not want to act out on the inner rage, because it might scare and drive others away, which would leave them alone and abandoned again. However, anger is at the core of attachment trauma and is closely connected with shame.

Yet, while they often get triggered together, anger is usually repressed and inhibited in both children and adults with the Avoidant and Anxious Insecure Attachments. This anger, yet simultaneous inhibition of that anger, results in an inner tension that builds into agitation, restlessness, or anxiety.

When to Use Containment

 Agitation and anxiety is a sign that containment would be a helpful tool to use to help get back to a place of calm and secure connection.

Other signs that there is anger that needs containment for expression can include: decreased eye contact, irritability, isolation, and dissociation.  

For children with more severe Attachment Disorder, passive aggressive defense mechanisms also indicate when containment would be a helpful tool. Passive aggressive defense mechanisms include behaviors like stealing, food hoarding, overeating, etc.

As you get to know your child better, you will begin to notice the signs earlier and earlier.  Whereas before, you may not have known that something was building until it had exploded into an argument or a rage. Now you will be able to catch the signs earlier.  

Using containment as a therapeutic tool can be used at any point when you see the building of external or internal agitation.

Methods of Emotional Containment  

In children and adults with a secure attachment, emotional containment can often be achieved through conversation with authentic sharing and acceptance from the other person.

Those with an insecure attachment will discover that it’s harder to find containment in just a conversation, therefore, one of the following three methods can be used to provide a greater felt experience of containment:

  1. Touch
  2. Confining Space
  3. Physical Holding

Touch as Emotional Containment

Using touch as emotional containment is something that is done subconsciously and frequently in relationships. When working with a person with an insecure attachment and internal tension, intentionally using touch can be powerful.

I only begin to see if emotional containment can be achieved if that person is able to sit down calmly in a chair.

The most frequent method I use when using touch for emotional containment is skin-to-skin contact as much as possible, on the other person’s arm. I sit next to them so that I am also facing them, as I have them extend their arm closest to me. I have them roll their shirt sleeve up, and then I place one or both of my arms alongside their arm, wrapping one hand around their elbow and my other hand just below their elbow. They are free to hold onto my arm if they would like, but I don’t direct them too.

We sit in this position of skin-to-skin contact on both sides of their arm with points of increased pressure where I have my hands wrapped around their arm. Usually we just sit in silence, because I use this time to attune myself to them emotionally, so that I can be really observant about what their body does in response to the physical touch.  

I also sit in silence because I want to hold that space for them to be able to share if they would like. I may say a few words here and there, depending on what I have been able to sense emotionally. Things like “This is so hard,” can be a helpful message to create a safe space for them to open up and share.

They may share sadness, anger, or both and that is okay. But you just have to keep holding their arm until you see that their body has calmed down, that they start to take deep breaths, and begin to naturally make eye contact.  

Confining Space

Sometimes the skin-to-skin contact on the arm won’t be enough, and what they actually need is a small space, in order for them to feel contained and safe.  

Creating a small space just reduces their world to a more manageable size for them while they experience strong, powerful feelings. Your continued presence and sometimes touch is still needed for the confined space to be an empathic one that encourages connection.

Confined spaces can be created by sitting close to them while they are up against something else, like the back of a sofa or in a chair. Some children I have worked with have created their own confined space, like crawling under the bed, a table, or hiding in the closet.  

One six year old girl I worked with would go into her confined space under the table, which she called, “My Anger Workshop.” When her emotions would get too strong, she go to a confined space, because that is where she felt safer.

I would notice it, and come closer. First, I would do something in the kitchen. Then I would actually sit at the table. And finally, I would move down under the table to be with her, and we would eventually “work” side by side under the table on an “anger craft.”  

I had worked with her long enough to know that if I went directly under the table, it would make her retreat more into her shutdown and isolation mode. Yet having a physical presence nearby that is perceived as strong and calming is necessary for regulation, so I would stay close by, normalize the experience by doing ordinary things. I would NOT react myself, but work closer until I was both physically and emotionally sharing a space with her. When she was smiling, laughing, and making great eye contact, I knew that she was regulated, she had expressed the inner anger, and she went back to being a cheerful, cooperative, and curious girl.

Physical Holding
Sometimes touch or a confining space is not enough to emotionally regulate someone, especially if it has been building up for awhile. Physical holding as an emotional containment can be in the form of holding or restraining.  

Having been a mom of a child with severe Attachment Disorder, I know that restraining is sometimes needed in the moment to keep myself and the child safe from their violent rages.

Early on in their healing, restraining may be the only way in which a child with Attachment Disorder feels safe enough to express their anger, which they will do by fighting, kicking, biting, etc. Once their body relaxes, this is the time to switch from restraining to holding for the emotional connection.  

As the child heals, they will not need restraining for emotional containment, but will be able to get their needs met through holding.  

In fact, holding can be used with all children, not just those with trauma and attachment issues. Holding Time is a great book that shows parents how to use holding as a way of disciplining that promotes the emotional connection rather than spanking or time-outs for discipline.  

The most powerful containment and emotional connection is holding the child in your arms as if they were a baby. There is something very vulnerable and instinctual with this position, and if you’re creating a safe emotional space with your eyes and body, this is a powerful healing tool.  

Holding can also look like hugging them. It is important for them to be in a more vulnerable position for the emotional containment to be effective, so having their arms under yours will create that felt experience for them of being held by someone bigger and stronger, which is a safe feeling.

Response to Emotional Containment

Expression of their anger is necessary in order to release the adrenaline charge in their nervous system. Be prepared that just as much as there will be sadness and tears, as they tap into the infantile grief of attachment trauma, it’s likely that there will also be anger.  

Normalizing this and labeling it, makes it less scary so that they are more willing to share and experience. Begin by explaining, “You may start to feel some anger, and that’s ok.”  

As the anger comes up, allow them to discharge it through activating their muscles in the fight or flight response while you continue your emotional presence and containment.  

During and after emotional containment is such an important time to stay present and attuned. Do NOT abandon them emotionally during this process as this is their greatest fear and will re-traumatize them!

 Healing from trauma and attachment issues requires containment throughout the journey.

Containment is a gift to the healing adult or child just as much as it is a tool to healing. 

I look forward to hearing your experiences as we learn and grow together!

Dr. Aimie

P.S. Consider scheduling a consultation where I can work one-on-one with you.

8 Comments

  • Rita Barron

    Reply Reply September 3, 2017

    Great I formation

  • Ani

    Reply Reply September 3, 2017

    Hi Aimie,
    May I ask you what is the way to stop the freeze response and to release the anger?.. Mainly what is the way to release yourself from the freeze response.. I feel extremely tired and I can`t move, I do it only by my will, is that because of the freeze response? I also don`t have an image of myself and a body image now, maybe that`s the reason?.. or maybe the fact that I am at pieces.. I mean I don`t feel my body mine, and sometimes I feel like, for example, my left hand is something separate and my right hand is separate.. as if they are not a part of one hole thing.. you know what I mean?..

    • Dr. Aimie Apigian

      Reply Reply September 3, 2017

      Thank you for sharing, Ani. It is not easy to share when you aren’t even sure if others will understand! But thank you for sharing, it means a lot to me and hopefully others will benefit as well.

      While an easy question to ask – “How do I release myself from the freeze response?” – it can be a complicated answer because there are a lot of factors.

      First of all – what you are experiencing with not feeling your body and feeling like parts are somehow separate is a very common finding. It reflects the dissociation from our body that is a natural part of the freeze response.
      Especially if we are adults trying to heal from the effects of trauma and the freeze response, it is hard but good and rewarding work. One of the first steps to freeing ourselves from our default freeze response is to come to understand it and cherish it for what it represents: a primal form of survival. It helped you survive things you would not have otherwise survived – becoming aware and grateful for our freeze response starts us on the journey to then be able to release it.

      You mention anger. Usually, the freeze response has become our default response to anger. The freeze response is the child’s way of stopping them from acting out in anger towards an adult who could hurt them worse if they expressed the anger. The freeze response is a very effective way of dissociating from those feelings, becoming numb to not only the anger but the tension of having the anger and not expressing it. The cost, of course, is dissociation from other feelings and even parts of our body.
      Coming back into our bodies can be a difficult process, and one that is often best done with someone trained in working with the nervous system. One of the best recommendations I have for someone trained in the nervous system is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. You can find a listing of those here: http://sepractitioner.membergrove.com

      I know this answer barely touches the surface of your question, but I hope this is helpful.
      Encouraging you on your journey~
      Dr. Aimie

  • Lisa

    Reply Reply September 4, 2017

    That was a great article until you recommending Holding Time. That book promotes violence against children and couches it in “I’m doing this for your own good.” It’s garbage and I’ve seen the ideas do further harm to already traumatized people. It’s the same as letting babies CIO- overwhelming their system until they give up and go limp.

    • Dr. Aimie Apigian

      Reply Reply September 4, 2017

      Hi Lisa, thank you for sharing your concerns!

      I agree with you that putting an infant or children into a freeze response (overwhelming their system and they go limp) is Never a healthy thing to do. If that is what happens when an adult uses holding time or any form of containment for big emotions, that is Not ok and the parent/adult should stop immediately. I’m glad you brought this up for clarification!

      The purpose of containment is for emotional regulation, a calming down of the child’s emotions and nervous system. Containment repairs the relationship and leads to an emotional connection that feels safe and secure. If done properly, the child becomes more engaged and connected with the adult, not withdrawn. Containment is a tool to facilitate a feeling of safety and intimacy, not power and control.

      It has been my personal experience that containment, including holding time, creates this emotional connection and intimacy. For me, it has been a powerful tool to get them out of scared, panic or freeze, never into that state. You have me thinking of when I choose to use it and I how I know it will help them (draw them into the relationship) and not hurt them (drive them further away). I use it very consciously, meaning I am emotionally tuned into them, and realizing that they are too far into a panic or freeze to bring them back into a place of calm connection through other tools. Lack of eye contact, extremely fidgety, or so much shame their whole body is collapsed are examples that I can think of right now that indicate to me containment is the tool to use.

      However, it is also how a parent does the containment. If a parent contains but then checks out mentally or emotionally themselves because of their own triggers, this will facilitate the freeze response that you talk about. Because of their own past, some parents are not able to provide physical containment yet without going to a place of power and control. They will need to find other tools to provide emotional regulation for their child that do not trigger them, but they can stay the calm, accepting, safe and strong adult.

      Thank you for bringing up the concerns about containing and freeze! Very important!

    • Ani

      Reply Reply September 4, 2017

      Thank you very much for your answer, Aimie! I didn`t know these things so it`s definitly useful! This is even maybe the first time someone understands so well what I`m talking about.. Unfortunately here in Bulfgaria psychology and psychotherapy are light years away from the things you talk about.. For exemple they tell me I just lack self-confidence although I clearly explain them that I`m not in my body etc. They even don`t think I have trauma when it`s so clear I have such a sever one!! I guess they haven`t heard about C-PTSD 😀 And when I ask them – so what we`re gonna do, they tell me – well, we`ll continue talking..! So I very much doubt it there is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner here :/ I will try to search though..
      So, the freeze response is a response to the child`s anger toward the adult to protect the child from the results from this anger that can be far more dangerous than if the child doesn`t express it? .. The dissociation is a part of the freeze response?..
      I think in my case there is also lack of identity.. I haven`t got an image for myself and body image.. I must always ‘see myself’ in someone else.. Plus I ‘lose my mind’ – I litteraly can`t think, can`t talk when things go bad.. my brain isn`t working.. maybe it`s this thing called brain fog.. or it`s because i go back in the trauma that is when i was 3 years old – I have been in a hospital alone..? The ‘other trauma’ are the traumatic relationships with my mother that has always been very agressive..
      Is there a book where I can read something about these things?..
      And about the anger.. can I do at least SOMETHING to express it, to release a little bit.. for exemple screaming, alone with myself, ot maybe at someone..? or it`s ‘blocked’ from the freeze response and I must furst work with it?..

      • Dr. Aimie Apigian

        Reply Reply September 13, 2017

        Ani~
        there are a lot of good resources that I think you would really identify with and could bring a lot more awareness and understanding to what is happening in your body. Perhaps the best place to start might be with reading “Waking the Tiger” by Peter Levine? In this book he really describes the two different trauma response states: sympathetic (fight or flight) and freeze.

        The freeze response can be a response to a variety of circumstances. The one quality that is needed for the freeze response to be triggered is for a situation to be “overwhelming.” This is why a freeze response can occur in response to emotional and psychological factors, just as much as physical abuse. Our threat to survival can occur on multiple domains.

        Often times people may not even have any memory of an early childhood trauma, but their body and nervous system show that trauma is stored. It sounds like despite what other professionals may be seeing, your brain, body and nervous system show this classic response to stored trauma, including the lack of identity, dissociation, and “crazy-thinking brain”.

        Feeling the anger is actually a good sign of healing! While uncomfortable, it can be allowed to surface now, express and release it. This will help with restoring health.

        Generally, expressing the anger through physical movement, such as one would do if they were activated sympathetically to fight, will allow the release of the anger from the system. I have found talking and writing more ineffective forms to actually release the anger since it is supposed to move us to physical action for self-protection. The best way to release the anger can be to really try to be aware of what movements your body feels like doing.

        Punching, kicking, pushing, biting, and screaming are all ways in which people have allowed expression and release of the anger. In these moments, it is really important to not inhibit yourself or your movements, because just like a child suppressing anger in order to best survive, it will trigger your system to default back into a form of freeze.

        I hope this is helpful. This is a journey, not an overnight fix, so be patient with yourself and try to maintain an attitude of curiosity for your body’s responses and stay out of a place of judgment.

  • Ani

    Reply Reply November 5, 2017

    Thank you, dr. Aimie!

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field