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The Relationship Between Attachment and Addictions

May 15, 2013

TLC Guest Blogger: Lori Gill, M.A.

We know we are born primed for connection, with the most significant relationship in a child’s life being his or her primary caregiver – but what happens when this does not occur? These relationships help us learn to self-regulate, develop a sense of self-worth and act as an emotional template for future relationships, shaping our view of people and the world around us. When these relationships are conflict-ridden, the outcome may lead to challenges with forming and maintaining future relationships (Perry, 2001).

Mate (2008) suggests that individuals with addictions are constantly seeking something outside of themselves to alleviate their insatiable need for relief and fulfillment. It is as a result of this longing and emptiness that individuals pursue substances or other self-harming/self-soothing behaviors, with the hope that it will provide some relief. Andrews (2010) further supports that it is through this fight to regulate and ultimately survive that the litany of behaviors begin, behaviors that will temporarily give relief from fear and the pain they suffer.

Mate (2008) indicates that addictions — regardless of the form they take — always result from pain, conscious or unconscious, with the addiction serving as an “emotional anesthetic.” It is human nature to want to be seen, to feel worth, and to have the connection. When this does not occur, we feel the void and seek desperately to fill this in any way we can. However, without intervention and support, individuals will remain in a state of despair, constantly seeking something to fill the void, potentially shifting from one addiction to another in attempt to find some relief.

parentsI have used TLC’s “Adults and Parents in Trauma” program to very effectively target underlying issues at a deeper sensory level. I remain humbled and amazed by my clients’ experiences and have observed that many, in spite of some unfathomable and violent traumas, identify their most significant trauma as something relating back to early childhood experiences of disrupted attachment. This supports the notion that at our core, we all just truly want and need to be loved. It is not the addiction that is the problem; this is just the bandage used in attempt to cope with the underlying problem. As clinician’s we need to help our clients find alternate options to heal their hurts.

How to help:

Compassionate Care: Trauma-informed treatment includes shifting to a place of compassion and awareness rather than blaming or questioning, asking instead “What happened to you?” This helps to understand what function the addiction serves and determine the underlying issue.

Education and Awareness: Becoming trauma informed and being able to share this information with clients in a compassionate manner is essential. Helping clients understand the automatic and subconscious processes of the brain and the automatic brain response patterns that develop. The brain seeks to find meaning from our experiences when we have previously used substances as a form of coping. The brain acts for us: “I know this feeling. When I feel this way I do this. This helps me feel better.” When we provide education and awareness to our clients, it leads to permission for compassion for self and awareness.

Empowerment and Nurture: We need to help individuals learn to nurture themselves and become empowered through new resources and increased awareness. Although addiction behavior is not ideal and not helpful in the long run, it is what is holding them at this time, perhaps even keeping them alive. It is an attempt to cope rather than just succumb to the pain. Our role as clinicians is to help expand their toolkit with items and strategies that nurture them. Yoga, sensory distraction, mindfulness and affirmation statements are all excellent tools.

Connection and Opportunity: The significance of attachment is that we are born primed for attachment.  If we don’t experience this, learn how to self-regulate, learn self-worth and learn how to form healthy relationships, this can impact us throughout life. Insight into the impact our early life experiences have had and providing opportunities to develop self-worth and inner awareness can shift this blueprint. Helping clients to experience authenticity, while tuning into their needs and wants, can be incredibly empowering. Working through what a healthy relationship looks like, with one’s self and others, and providing opportunities for connection can help reconstruct this blueprint.

Lori will be presenting on addictions, The Secret World of Substance Abuse, at this year’s TLC summer assembly.  This is a fantastic learning and networking opportunity.  To register or learn more, visit


Andrews, E. (2010). Being trauma informed [power point slides]. St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada: Art Therapy Services.

Perry, B. (2001). Bonding and attachment in maltreated children: Consequences of emotional neglect in childhood. Retrieved (July 15, 2011) from:

Mate, G. (2008). In the realm of the hungry ghost: Close encounters with addiction.  Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Random House.

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