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How Childhood Experiences Shape Adult Attachment

Excerpted chapter from the Clinical EFT Handbook; vol 1 Biomedical and Physics Principles, Psychological Trauma, Fundamental Techniques of Clinical EFT, Energy Psychology Press, 2013

Author: Alina Frank

Abstract: We are born with an innate need for loving and nurturing social interaction. If our early experiences with caregivers provide this, they impart to us a sense of a kind and safe world. When our childhood relationships are less than adequate, we build up emotional and physical defenses, which weaken the body over time. Science continues to find evidence to validate this in research, as in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) has been shown to lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, as well as slow brain waves to the lower frequencies associated with relaxation. EFT neutralizes the pain and disharmony from negative childhood experiences by breaking neural connections between the originating wounds and current life situations.

Keywords: EFT for negative childhood traumas, EFT and ACE study, childhood experiences and EFT, Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, ACE Study

When we are born, we are hardwired to connect with our caregivers. Unlike other mammals, we mature slowly, our brains learn through social interaction at a slow rate, and we are dependent on our parents for survival for a longer time than any other mammal. When our early connections with our caregivers are loving and nurturing, the result is health, vitality, and a strong sense of self. When our early attachments lack those qualities, the result can be poor health, a fragile ego, or a belief that we aren’t enough or the world is unsafe.

Science continues to validate the vital link between our environment and our health. Research exploring the role of adverse childhood experiences in the outcome of adult lives now shows that neglect or abuse in childhood correlates with brain changes, including a measurable reduction in the size of the hippocampus (Frodl et al., 2010; Teicher, 2002). The main role of the hippocampus is to store and form memory; it also has the ability to assist one in envisioning the future based on the past.  A smaller hippocampus leaves the individual less able to deal with stress. Chronically elevated levels of stress hormones can literally kill off cells in the brain that help regulate stress. This then leads to the nervous and hormonal systems being on perpetual high alert, which then creates a positive feedback loop. This is akin to the thermostat in your home turning up the heat in your home when its getting hotter and the air conditioner kicking on as it gets colder. In other words, positive feedback loops overwhelm the system. Brain scans of children from abusive households actually look similar to those of combat soldiers. These children are vigilant at detecting threats in their environments in the same way a soldier is trained to look for enemy combatants (McCrory et al., 2011, p.947).

Certain ways in which the most important parts of our bodies, including the brain, exhibits childhood wounds demonstrate the truth of the statement “Our biography affect our biology.” Research has shown that traumatic stress, including stress caused by sexual abuse, can cause important changes in how the brain functions and develops (Siegel, 1999; Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). Other studies offer evidence that severe child sexual abuse may have a significantly damaging effect on the brain’s development. In addition to the research on the hippocampus already noted, Anderson et al. (2002) recorded abnormal functioning of the cerebral vermis (the brain area assisting in proprioception, or awareness of ones body and space) in adults who have been sexually abused in childhood. Teicher et al. (1993, 2004) found that child sexual abuse was associated with a lesser corpus collosum volume (the area of the brain that aids in processing social cues).

One of the most comprehensive and ongoing scientific explorations regarding the correlation between childhood trauma and adult health and lifestyle choices is the ACE study. Between 1995 and 1997, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study was conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente (Felitti et al. 1998). The researchers sent 12,494 questionnaires to Kaiser HMO patients, and 9,508 responded, with 8,056 being included in the study. They were queried about their childhood and about their adult health and lifestyle habits. The average respondent’s age was 56 years old. The study concluded that the higher the incidence of these adverse experiences, the more they were likely to die younger than their non-ACE peers. An ACE score of 6 or higher led to death an average of 20 years sooner.

What constitutes an adverse childhood experience? The categories used for this study were physical, psychological, or sexual abuse; violence against the mother in the family; or residing with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or even imprisoned.

The high ACE scorers were more likely to be obese, to abuse substances, and to smoke early in life, all of which are high risk factors for health conditions. Researchers also found “A significant dose-response relationship between the number of childhood exposures and the following disease conditions: ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic bronchitis or emphysema, history of hepatitis or jaundice, skeletal fractures, and poor self-rated health” (Felitti et al.,1998, p.250).

Other adverse childhood experience studies have validated their findings, including one performed in Minnesota that confirmed that, as the number of adverse events increases, the risk for health problems increases in a strongly correlated way in areas such as alcohol and substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and smoking (Minnesota Department of Health, 2011). A strong correlation has also been demonstrated between being abused or mistreated as a child and suffering from migraines as an adult, as well as several other medical and psychiatric disorders (Jones, 2011).

Given the evidence of the connections between adverse childhood experiences and later health one might conclude that only in cases of severe dysfunction, such as characterized in the studies, would one be at risk. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The physical and psychological damage caused by “Big T” traumas such as serious accidents, rape, and psychological, physical, or sexual abuse is widely recognized, but “small t” traumas can have the same effect of creating dysfunctional behaviors that impact negatively on physical and emotional health. “Small t” traumas may be memorable incidences involving a critical father, an over-protective mother, or a denigrating teacher. These experiences form the basis for belief systems and world views that create major limitations and dysfunctional patterns of behavior.

The most important time of our lives, in terms of building and formulating our beliefs, is the first six years of life. The materials for these beliefs come primarily from our families of origin. The human brain emits four primary different types of brain waves, each with a distinct frequency; beta (13-30 cycles per second), alpha (8-12 cycles per second), theta (4-8 cycles per second), and delta (0.05 -4 cycles per second). Theta brain waves occur when we are in a deep state of meditation, or dreaming. Delta brain waves occur when we are sleeping without dreams. Before the age of six, we spend the vast majority of our waking lives in theta and delta states, which are primarily hypnogogic or akin to a hypnotized state of mind.

Brain wave states are significant when we understand that they can be altered. Our ability as adults to change to our brain wave state to a slower frequency through inducing relaxation (e.g., through meditation) can have healing effects. Our brain wave states are affected both by traumatic experiences and by healing interventions such as EFT. Researchers have studied the brain wave states of traumatized subjects before and after energy psychology (EP) interventions, in the electroencephalogram (EEG) for objective measurement. Lambrou, Pratt and Chevalier (2003) tested a group of subjects with claustrophobia and found a reduction in the brain-wave frequencies associated with fear post-EP. Swingle (2010) demonstrated a post-EP in the  low frequency brain waves associated with relaxation.

While in the deeply receptive theta and delta states, we receive impressions and form perceptions about the world, especially as small children. We take in impressions of our surroundings in order to learn rapidly about how the world operates without the  benefit or addition of critical thinking skills. We learn that we must hold our mother’s hand when we cross a busy street or the result is disaster. If we weren’t in this receptive state, we might question our mother’s authority, want to see if we could walk across alone, or star analyzing different strategies where to cross. Being in this state saves us time and energy from having to relearn these strategies. This association (busy street requires attention) works to our benefit, but other lessons may not be so useful.

Using the previous example, let’s imagine that you went to dance and sing across the street while holding your mother’s hand. Your mother notices that one of her more pretentious and judgmental acquaintances is standing on the same corner. In an effort not to look like a mother with an out-of-control child, your mother grabs you roughly by the hand and says, “Why can’t you behave like a good girl?” This message goes directly into programming your subconscious mind with all sorts of limiting beliefs, such as you can’t be physically expressive, you have to be “normal,” you are a bad person, you don’t deserve your mother’s (therefore anyone else’s) love, or you need to be always concerned with how others see you. That event is a perfect example of a “small t” trauma. Our experiences in these critical years are the primary determinants of our sense of who we are, our view of the world as safe or a scary place, and our belief that we deserve or don’t deserve to have our dreams fulfilled.

With EFT, we can easily diminish the profound impact that seemingly insignificant events from this time period had on us. It’s important to note in the use of EFT that no one can determine what was traumatic for someone else. For example, if your person were “helicopter” parents, that is they consistently hovered and came to your rescue at the slightest impediment you faced, then the “small t” traumas of such incidence may have left you with an impression that you aren’t capable of surviving on your own. Perhaps you decided that you can’t make it without a romantic partner, or you are frozen by the thought of taking even the smallest risk in business. If, however, your parents were on the opposite end of the spectrum (not abusive, just not very present), then your “small t” traumas may have created in you the feeling that no one will ever meet your needs in a romantic relationship, or maybe you engage in extremely risky social behaviors in an attempt to finally be noticed.

Case Histories of Overcoming Early Childhood Trauma

The following are four brief case histories of using EFT to overcome childhood trauma.

Casey grew up in a family in which substance abuse was ever-present until she was 9 years old, at which point her parents got divorced and her mother joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Casey’s core issue was abandonment. As an adult, on a subconscious level, she felt unable to attract a partner and believed that, even if she could find the right guy, he would leave her. Through EFT, these beliefs became conscious, which led to her tapping on specific instances in which one or both of her parents had been too drunk to make dinner for her. Within a few months of her EFT sessions to clear these early traumas, Casey met Larry, and they remain happily married.

Tricia’s father was demanding and controlling, always insisting that all the children in the family needed to be perfect. Tricia learned early in her life that if she wanted his approval and love she needed to dismiss her own needs in favor of his. This led to a lifelong pattern of always placing others’ needs before her own- the stereotypical people-pleaser. She became a nurse and worked intensely in the care of her patients. This pattern continued when she started her own family; she took less and less care of her own needs. In her thirties, Tricia contracted fibromyalgia. With EFT, Tricia discovered that she was very uncomfortable setting limits with others and some part of her enjoyed having the chronic pain in order to point to a physical reason why she couldn’t help others (secondary gain). It was as if her body created boundaries for her because she couldn’t do this herself by simply saying no. Using EFT to clear her fears around setting clear boundaries, and finding out what she wanted to be doing with her time, Tricia overcame all the symptoms of fibromyalgia. She is now a raw food caterer and is completely pain free.

Jerry’s mother was emotionally violent and unpredictable. At an early age, he knew that his situation was volatile. In his words, “The shit could hit the fan at any moment.” Jerry learned to be hyper-aware of how his mother was feeling, of her moods, and he tried as much as possible to avoid her. Jerry ended up marrying a woman who was exactly like his mother. In his forties, Jerry developed allergies that left him debilitated most of the time. Jerry’s EFT coach zeroed in on key events in his childhood involving his mother. Most were brief ‘small t” memories such as a look she gave him or the tone of voice she used with him. After a few months of EFT sessions, Jerry’s allergic reactions were mostly gone and he has filed for divorce.

Jason’s father controlled his mother in every imaginable way. He didn’t’ allow her to drive a car, to work outside the home, or even to visit her own family during holidays. On rare occasions that she asked for something, his father’s reaction left the household shaking. Jason came to EFT at the insistence of his boss. Jason had been having angry outbursts and had left several people in his firm in tears during staff meetings. Jason had learned from his family that you had to be strong and that no one should ever be able to have the appearance of exerting power over you or you’d risk being squashed. After four sessions, Jason solved his anger management issue and was no longer at risk for losing his job.

In these four case histories, we see examples of stressful childhood family experiences that may have altered the adult nervous system response to stressful situations. In addition to the research cited earlier regarding brain waves, studies have explored the role of EFT in being able to reduce cortisol, one of the most important of the bod’s stress hormones. For example, Church, Yount and Brooks (2012) examined cortisol levels in 83 subjects randomly assigned to a single session of EFT, talk therapy or rest. Cortisol is the “master hormone’ regulating many aspects of the body’s stress response mechanisms, especially those associated with the autonomic nervous system. Their investigation found that anxiety and depression symptoms declined more than three times as much in the EFT group as in the talk therapy group. Cortisol in the rest and therapy groups declined at approximately the same rate, while cortisol in the EFT group declined significantly more. It may be that the effect that EFT has on reducing stress hormones facilitates the individuals ability to down regulate his or her fight-or-flight response in stressful situation and perhaps take the opportunity to self-reflect and make healthily behavioral choices.

As these brief case histories demonstrate, disruptions to healthy connections and inner peace are imprinted in our minds at the deepest levels. These injuries have an innate desire to be understood, processed, and integrated into the whole of who we are through the lessons we learn from them. This occurs through a phenomenon called recapitulation, re-enactment, or repetition compulsion. We re-create similar experiences in our lives on a subconscious level, in an attempt to integrate these old experiences. Re-enactment (as illustrated in the cases) can look like choosing the wrong romantic partners (with behaviors similar to those of their parents) or attracting employers or jobs that are less than ideal. When we use EFT to remove the charge from these childhood trauma, we leave behind the need for re-enactments. An other way of stating this is that we are no longer in vibrational alignment with those events and therefore will no need to attract similar events to limit who we can ultimately become-fully actualized human beings.

Consistent application of EFT may neutralize negatively impacting events from our past and offers us the opportunity of seeing that many of these experiences have shaped us in positive ways as well. We can begin to see that we learned valuable lessons from those experiences. When we are able to disc over this, we may well find that “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”


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Church, D., Yount, G., & Brooks, A., (2012) The Effect of Emotional Freedom Techniques on stress biochemistry: A randomized control trial. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 200 (10), 891-896.

Felitti, V.J., Anda, R.F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D.F., Spitz, A. N., Edwards, V., Koss, M.P., & Marks, J.S., (1998) Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading caused of death in adults, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245-258.

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Minnesota Department of Health. (2011). Executive summary Adverse Childhood Experiences in Minnesota: Findings & recommendations based on the 2011 Minnesota Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Retrieved from https://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/chs/brfss/ACE_ExecutiveSummary.pdf

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