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Attachment cry: When fight or flight have failed.

In attachment cry, you turn to the nearest human being and say, “See me! Hear me! Save me!”

Many of the clients I work with as a psychologist have experienced developmental trauma, meaning neglect and abuse as children.

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about Fight, flight, freeze or submit: Adult responses to childhood trauma, which is the first in this series of posts.

In this post, which is the second in the series, I describe attachment cry  in detail.  Attachment cry occurs when both fight or flight have failed but the danger has not yet passed.

Attachment cry happens when fight or flight have failed.

Attachment cry is a hardwired response to danger that occurs when your primitive brain believes escape may still be possible after fight or flight have failed.

I used the words, primitive brain, and not thinking brain, because fight, flight, freeze, submit, and attachment cry are outside of conscious control.

Your emotional brain runs the show.

When you are in either hyperarousal or hypoarousal, it is your primitive brain that’s in charge. You do not consciously choose to become hi-jacked and leave optimal arousal. Rather, your primitive brain makes the decision for you, in large part based on your previous life’s experiences.

If you experienced developmental trauma and you haven’t had help from a psychologist to rewire your primitive brain’s automatic responses, you may find that you leave optimal arousal way too often.

When your primitive brain perceives danger, your body moves you into hyperarousal. You experience an adrenaline rush. You have the urge to move your large muscles (your arms and your legs) to literally either fight or run. You feel activated – like there’s suddenly a lot of energy in your system. And you lose the ability to think.

When you’re in hyperarousal and you feel activated, your primitive brain must evaluate whether it’s possible to fight, or whether the better solution would be to run. But what if neither option is possible? What if they both fail?

In my earlier entry about fight, flight, freeze, or submit, I wrote that you move into either attachment cry or freeze when neither fight nor flight are possible. Attachment cry happens before you enter the freeze response.

You use attachment cry to elicit rescue.

What is attachment cry? It’s when we turn to the nearest human being and say, “See me! Hear me! Save me!”

You don’t necessarily do this literally. Frequently, people do it non-verbally. But we all do it.

Animals do it, too. It’s what a 7-week-old kitten does when he finds himself alone in a barn, and far from his mother. The kitten mews loudly and repeatedly. You hear the fear in his cries. He is calling, “Mommy, I’m in trouble! Help me! Come get me!”

Similarly, it’s what a 4-year-old does when she finds herself separated from her father in the grocery store. She screams, “Daaadddy.”

What she is saying is, “Daddy, I’m in trouble! Help me! Come get me!”

You will use attachment cry over your lifespan.

Identifying details have been changed in the following story to protect privacy.

A client of mine, named Ben, sent me an email. In it, he wrote, “Hi Patti, I need to tell you that I lapsed two nights ago and went on a bender. I feel better now and will get back on the wagon. But I needed to disclose. Call me when you can.”

What was Ben really saying in his email? Using the language  developed in this post, Ben was saying, “Patti, I’m in trouble. See me. Hear me. Save me.”

In this example, Ben found himself in hyperarousal after he had lapsed. He knew he was in danger and that he had to protect himself. The danger in this case was his lapse from sobriety.

Ben couldn’t physically fight the danger because there wasn’t a predator to fight. He couldn’t run from the danger because there wasn’t a predator to run from. What Ben could do, however, was enter attachment cry. He could reach out to the nearest human being and say, “See me! Hear me! Save me!”

Using email, that nearest human being was me. Knowing Ben was in attachment cry, the response I sent him was, “Hi Ben, I’m glad you told me you had a lapse. Please keep me posted. Let me know what you need.”

Said another way, what I communicated to Ben in my response was, “I see you. I hear you. I will save you.”

Others can meet your need for safety when you reach out.

My husband was able to meet my need for safety after I narrowly missed being in a serious car accident. I was in hyperarousal. I’d been in real danger. A fight response wouldn’t help me because there was no one to fight. A flight response wouldn’t help because there was no where to run. And so, I entered attachment cry.

My husband knew how to help me. Most people know how to help in these instances, based on experience. I asked my husband to hold me, which he did. His concern, his proximity, the warmth of his body, and the pressure of his arms on my body all worked together to deliver the message, “I see you. I hear you. And I will save you.”

And my husband’s concern for me, combined with his physical presence, soothed me, and allowed me to move out of hyperarousal and into optimal arousal.

You can learn to ask others for help.

Something wonderful happens when we know about attachment cry, because we can learn how to give ourselves what we need so that we can move out of hyperarousal and into optimal arousal. Once we know what attachment cry is, we can consciously turn to another human being and ask them to help us. To see us. Hear us. And save us.

Attachment cry can fail.

Attachment cry has a serious flaw, which is that it does not always work. This happens when the nearest human being is the source of danger, rather than a potential rescuer. This may have been your parent, if you experienced developmental trauma. This can happen when you are an adult, as well.

When the nearest human being is the source of danger, attachment cry doesn’t help because that person will not see you, hear you, or save you. For example, if a woman is being assaulted, turning to the nearest person, who is her assailant, and saying, “See me, hear me, save me,” will not lead to rescue.

In cases such as this, in which fight or flight have failed, and attachment cry has also failed, the next step in your primitive’s brain response to danger is to drop you into freeze. From freeze, the primitive brain moves you into hypoarousal and submit.

To learn more about hypoarousal and submit, you may want to read Feigned death: An alternative to fight, flight or freeze responses.

— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

If you would like support, contact me to schedule an appointment or a free 15 minute consultation.



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