My husband and I were recently on a trip without my sons. Traveling without children feels strange at first because I feel like I forget something important, like my phone or a limb. Thankfully this feeling soon subsides, and I can enjoy the refreshing breather away from the busyness of life.
When I have some protected time with my hubby, I find our time together to be restorative and restful. Time away with my husband is a rare commodity primarily because of the stage of life we are in with two young boys. Most of the time our trips last a day or two, and this is just enough time to come up for air before returning to the hustle and bustle of life. For this particular trip, however, we were traveling for an entire week!
Life-giving interactions filled the first few days of our trip despite an overloaded schedule. By the evening of the third day, I noticed I was feeling heavy. Much to my surprise, I was feeling emotional as well. I felt like crying, but I did not understand why. I decided to take a few minutes to pray and interact with Immanuel about this heaviness and my sensitivity. All of a sudden it hit me: I was missing my sons. I was feeling attachment pain, or what we call at THRIVE Training, Level One pain. (1)
At this point, I shared my sadness with Jesus. I prayed He would meet both of my sons with His peace and His joy. I prayed for their interactions with both grandmothers, as well as their friends at school. I started to feel lighter and more peaceful. I took some time to notice what Jesus was doing as I felt these big feelings. After much peace, I then found Chris and shared my thoughts and feelings with him, as well as the people around me. While I felt sad and I still missed my boys, I no longer felt as heavy and bogged down. I was back to my relational and peaceful self.
When it comes to attachment pain, identifying these feelings is a big part of the battle. Because the attachment center of the brain is subcortical, it is below our level of conscious awareness, which means we are not directly aware of what’s happening in this part of the brain. Even though we are not consciously aware of what’s going on at this brain circuit, there are signs and symptoms we can learn to recognize. Sadness is one of the more apparent signs attachment pain is present, along with cravings and general restlessness. We may feel irritable and grumpy, even depressed. I know when I am feeling attachment pain because my emotions are erratic and my cravings run high. I recognize attachment pain in my husband when he consistently wants a chocolate milkshake. With some training and guidance, we can learn to understand our brain is feeling attachment pain then we can take the proper steps to quiet ourselves, seek appropriate comfort, regulate our feelings, learn to stay our relational selves and create a coherent narrative to describe our experience.
I find that Jesus is good at meeting me in my attachment pain and bringing His peace – even in the midst of my sadness and grief. I find great encouragement in Isaiah 57, where the passage says God dwells with, “…the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (2) I see this as a great picture of God’s comfort when we are in Level One pain, which is the worst pain the brain knows. He connects with us when we feel lost and disconnected.
All too often attachment pain goes unrecognized, and this can lead to addictions, compulsions, distortions and many other problems. Because the attachment circuit is part of the brain circuitry that creates our reality, we see the world through this lens. When it feels like our problems are “just who we are,” we justify our malfunctions and brokenness. When attachments are joyful and peaceful, we may find ourselves hopeful, confident, cheerful and secure. When our attachments are painful, we feel hopeless, inadequate, insecure and brittle. Can you think of a time you were aware that you were missing someone?
I encourage you to take some time to feel appreciation and gratitude, then interact with Immanuel about how He meets you when you feel empty and alone. May you find comfort in the words of Isaiah the Prophet, “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (3) You can learn more about the skills to navigate attachment pain with my husband’s book, Transforming Fellowship: 19 Brain Skills That Build Joyful Community. 1. There are five levels of pain the brain knows (Skill 18) and Level One pain is the pain of loss. 2. Isaiah 57:15b, NIV 3. Isaiah 58:11, NIV