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Coping Skills and Exercises for Healing Relationship Injuries

Updated: Jun 18

Learn more about attachment styles and develop new strategies to update your relationship patterns.


how to improve relationships through attachment

Ever feel like you're stuck in the same patterns relationship after relationship? Jealousy, emotional guardedness, fear of intimacy, dependence on your partner — all of these common patterns and more exist for a reason. Often, it has to do with what your past has taught you about relationships and how to secure a sense of safety within them.


This guide will give you a brief explainer on why we develop certain relationship patterns, and then provide some tips on how to practice new strategies for building a strong relationship not only with another person, but also with yourself.


What Is Attachment?

Attachment describes the different ways that we adapt in relationships to maintain physical and emotional safety. As infants, we rely on caregivers—called attachment figures—to survive, and develop strategies and signals (e.g., crying) to make sure we are taken care of.


An attachment figure emotionally attunes, figures out what’s wrong, and responds to the need, allowing the infant’s nervous system to calm. The child grows up with a sense of confidence in exploring the external world because the parent is nearby ready to help if needed. Similarly, the child learns to explore the internal world, knowing that a caregiver is present to help co-regulate if anything becomes overwhelming or confusing.


This describes a secure attachment. In secure attachments, we feel safe and capable of navigating life’s challenges.


Attachment Injuries & Insecure Attachment

For many, the world feels not-so safe. Often this is a result of stress in attachment relationships. Neglect, abuse, abandonment, or emotional unavailability—harmful experiences like these can affect our emotional development, self-image, and trust. We call these attachment injuries.


We learn how to survive these injuries by shutting down emotionally, expressing a lot of emotion, or fluctuating between these two. This describes insecure attachments.


If you identify with these insecure attachment patterns, that's okay — there's nothing broken about you. It just means you had to build a specialized set of skills to protect yourself. And you aren't doomed either, because it's possible to learn secure attachments.

how to build secure attachment

Exercises for Building Secure Attachment

Insecure attachment strategies may have been the best possible tools we had when relationships or caregivers felt unsafe or unavailable. For example, shame may have once been a protective adaptation that kept us small and hidden in a threatening environment. And jealousy might have functioned as an attempt to grasp a sense of self-esteem and security in a meaningful relationship.


But as we start to build relationships with others, these strategies can start to feel like unhelpful barriers to true connection. It’s important to practice self-compassion for these old strategies while also taking responsibility to update them.


Developing secure attachments takes time, patience, self-reflection, and practice; the following tools, exercises, and prompts may help.


Raise Awareness

It's hard to address relationship patterns in ourselves if we don't know what they look like. These first set of tools are meant to help you gather insight into how these patterns look for you.


Take an Attachment Quiz

Take this free attachment quiz to learn more about your personal attachment style.


Note: Attachment is complicated and doesn’t fit neatly into labeled boxes, but identifying with characteristics of a particular style can help organize our experience so it’s easier to explore.


Attachment Journaling Prompts

Below are some writing prompts to help you explore how your relationship and attachment strategies look in your life. It’s normal to feel some discomfort while reflecting on these questions; try out some of the self-regulation techniques listed below before and/or after writing if you’d like to practice coping with any distress that may arise.

List of Journal Prompts

  • Use the attachment quiz or the graphic above to identify characteristics about your attachment style. What feels accurate and why? What doesn’t? Where do any of these traits show up in your life? In what ways were they once helpful? In what ways do they now feel unhelpful?

  • Think about someone you feel close to or friendly with. What are three words you’d use to describe this relationship? What thoughts, emotions, words, or physical sensations you’ve noticed when you’re with this person?

  • Can you recall a time where you wanted an apology but didn’t receive one? What did it feel like, and how did it affect your relationship? Can you recall a time where someone apologized to you? What did it feel like, and how did it affect your relationship?

  • Recall a memory where you felt disconnected, awkward, or anxious with someone. What did you need in that interaction that you felt you weren’t getting?

  • Think back to childhood. What beliefs were you taught about having and expressing emotions? Where did you learn these? How did you/do you feel about the rules and norms around emotion? Did you feel supported in your style of expressing emotion?

  • Explore any patterns or themes in your relationships that may reflect attachment injuries. Are there recurring dynamics or behaviors that trigger feelings of abandonment, rejection, or fear? How do these patterns impact your current relationships?

  • Reflect on the impact of your attachment injuries on your self-worth and self-perception. How have they shaped your beliefs about your lovability, worthiness, or ability to trust others?

  • Imagine an ideal attachment figure. How would it feel to be in a relationship with someone who consistently provides care, support, and validation? What are your hopes and desires for future healthy and secure attachments?

Experiential Exercises


Your Internal Radar | When you’re with another person, tune into your inner experience. Begin to label the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations you notice (e.g., “That interaction was awkward.” “Anxiety.” “Stomach ache.”). Awareness of our internal experience is key to understanding how we feel in relationships.


Practicing Nervous System Regulation

Attachment injuries not only affect our thoughts and beliefs, but also our bodies. The nervous system is responsible for detecting signals of safety and danger. Secure attachments (aka healthy relationships) are one way to emotionally regulate this system in a process called co-regulation; but we can also practice this solo with self-regulation.


Practicing Co-Regulation

Identify one person you feel some degree of safety and trust with. This may be your best friend, a partner, your therapist, a sibling, parent, etc. The next time you’re with them, practice the skills below. (Also, if you can't think of anyone you can trust right now, that's okay — skip down to the self-regulation strategies below for right now).

  • Safety Signals | Notice your thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations when you’re with this person. Consider writing them down later, and explore which of these words you associate with safety, trust, and connection.

  • Building Trust | Bring to mind a thought, feeling, idea, or story you wish you could share with someone. Rate how hard it would be to share that thing on a scale of 1 to 10. Find something that’s a 1-3, and practice sharing it with this person. Take note of their reaction (what they said, facial expression, tone of voice, etc.). You can gradually share more at your own pace, and resist rushing the process.

  • Communicating Emotions | Use this feelings wheel to expand your emotional vocabulary, and practice using these words when you’re with this person.

  • Mirroring | Next time this person is sharing a thought, feeling, idea, or story with you, take a moment to actively listen. Imagine “walking in their shoes.” Pay attention to their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Practice reflecting back what they told you, using these sentence stems to help you:

“It sounds like you’re feeling…”

“I can imagine that would be…”

“I wonder if you felt…”

  • Day of Play | Whatever age you are, play is important. We play when we feel safe, and engaging with play can help us connect to safety signals. Pick a day to bond with this person over a mutual hobby or new activity.

  • Repair | We all experience some tension with the people we care about, and knowing how to repair these ruptures helps build secure, trusting bonds. Next time you feel any degree of conflict with this person, practice communicating your feelings and empathically reflect back their responses. Collaborate on finding solutions. You may find it helpful to use self-regulation strategies (below) to help you communicate from a regulated nervous system rather than a stressed one.


Practicing Self-Regulation

We don’t always have a trusted person to help us co-regulate the nervous system. Below are self-regulation strategies for when you’re alone or among people you aren’t super comfortable with.


  • Breathing | Breathing is one of the fastest natural ways of “hacking” the nervous system—changing our breathing can influence the nervous system (which in turn may influence emotions and thoughts). Try some of the following techniques:

Box breathing: Inhale for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Exhale for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Repeat.

Ujjiyi breathing: A technique that adds resistance to breath through constriction. It sounds like a soft snore or ocean waves. Imagine using your breath to fog a mirror, but with your mouth closed and breathing through your nose. (How-to available here.)


Prolonged exhale: Practice making your exhales longer than your inhales.

  • Sound | Our nervous system is affected by sound, and picks up on cues of safety and danger through auditory information. Try some of the following exercises to experiment with sound and safety:

A calming voice: Listen to a recording with a narrator whose voice you find comforting. Sleep podcasts, instructional YouTube videos, Joe Pera Talks With You…whatever you notice puts you at ease.

Humming: Humming or chanting by yourself or with another person can help regulate the nervous system and utilizes breath, vocal chords, and sound.

Playlists: Make a playlist of music that you associate with comfort. Maybe you find the sounds soothing, or the songs remind you of memories that are grounding and connective.

  • Movement | How we move may also affect the nervous system. Experiment with the following movement-based activities and note how they make you feel: Changing posture: Notice how your body feels when you sit slouched. How does your breath feel? How do different areas of the body feel, such as shoulders, back, hips, etc.? Now sit upright with a straight spine. Did your breathing or sensations change? Gentle rocking: We instinctually rock babies when we hold them, and the movement of rocking can still be regulating even as we age. Try swaying back in forth or rocking in a chair. Dance: Whether or not you “know” how to dance, we all have some instinctual creative movement within us. Turn on different types of music and let your body do its thing. Notice how different tempos, beats, sounds, and movements affect you.

  • Visualization | We can use imagined sensory experiences to generate coping tools. The more sensory detail (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste) you can fill out in your imagination, the better. Below are some guided visualization techniques: Ideal Parent Figure: Intended to help your nervous system become familiar with security, trust, and confidence, increasing access to these feelings in relationships. Safe Place: Intended to practice using calming sensory information to regulate the nervous system. Inner Child: Intended to help you generate a secure attachment within yourself by connecting with a younger self who may have sustained attachment injuries.

 

This article is written for the sole purpose of providing information on mental health topics. It is not a substitute for professional mental health counseling, diagnosis, or treatment, and should not replace or alter any treatment or care you are receiving without direct consultation from your mental health or medical providers. Any questions regarding your treatment should be brought directly to your professional and medical practitioners.

 

References


Dana, D. (2018). The polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation. Norton.

Curran, L. (2013). 101 trauma-informed interventions: Activities, exercises and assignments to move the client and therapy forward. Premier Publishing & Media.

Fisher, J. (2023, April 15). Undoing the damage: Healing from the shame of trauma. [Webinar]. Academy of Therapy Wisdom.

Ogden, P., & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. W.W. Norton.

The Attachment Project. (2023 March, 30). Jealousy in relationships: Do attachment styles matter? https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/jealousy-attachment-styles/

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

Wallin, D. J. (2015). Attachment in psychotherapy. Guildford Press.

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