An Overview of Attachment Anxiety

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Attachment anxiety refers to anxiety experienced about your relationships with loved ones including parents, friends, and partners. It generally stems from childhood experiences. While the exact causes of anxious attachment are not fully understood, they may stem from negative experiences or inconsistent parenting.

Secure attachments with caregivers are essential for healthy development. Poor attachment during the early years of life can have lasting effects. These attachments can also persist into adulthood and negatively affect adult relationships.

Anxious attachment, also known as ambivalent attachment or anxious-preoccupied attachment, is one of the four main attachment styles that have been identified by psychologists.

This article discusses the symptoms, causes, and treatments of attachment anxiety. It also covers how you can cope if you or your partner have an anxious attachment style.

Background

Attachment theory, which is the underlying premise behind our understanding of attachment anxiety, was first proposed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s.

Bowlby argued that your sense of security as a child is critical to your attachment style as an adult. In addition, how you are treated throughout your life shapes what you expect as far as how others will support you.

In other words, how you answer the question, "If I am upset, can I count on my partner?" is a reflection of what you've learned and how you've been treated throughout your life. It's a model both of how you expect others to treat you as well as how you perceive yourself.

Attachment Styles

In general, it is accepted that there are four adult attachment styles:

  • Anxious: People with this attachment style have problems trusting others. They worry that people will abandon them so they often seem clingy or needy.
  • Avoidant: This attachment style is marked by problems with intimacy and low emotional investment in relationships. 
  • Disorganized: This style is marked by a mix of behaviors that can range from avoidance to clinginess. People with this style often long for close relationships but also fear trusting others and getting hurt.
  • Secure: Secure attachment is characterized by feelings of trust and safety in relationships. As children, kids feel safe and supported by their caregivers. As adults, people with this attachment style are able to form lasting relationships.

The first three styles are all insecure and reflect poor functioning in relationships.

Symptoms

How do people with attachment anxiety behave? How these symptoms present themselves can be similar for children and adults, but there are also some important differences. Below is an overview of some of the most common symptoms.

Signs of Anxious Attachment in Children

Children with an anxious attachment style tend to experience:

  • Anxiety
  • Fear of strangers
  • Extreme distress when separated from parents
  • Crying that caregivers cannot easily comfort
  • Clinging to parents and caregivers
  • Not exploring as much as other children
  • Difficulty controlling negative emotions
  • Poor relationships with other children

Signs of Anxious Attachment in Adults

Adults with an anxious attachment style tend to have:

  • Behaviors that smother or drive their partner away
  • Constant need for contact and support from others
  • Fear of being underappreciated
  • Feeling unsure if a partner can be counted on
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection and abandonment
  • Need to increase feelings of security
  • Negative self-view or self-worth
  • Positive view of one's partner
  • Vigilance to signs that a partner is pulling away
  • Worry over losing a partner
  • Yearning to feel closer and more secure with others

Causes

We know that anxiety tends to have a genetic component. Children as young as 4 months of age can show signs of behavioral disinhibition (such as a fast-beating heart and fear of strangers), which is linked to later separation anxiety.

However, attachment anxiety may also result from experiences during childhood or later in life. These can include overprotective parents, abuse, or neglect. Attachment serves to protect a child in terms of survival.

A child will experience anxiety and seek comfort from a parent. If that child does not succeed in receiving comfort from attachment figures, a feeling of security is not developed, which means that fear, anxiety, and distress remain elevated.

This could repeat itself through life in terms of friendships and relationships in which others do not provide expected comfort.

Diagnosis

Attachment anxiety is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Rather, it is generally considered to be a symptom to be addressed on its own. In general, it's thought that about 50% of the population has a secure attachment style, while the rest fall into the various insecure styles.

However, separation anxiety disorder is an anxiety disorder related to attachment that generally is diagnosed around age 6 or 7.

Children with separation anxiety disorder may refuse to go to school, fear being separated from parents, have nightmares, and experience physical complaints like headache or stomachache.

While most children outgrow this issue, it can persist into adolescence and adulthood.

Another related diagnosis is reactive attachment disorder. Children with this disorder don't seek comfort when distressed or do not respond to it. They may also lack responsiveness to others, have limited positive affect, and unexplained irritability. This disorder results from neglect during childhood.

Treatment

Attachment anxiety has been shown to respond to various types of therapy including:

  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): This type of therapy helps people learn how to improve their interpersonal relationships and social interactions. Working with a therapist, people identify problem areas in their relationships and then work to address deficits and develop new skills.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy focuses on helping people change the negative automatic thought patterns that contribute to feelings of anxiety in relationships. By learning new ways of thinking, people are able to approach relationships from a more secure and less anxious perspective.
  • Medications: If a person has both attachment anxiety as well as a diagnosed anxiety disorder, medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may also be prescribed.

One study found that IPT effectively reduced attachment anxiety and that the reductions in anxiety were also linked to significant decreases in symptoms of depression.

Coping

Most people with attachment anxiety use ineffective coping strategies that escalate their anxiety, such as checking in on a partner frequently. This approach keeps the attachment anxiety level elevated and commonly leads to relationships that are strained.

It's important to identify helpful and healthy coping strategies because having a secure attachment style will make you a more compassionate person overall.

Strategies If You Have Attachment Anxiety

If you recognize signs of anxious attachment in your own behavior, there are things that you can do to manage these tendencies. Some strategies that may improve your well-being and relationships include:

  • Choosing a partner who has a secure attachment style and recognizing if your partner's attachment style is contributing to your attachment anxiety
  • Deciding to move forward and make new choices that support the life you want now, instead of focusing on how you've been treated in the past
  • Finding and working with a therapist who has experience helping people move from insecure to secure attachment.
  • Keeping a journal about your thoughts, feelings, and reactions
  • Learning about attachment anxiety so you have a better understanding of the issue
  • Recognizing the people who are likely to trigger your attachment anxiety
  • Trying family therapy if there are family issues preventing you from moving forward and overcoming attachment anxiety

Strategies If Your Partner Is Anxiously Attached

If you are in a relationship with someone who has attachment anxiety, there are things that you can do to help. Some strategies that can help your partner feel more secure include:

  • Not minimizing their feelings and providing reassurance
  • Helping your partner become more aware of how their attachment anxiety affects your relationship
  • Being consistent and sticking to your promises and commitments
  • Showing that you care and offering assurance on a regular basis
  • Encouraging your partner to seek help
  • Attending couples therapy together

A Word From Verywell

Attachment anxiety can be stressful. It often makes it difficult to enjoy relationships because you are so busy worrying about things that could go wrong. Working on developing a more secure attachment style can help. Talk to your partner about what they can do to support you and consider seeking assistance from a therapist or counselor.

In general, that's a win-win situation that will lead to a more fulfilling life. You'll no longer be focused on being abandoned or not supported. Instead, you'll be able to focus on the positive aspects of your relationship.

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