An Overview of Attachment Anxiety

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Attachment anxiety refers to anxiety experienced about your relationships with significant others including parents, friends, and partners. Attachment anxiety generally stems from childhood experiences but can persist into adulthood and negatively affect all relationships if not properly addressed.

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, I can 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.

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

  • secure
  • anxious preoccupied (I need people but they don't want to be with me)
  • dismissive avoidant (I depend on nobody)
  • fearful avoidant (I'm afraid to get hurt)

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

Symptoms

How do people with attachment anxiety behave? Below is an overview of some of the most common symptoms:

  • hypersensitivity to rejection and abandonment
  • constant need for contact and support from others
  • fear of being underappreciated
  • yearning to feel closer and more secure with others
  • negative self-view or self-worth
  • positive view of one's partner
  • worry over losing a partner
  • vigilance to signs that a partner is pulling away
  • behaviors that smother or drive their partner away
  • a need to increase feelings of security
  • feeling unsure if a partner can be counted on

Causes

We know that anxiety tends to have a genetic component. Children as young as four months of age can show signs of behavioral disinhibition (fast-beating heart, 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 six or seven.

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 do not 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) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). In fact, attachment anxiety responds better to treatment than does avoidance styles of attachment.

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.

Coping

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

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

Strategies

  • Learn about attachment anxiety so you have a better understanding of the issue.
  • Keep a journal about your thoughts, feelings, and reactions.
  • Find a therapist with experience helping people move from insecure to secure attachment. Discuss your childhood and life experiences that might have contributed to your current attachment anxiety.
  • Decide 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.
  • Choose a partner who has a secure attachment style, and recognize if your partner's attachment style is contributing to your attachment anxiety.
  • Recognize people who are likely to trigger your attachment anxiety.
  • Attend couples therapy if your partner does not have a secure attachment style.
  • Attend family therapy if there are family issues preventing you from moving forward and overcoming attachment anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

Attachment anxiety is not enjoyable to have. It can ruin relationships and make you feel insecure and lacking confidence in the future. In contrast, if you can move to a secure attachment style, you will be more likely to choose partners who help support you. 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; rather, you'll be able to focus on the positive aspects of your relationship.

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