What Is Attachment Therapy?

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What Is Attachment Therapy?

Attachment therapy is based on attachment theory and explores how one’s childhood experiences might impact their ability to form meaningful bonds as adults. Though attachment therapy is often recommended for those who had negative childhood experiences, anyone struggling to foster deep connections with others might benefit therapy.

“In attachment-based therapy, therapists work with people who need help rebuilding trust in relationships, especially because people with dysregulation of attachment tend to fall into difficult interpersonal relationships,” notes Dr. Caroline Fenkel, DSW, co-founder and chief clinical officer of Charlie Health.

She continues, “It really boils down to doing inner-child work. And by that, I mean the therapist helps you get in touch with your inner child in a literal sense—the person you were when you were first wounded or traumatized or abandoned. From there, the therapist helps you to ‘re-parent’ that version of yourself with love and patience, and compassion.”

It's almost like switching to a new narrator in your mind. One who is more loving of yourself and believes in you—versus one that fosters fearful thoughts of others abandoning, hurting, or disappointing you.

Attachment theory can also help you realize that you’re capable of taking care of yourself without relying solely on others to bring you a sense of purpose. 

What Is Attachment Theory?

To better understand what attachment therapy is and how it works, it’s important to know about attachment theory.

This theory was founded by psychologist John Bowlby, who completed extensive research on how children—from birth and through early development—attach with their parents and caregivers.

Based on his research, he came up with four different attachment types: Secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. Bowlby rightly hypothesized that attachment style informs people’s relationships later in life, well past childhood and into adulthood.

“Anxious attachment style is probably the ‘type’ that gets talked about the most, though–and why a lot of people seek out attachment therapy—because of the way it tends to manifest in adulthood,” notes Dr. Fenkel. “People with an anxious attachment style obviously live with some level of anxiety, but they specifically deal with fears of being alone and what is often viewed as codependency.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having this attachment style, and many people have it. However, it can be incredibly beneficial to know this about yourself and to have a therapist help you in specific ways to navigate these strong emotions and patterns. 

Techniques 

Often, the mantra “taking back power” is used in attachment therapy, and you’ll often explore events from your childhood and determine how these experiences might impact your life today. 

At the beginning, expect to deeply reflect on your relationship with your primary caregiver (that often means your parents, grandparents, or foster/adoptive parents). Be prepared to dissect how those early dynamics continue manifesting today.

Caroline Fenkel, DSW

By exploring childhood attachment wounds, people can begin to engage narratively with their trauma. When you’re able to tell the story of what happened in a way that you feel like you’re in control and safe in doing so, it’s immensely empowering against symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and/or depression.

— Caroline Fenkel, DSW

She adds that once you’ve done a solid amount of work processing your childhood caregiver relationships, you’ll likely redirect focus on your adulthood interpersonal relationships with romantic partners, friends, and even co-workers. This might sound strange, but it all connects in helping you deal with life in the healthiest way possible for you. 

In addition to focusing on inner-child work that’s one-on-one with your therapist, attachment-based therapy can also be done in a couple, group, or family therapy setting. Whatever approach you take, you’ll likely do exercises that help you better connect with yourself and bond with others.

What Attachment Therapy Can Help With

Attachment therapy can help if you:

Benefits of Attachment Therapy

Attachment therapy can help you address some of the subconscious, lingering issues from your childhood that still impact your ability to form meaningful relationships as an adult.

“The primary benefits of attachment therapy, and the techniques it uses, is to help the individual gain a sense of security. [By doing so], it promotes emotional balance and joyful socializing while increasing self-esteem and self-confidence,” says Tyra S. Gardner, a psychotherapist and CEO of The Wellness Center of Mindfulness.

Effectiveness

As with any form of therapy, the effectiveness of attachment therapy varies according to different factors. Those might include your determination and vulnerability in getting deeply introspective and making progress, the relationship with your therapist, and the frequency/consistency of your sessions.

“It's important to discuss treatment options with a professional to understand which approach would be most beneficial for you,” advises Dr. Fenkel. “Attachment-based therapy is very relational, meaning it depends a lot on how the person seeking therapy interacts with other people, which can be harder to clinically analyze if the therapy is individual."

She adds that group and family therapy with attachment-based methods is incredibly effective, especially for kids and young adults. It might be even more so for kids and young adults living with anxiety, depression, or experiencing suicidal thoughts.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Things to Consider

Again, like many forms of therapy, attachment-based therapy isn’t a concrete, step-by-step prescription. Instead, it’s fluid and organic. To see actual progress, it’s important to adopt a “go with the flow” attitude, come with a sense of openness, and be aware things might get painfully difficult before they get better. 

Caroline Fenkel, DSW

Because when you’re trying to work through hyper-arousal—as in overly reactive to normal adversity—or hypo-arousal—almost like a sense of detachment from the comings and goings of life—you have to be able to assess and work through each scenario that comes up that triggers that reaction. It’s a deep process, but it’s so worth it.

— Caroline Fenkel, DSW

How to Get Started

That first step is always the hardest, but engaging in therapy is an investment that will have a lasting impact on your life.

If you feel that attachment-based therapy is right for you, consider first calling your insurance provider to see if your sessions might be covered or partially covered. If you’re a student, you can also consult your college’s health division to see if they provide gratis services for current students. 

You can also jump-start your research by speaking with your current primary care provider and/or therapist about services that offer this form of therapy. As an alternative, reach out to local therapy establishments and have them point you in the right direction.

“Prior to starting, it's helpful to write down some of the ways you think your childhood or early-life environment shows up in your everyday life, be it through feeling incredibly anxious whenever you’re alone or tending to be a clingy partner or friend,” says Dr. Fenkel. “But observe without judgment. That’s the true basis of this work: not judging yourself, but rather learning how to love all the chapters of your life that make you you.”

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