Do You Have Attachment Anxiety? Attachment Theory and Ridding Yourself Of Attachment Anxiety

By: Sarah Fader

Updated September 13, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P

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Understanding Your Attachment System 

Even as infants, humans seek out people they can trust and bond with. When we are separated from or not cared for by people we are attached to, a couple of different things can happen.

For example, when some young children are left at daycare or school for the first time, they walk in ready to play and make friends, while others cry and cling to their parents' legs. That is their systems is at work! It's important to note that the children develop styles that will normally follow them throughout their entire lives.

According to research done by world-renowned psychologist Mary Ainsworth, the basis the way we feel about ourselves is formed during our childhood. Then, those same beliefs become the filter through which we see others in adulthood.

Does This Relate to Childhood?

When we have negative childhood experiences, we may develop a negative view of the world and develop an ambivalent style when we don't feel protected from extreme behaviors like child abuse. Our needs being met (or not met) when we are young shapes the way we will interact with others once we have grown.

This is why so many therapists focus on childhood events when trying to fix current emotional or relationship problems. For example, if you feel nervous or scared when you're physically far away from your romantic partner, it could be a sign that you are dealing with these issues.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is the study of the development of patterns that form in early childhood. According to this theory, there are four basic patterns. Adult styles fall under the categories of insecure or secure styles. Let's look at the four styles highlighted by theorists in more detail.

1. Secure Attachment Style - Secure attachment comes with knowing the ways to nourish a healthy relationship, offer emotional support, and respect the boundaries of others.

Those with a secure attachment style have confidence in the fact that they are worthy and deserving of others' love. It's rare that such confident partners become fearful of being abandoned or worry about their partner pulling away. Those with these styles don't use manipulation and threats in their intimate relationships.

If people experiencing a secure attachment style do have questions or concerns about their relationship, they will ask for clarity before jumping to conclusions.

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2. The Dismissive/Avoidant Attachment Style - Every person needs close connections, but you wouldn't know that from watching a person with a dismissive/avoidant attachment pattern. Usually, this pattern of reaction occurs within people whose parents were unavailable when they were young. They are "lone wolves" and often find themselves avoiding close connections, even with those they care for.

The Dismissive/Avoidant Style is an insecure attachment style that results from feelings of abandonment or having to develop independence at an early age. Adults who couldn't rely on their parents when they were younger now mirror the behavior of their parents, being unable to provide attention and reassurance in their relationships.

Because they had to be independent and spent so much time alone (physically or emotionally) as a child, they avoid intimacy. Dismissive-avoidant types can shut down emotionally. Wondering if your partner is dismissive-avoidant? Think about the ways they react to an argument. If they are quick to adopt an "I don't care attitude" and shut down completely, this type of pattern is probably at play.

3. The Fearful/Avoidant Attachment Style - Like the dismissive-avoidant attachment style, people experiencing a fearful-avoidant style also tend to avoid relationships or close intimacy, despite the fact that they may have a genuine desire for intimacy. Fearful-avoidant people worry so much that others will hurt them; they try to avoid love at all costs.

But because they have a sincere internal desire to feel secure, fearful-avoidants find themselves seeking out attachments over and over again. Like a pendulum, people experiencing a fearful-avoidant style swing back and forth. At times, desperately wanting and needing a relationship and at other times, clawing to get away. Life as a fearful-avoidant can feel like an endless merry-go-round.

Fearful-avoidant people have an internal dialogue that continually tells them that they "can't handle it" or "don't feel safe" in times of conflict.

4. The Anxious Attachment Style - Type four is the least common type of pattern, affecting only twenty percent of individuals. Although it might not be as common, this pattern brings with it a great deal of turmoil.

Also known as "preoccupied," those experiencing anxious patterns tend to live life in distress. Always searching for reassurance, their relationships are generally filled with insecurity and fear. When they are unsure of the way their partner feels, they become clingy or angry. Often, they lose the love they so desperately seek because of negative behavior.

But where does this fear come from? If you have this type of pattern, you probably had a mother or father who was inconsistent in the ways they responded to you when you were upset or needed reassurance. Warm and caring sometimes, this same parent could also be unexpectedly cold and aloof.

Children with such parents never know what they're going to get and become subconsciously obsessed with watching for cues of rejection. By the time they reach adulthood, their brain has wired itself to enter "fight or flight mode" when even the smallest hint of rejection is perceived.

Anxious Attachment

Consider this scenario: You text your significant other to see if they want to meet you for lunch. An hour later, you still haven't received a response. You check Facebook messenger and confirm that they were online recently. Anger and stress start to rise within you.

A million thoughts start to race through your head. Are they at lunch with someone else? Do they want to break up? By the time your partner calls you back to tell you about their busy day and make plans for dinner, you've already convinced yourself that the relationship is over.

Though the situation above might sound strange to someone with a secure pattern, those with attachment issues and insecure styles of attaching have likely gone through something similar. Do you find yourself acting out for attention or withdrawing when things don't go your way? Or maybe you're so critical that you've convinced yourself that you'll never have the love you want.

Do you use mind games, angry outbursts, or threats of a break-up to calm your fears and regain control? If any of the above sounds familiar, you may be experiencing an insecure style developed in childhood that causes you to be overly dependent on your partner.

Defining Attachment Anxiety

Nervousness, fearfulness, worry, and apprehension: Are all common characteristics of a person lacking a secure attachment style resulting from developing an anxious pattern in early childhood, or another critical developmental period of their lives.

Instead of thinking of the positive parts of the relationship, a person will focus only on the negative. Even when in a relationship that is healthy and secure, a person with a disorganized style or deep-rooted anxiety will fear the worst.

Take for example Maria, a 30-year-old wife, and mother of three. Though currently in the most rewarding relationship of her life, Maria is constantly afraid her husband will abandon her. One day after work, Maria pulled into her drive and noticed that her husband's car wasn't at home.

Instantly, her heart sank. At the same time, a million thoughts began to race through her mind. Had he left her? Surely, he had. After all, who would want to be with someone like herself? She couldn't cook that well, and the house wasn't always clean. She'd always felt like he was the better looking one and after having kids, she thought this to be fact.

As she sobbed with tears running down her face, Maria didn't even notice her husband's light taps on her driver's side window. Holding the milk he had brought from the store, he stood at Maria's car window bewildered as to why she was crying in the driveway.

Signs of Attachment Anxiety

Maria's struggle is proof that although her thinking isn't logical, these feelings can be overwhelming. If you can relate to Maria's struggle or one of the following signs, you may be experiencing adult attachment anxiety.

  • Constantly seeking reassurance from loved ones
  • A tendency to be bossy, controlling, and argumentative
  • Also can be exciting, charming, and creative
  • "Stir the pot" or self-sabotage their relationships
  • Can be overly sensitive and take things personally
  • May have emotional outbursts or become angry when afraid
  • Uses sex to meet needs for approval or security
  • Sees rejection in places it doesn't exist

Adults with attachment anxiety will find that they easily become overly dependent on their partner. Fear of intimacy and commitment issues are common issues found when adults with this style enter relationships.

When you're dealing with a negative style, it's extremely important that you learn to set boundaries and respect the boundaries of others to have more successful intimate relationships. Therapy is a proven method for healing from attachment anxiety. Adults who continually have trouble maintaining intimate relationships often seek therapy or couples counseling to learn to effectively communicate.

A woman looks solemnly out the window.

Attachment Anxiety Can Have A Serious Impact On Your Wellbeing. Read More.
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Getting Rid of Attachment Anxiety

There's no sugar-coating it. Coping with attachment anxiety can be tough, and there's no magic pill or quick fix that can make it disappear. But thankfully there are ways that one can learn to move past their fears and insecurity, to enjoy secure, fulfilling relationships. Here are a few common-sense tips that can help you get rid of your attachment anxiety once and for all.

1. Know Your Pattern of Attachment Anxiety

Though it sounds cliché, knowledge is key here. The more you learn about your style, the better you will be at handling the anxiety that comes along with it.

For example, research on patterns reveals that those who experience specific styles negatively view neutral facial expressions. Meaning, if someone's face is normally resting with no smile or frown, your brain may interpret it as a threat/rejection or losing interest in what you have to say.

This is why so many people experiencing anxious styles get upset with partners who are cool or non-emotional during an argument. So, the next time your partner tries to console you with a straight-face, remind yourself that this doesn't equal rejection and that they aren't losing interest.

Learning more about attachment anxiety will also teach you to avoid serious discussions when you are emotionally activated. If this sounds like you, you might be prone to overreact during conversations that bring on raw emotions. Knowing that this is your pattern, you should practice giving yourself "time-outs" when you feel you are going too far. Remind yourself that it's okay to distance yourself from the situation.

The more research you do on your style of attachment, the less difficult your healing journey will be.

2. Avoid Pitfalls in Attachment Anxiety

It's important to remember that having attachment anxiety doesn't make you a "bad" person. But there are some mind-traps associated with your style that can make relationships difficult. If you're on the road to getting rid of attachment-based anxiety, you need to avoid some of the associated pitfalls or mind-traps. Some of the most common associated with the preoccupied style include:

Mind-Reading:

Assuming you know what someone thinks or will say beforehand. For example, you might assume your partner wants to break up as soon as you hear them say "I want to talk to you about something."

Worst-Case Thinking:

Similarly, you might jump to the worst-case scenario or unfavorable outcome in any situation. This can cause you to make mistakes as you try to protect yourself from being hurt; for example, by prematurely breaking up with your girlfriend after a fight because you assume that she is going to call it off.

Personalizing:

One final pitfall to avoid when trying to overcome attachment anxiety is the tendency to take everything personally. This goes back to the crying Maria whose husband went to the store. She assumed he left the house because of her flaws when in reality, he just wanted some milk for his cereal. The real issue, in this case, had to do with Maria's deep desire to love and be loved - and the fear of losing it.

A woman stands at a viewpoint during her hike, looking over the ocean.

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3. Consider Therapy for Attachment Anxiety

Even those who know a lot about their attachment type and the anxiety they experience may have a hard time changing on their own. After all, these reactions and feelings have been hardwired since childhood. Some of us have lived with the negative effects of our anxious attachment styles for decades! For this reason, many people who want to eliminate their fear of intimacy recognize that it's time to find a therapist to get professional advice on cope with attachment patterns developed in early childhood.

Because therapists are qualified professionals, they know a great deal about the attachment process and attachment anxiety. Licensed therapists help attachment-avoidant individuals move away from anxious behavior and towards healing. Through work with a qualified therapist, those experiencing this can learn to:

  • Tackle and change irrational fears that plague relationships
  • Be more confident when communicating wants and needs
  • Feel empowered to build truly fulfilling relationships
  • Have a stronger understanding of self
  • Feel independent in their decision making
  • Recognize specific attachment styles developed via family systems
  • Increase security of attachment

If you don't know where to start, consider using a therapist matching service to match you with the most suitable therapist for you.

4. Find a Buffer

One of the things therapists often hear from patients experiencing attachment anxiety is that they feel their relationships are doomed. Thankfully, this isn't true. While you are working to get rid of the attachment-related insecurity, you can still take part in a healthy relationship. It just has to be with the right person!

As researchers Simpson and Overall explain, people feel and do better when in relationships with secure people. The reassurance and acceptance that a secure partner gives can act as an emotional buffer for the insecure partner's anxiety and lessen the effects of their specific attachment styles. In the long run, these types of partnerships tend to last longer than when emotionally anxious people are paired together.

5. Practice Mindfulness

While you delve into learning more about your attachment style and consider whether or not to pursue therapy, you might find practicing mindfulness to be a great way to rid yourself of anxiety based attachment in adulthood.

In simple terms, mindfulness is the state of being present and focuses on looking at the world based on positive views. Instead of living in the future in an attempt to avoid negative experiences, people practicing mindfulness ground themselves in the here and now, acceptance and awareness. This is the focus of mindfulness.

Rumination, or obsessive thoughts and worries, is a huge part of attachment anxiety. Mindfulness reminds individuals of their capacity to love and helps break the patterns of disorganized attachment. By encouraging an anxious person to stay in the here and now through practicing mindfulness, insecurely attached individuals can move away from worry and unreasonable thinking by calming their nervous system and start to feel good again.

A woman doing yoga as her child plays on her back, perhaps to deal with attachment anxiety, or feeling anxious about being away from each other..

Attachment Anxiety Can Have A Serious Impact On Your Wellbeing. Read More.
Learn How to Manage Anxiety With An Online Therapist

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Mindful Benefits

Though it may seem like a simple tool, mindfulness has key benefits. Practicing mindfulness is good for our physical and mental health. Practicing mindfulness can boost your immune system and improve your quality of sleep and help to break the debilitating hold of attachment anxiety.

Becoming mindful can make you more compassionate, increase patience, and also boosts self-compassion. Not to mention, cultivating mindfulness can improve your memory and decision-making skills. One of the most helpful benefits of all is that being mindful helps to reduce the stress of negative attachments. Mindfulness is a simple coping strategy to use as you begin to learn to replace avoidant attachment styles with advice, diagnosis, and support.

Becoming mindful takes away stress and helps us regulate emotions and is becoming a popular healing modality of choice for those who experience the negative effects that anxious attachment can create. 

What is Practicing Mindfulness

Persistent eye contact helps mindful practitioners remain in the here and now. Staying rooted in the present moment helps clients to break the hold of anxious attachment patterns that result from a fear of intimacy.

Because it's such a beneficial tool, there is a sea of information about mindfulness on the web. One of the best ways to learn the technique is with the assistance of a therapist, but you can get started on your own as well. The following few tips can provide a basis for practicing anxiety-busting mindfulness:

  • Watch your breathing, especially when you are upset. Focusing on your inhaling and exhaling can help you calm yourself when experiencing intense emotions that are likely to push you over the edge.
  • Recognize your emotions, keeping in mind that they are not who you are. Remind yourself that emotions are fleeting and can leave just as quickly as they arise. It's important to tell yourself in these heated or scared moments, "This will pass."
  • Focus on physical sensations that your body registers as you start to get anxious. Just noticing what your body is doing can help you raise awareness and stay at the moment.
  • Do a body scan, using the technique as a way to quiet your anxiety and avoid overthinking.
  • Find a therapist to begin working through issues related to living with a negative attachment style.
Secure, Fulfilling Relationships Are Possible

At BetterHelp, our online therapists want to help you find a way to have healthy relationships where you're not worried about the other person leaving.

Develop healthier relationships by learning to cope with early attachment patterns, especially those related to avoidant attachment and anxious attachment. When you find a therapist using our online search tool, feel confident to know that you can trust your BetterHelp therapist to provide advice, diagnosis, and support for dealing with a fear of intimacy resulting from adult attachment issues.

It's distressing to be overly concerned about losing a loved one. Feeling anxiously attached hurts you and is an exhausting dynamic for many friendships and romantic relationships. An online therapist at BetterHelp can support you in breaking your anxious attachment patterns and learning to be secure in your relationships.

You can trust your therapist to help you learn and become more confident in your choices. When you feel grounded in your sense of self, you won't be afraid of losing people. That's a goal to work on with your therapist. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"I was skeptical of this forum initially. I am now 4 months in and I am really happy with the realizations Jennifer has helped me make. She's committed, honest, and direct but also comforting and positive. I think she has great insight, excellent experience and a good understanding of people that overcomes the challenges of online counseling. Her accessibility and availability is outstanding."

"Brandon has been amazing. He is always understanding and truly listens to me. He knows exactly what to say or ask to delve deeper into my anxieties and helps me figure out the root causes. He guides me along so that I may try and figure it out myself first, and that means a lot to me."

Although your issues with attachment anxiety may not be resolved overnight, you are fighting a winning battle. By understanding where your anxiety comes from and taking proactive steps to change your attachment style, you can rid yourself of unnecessary fear once and for all.

Seek knowledge, help if you need it, and stay mindful, realizing that you are worthy of love and are much more than your anxiety.

Contact BetterHelp

For more information on where to find a therapist that can help you, you can reach out to contact@betterhelp.com. You can also find us on LinkedInTwitterInstagramGoogle+FacebookYouTube & Tumblr.

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