Ridding Yourself Of Attachment Anxiety
By Sarah Fader
Updated December 18, 2018
Reviewer Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P
From birth, we are wired to connect with others. Although the independent nature of western culture might lead us to believe that we "need no one," that couldn't be further from the truth. Not only is it normal to want to connect with others, but we also naturally attach ourselves to people. The fact is being dependent is part of our DNA.
Understanding Our Attachment System
Even as infants, humans seek out those they with whom they can trust and bond. When we are separated from or not cared for by people we are attached to, a couple of different things can happen.
If you've ever watched a parent leaving their young child at daycare or school for the first time, you know what I mean. Though some little ones waltz into the classroom ready to play and make friends, others cry and cling to their mother's leg. That is their attachment system is at work!
But it's important to understand that our attachment to others doesn't stop at Kindergarten. According to research done by world-renowned psychologist Mary Ainsworth, the basis of how we feel about ourselves is formed during our childhood. Then, those same beliefs become the filter through which we see others in adulthood.
How our needs are met (or not met) when we are young determines how 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.
How we feel about intimacy, handle emotion, deal with conflict, and feel about commitment is all attached (pun intended) to our attachment system.
Four Styles Of Attachment
So how does this work? According to attachment theory, a child must have a strong bond with a caregiver to feel stable and safe in the future. A person who had such a relationship with their parents as a child will be confident and secure. Many who lacked a safe and secure connection will go through life fearfully, desperately searching for security and stability. Some may avoid close relationships altogether.
There are four unique styles of attachment that form the basis of our attachment system.
1. The Secure Pattern - Those with a secure attachment pattern won't have much need for this article unless they are dealing with an insecure partner. They know how to nourish a healthy relationship, offer emotional support, and respect boundaries. Those with a secure attachment pattern have confidence in the fact that they are worthy and deserving of others' love free from attachment anxiety. It's rare that such confident partners would become fearful of being abandoned or worry about their partner pulling away. Those with secure attachments don't lean on manipulation and threats. If they do have questions or concerns about their relationship, they will ask for clarity instead of jumping to conclusions.
2. The Dismissive/Avoidant Pattern - 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. 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 how 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 Pattern - Like type two, type three tend to avoid relationships or close intimacy. But not because they prefer being alone or deny the need! 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, they 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.
4. The Anxious Attachment Pattern - Type four is the least common type of attachment pattern, coming in at only twenty percent. Although it might not be as common, this pattern brings with it a great deal of turmoil. Also known as "preoccupied," those with anxious attachment patterns live life like damsels in distress. Always searching for reassurance, their relationships are filled with insecurity and fear. When they are unsure of how their partner feels, they become clinging or angry. Often, they lose the love they so desperately seek because of bad 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 how they responded to you when you were upset or needed reassurance. Warm and caring sometimes, this same parent could also be 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.
Examining Attachment Anxiety
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 anxiety 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 attachment pattern, those with attachment issues 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 suffering from attachment anxiety.
Defining Attachment Anxiety
Nervousness, fearfulness, worrying, and apprehension: these terms characterize the inner feelings of someone dealing with attachment anxiety.
Instead of thinking of the positive parts of the relationship, a person with attachment anxiety will focus only on the negative. Even when in a relationship that is healthy and secure, a person with attachment anxiety will fear the worst.
Signs Of Attachment Anxiety
Take for example Maria, a 30-year-old wife, and mother of three. Though currently in the best relationship of her life, Maria is constantly feared 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.
Maria's struggle is proof that although attachment anxiety isn't logical, it can be overwhelming and debilitating. If you can relate to Maria's struggle or one of the following signs, attachment anxiety may be part of your struggle:
- 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
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 anxious attachment types can learn to move past their fears and insecurity. 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
Though it sounds cliché, knowledge is key here. The more you learn about your attachment style, the better you will be at handling the anxiety that comes along with it.
For example, research on attachment patterns shows that people with anxious attachment 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. This is why so many people with 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.
Learning more about attachment anxiety will also teach you to avoid serious discussions when you are emotionally activated. If you have attachment anxiety, you're 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 battle with attachment anxiety will be.
#2 Avoid Pitfalls
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 this anxious attachment style include:
- Mindreading- 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 present yourself from being hurt. Like 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.
#3 Consider Therapy
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 this anxiety for decades! For this reason, lots of people with attachment anxiety find therapy beneficial.
Because therapists are qualified professionals, they know a great deal about the attachment process and how to help individuals move away from anxious behavior and towards healing. Through work with a qualified therapist, those suffering from attachment anxiety can learn to:
- Tackle and change irrational fears that plague relationships
- Be more confident when communicating wants and needs
- Feel empowered and have a stronger understanding of self
If you don't know where to start or even if therapy is for you, 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 suffering from 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 the right person!
As researchers Simpson and Overall explain, people with attachment anxiety 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. In the long run, these types of partnerships tend to last longer than when emotionally anxious people are paired together or with avoidant types.
#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.
What Is Mindfulness?
In simple terms, mindfulness is the state of being present. Instead of living in the future, persons 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. By focusing on the here and now through mindfulness, insecurely attached individuals can move away from worry and unreasonable thinking.
Though it may seem like a simple tool, mindfulness has some amazing benefits! For one, it's good for our physical and mental health. Practicing mindfulness can boost your immune system and improve your quality of sleep. It 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 best benefits of all is that being mindful takes away stress and helps us regulate emotions. No area of your life can't be improved in some way through the practice of mindfulness!
Because of its such a beneficial tool, there is a sea of great information about mindfulness on the web. One of the best ways to learn the technique 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.
- 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.
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.