Attachment Answers

How to deal with abandonment issues and anxiety

Hi N, thank you so much for reaching out! I first want to talk about attachment and then talk about ways to deal with the anxiety you are experiencing. Attachment behaviors are an adaptive response to separation from our primary caretakers. Attachment behaviors are instinctual as children – we are designed to want to maintain proximity to our caretakers to increases our chances for survival. As children, these behaviors look like crying, searching, and calling. If our attachment figures were accessible and attentive, we felt secure so we explored our environment and interacted with others. If our attachment figures were not accessible, it triggered anxiety and fear of abandonment, which is a natural survival response. As children, we continue to seek our caregivers until we re-establish closeness and our needs are met OR until we detach. Our current behaviors are adaptive and make sense given our experiences. Look at attachment styles like they are on a spectrum – it’s completely normal to have qualities of different styles. Your attachment style can change over time, especially if you are consciously working to heal your attachment and relational dynamics. There are several attachment styles, but it sounds like you may relate most to the anxious attachment style. Anxious attachment style represents about 20% of the population. Someone with anxious attachment may have a fear of abandonment and isolation and become hyper-activated when connection is threatened. They may be preoccupied with relationships and unfulfilled needs and/or need constant reassurance because they haven’t felt secure in relationships. They may have a hard time trusting themselves and others and seek to regulate through co-regulation. Their worth is tied to others’ perceptions, there is often a preoccupation with others’ thoughts and judgements, and they have a hyperawareness of others’ moods. They may be highly emotional, dependent, and/or have a desire to “merge” with their partner due to deep-seated feelings they are going to be rejected. They may be labeled needy or clingy, may ignore red flags, and confuse lust for love. They tend to be self-critical and insecure and they seek approval and reassurance from others though it doesn’t relieve their self-doubt. They “people please” to subconsciously believe those around them will not abandon them. Someone with anxious attachment may have grown up with caregivers who were unreliable and inconsistent (loving and supportive at times but threatening, cold, abusive or absent at other times). Caregivers were either insensitive or intrusive and overstimulating and often had anxious attachment. They may have been inconsistently attuned to the child’s needs and care was unpredictable. This inconsistency of caregivers often lead to dysregulation and difficulty feeling secure in relationships as a child and the child does not learn how to emotionally regulate. These children don’t explore on their own, may be wary of strangers, and may become distressed when the caretaker leaves the room but ambivalent when the caretaker returns. The child may want to re-establish closeness with the caretaker but is also angry at the caretaker for leaving. A child may reject a caretakers attempts at contact and a child may take longer to calm down when distressed. Some things that help with anxious attachment in relationships are: 1. People with anxious attachment styles need a lot of reassurance from their partners. Creating rituals around expressing appreciation and gratitude in relationships is helpful. 2. It is important to create a sense of safety in relationships. Work on building trust and support. 3. Work on recognizing your physiological cues of anxiety and learning how to soothe and regulate your nervous system. 4. Identify your needs and boundaries and learn how to communicate them. 5. Be aware of ways you try to connect when “activated” and try to replace it with something else. For example, instead of sending another text message or calling again, can you step away from the phone and go for a walk? 6. Work on allowing space when your partner needs it (with limits). In relationships, you may: 1. Develop strong feelings quickly. You start to ponder on what type of husband/wife you’ll be, imaging your life together. You may seek emotional validation very early (ex: after 1-2 dates ask “what are your intentions?” or “Where is this heading?”) 2. You may be blinded by validation seeking and not present while dating, becoming preoccupied with “Do they like me?” or “Will they commit to me?” and dismiss the logical assessment of dating (asking yourself, “Is this person beneficial for my life?” or “How do they make me feel?”). This often leads to being reoccupied with the thought, “How can I change myself to get them to like me?” 3. Ruminate and overthink. For example, after a date you think about what you did right or wrong, over-analyzing the date, and concerned about seeing yourself through your date’s imagined set of values and what you think they would want. 4. Be constantly triggered and constantly on alert for perceived abandonment (“they don’t call when they say they would so that means they don’t like me at all”). During the early dating phase try these things: 1. Find clarity. Ask yourself: What do I want in a relationship? What qualities and traits are important to me? How does this person make me feel when I’m around them (be careful of extreme expectations). 2. Find personal empowerment. Ask yourself: what do I need to become to be a better match to the qualities that I desire? What patterns of my own do I need to change? What fears or beliefs do I need to overcome for this stage to be enjoyable? 3. Find self-awareness. Ask yourself: what judgements do I make about this person? What fears come up for me during this phase? What does this say about my core wounds and unmet needs? 4. Find boundaries. Ask yourself: Do I abandon myself? Do I stop keeping up healthy habits or discard my plans for this person? Do I lose myself in this phase early on? Some ways to deal with anxiety include: 1. Identifying the unhelpful thought (anxious thought - ie: "he is going to leave me"), challenge that thought, and then replace that thought with something more helpful and rational. Here are 6 ways to challenge unhelpful thoughts: a. Do I have any proof of this thought or belief? b. Do I have any evidence contrary to this thought or belief? c. What would a friend say to me about this thought or belief? What would I say to a friend? d. Will this matter in 10, 15, 20 years? e. Is this life or death? f. What is worst case scenario, best case scenario, and most likely case scenario? If we are too worked up, it is almost impossible to think rationally (identify, challenge and reframe unhelpful thoughts), so we MUST self-regulate/self-soothe (calm down the body and mind) before we are able to think rationally. Some ways to do that include: Grounding (be as descriptive as possible with each) Name 5 things you can see. Name 4 things you can touch. Name 3 things you can hear. Name 2 things you can smell. Name 1 thing you can taste. Progressive Muscle Relaxation Starting at your toes and working your way up the body, gently but firmly contract each body part for 5 seconds and then relax the body part noticing the change in sensation in that body part. As you do this it is important to practice deep breathing. Here is an example script: Square Breathing Inhale for 4 counts Hold for 4 counts Exhale for 4 counts Relax for 4 counts Repeat as many times as needed Shift the focus to the positive. Our brains are hard wired to focus on the negative or search for the threat and focus on it for survival purposes. If there’s a rainbow and a tiger and you’re focused on the rainbow, you’re not going to survive. It makes sense we’re so focused on the negatives or to search for the threat. But we know resilience is associated with being able to shift our attention to the positive. We can build resilience by practicing consciously to notice 3 positives per day. It doesn’t matter what the scope is, it doesn’t matter what the positive is about, it just matters that you take the time to consciously hunt for 3 positives a day. Visualization Close your eyes and relax your body, focusing on your breathing. One your eyes are closed, imagine your happy place. This is can be the same place each time or a different place each time. Once in your happy place, use grounding to describe what you see in your happy place (5 things I can see, 4 things I can touch, 3 things I can hear, 2 things I can smell, 1 thing I can taste). Guided Meditations There are several on YouTube so I encourage you to look there. You can also use the Calm App or the Headspace App (both are free, I believe). All of these things are SKILLS and in order to do well with a skill, we have to practice. It will be important to practice identifying and challenging an unhelpful thought each day, along with practicing one calming technique each day. I hope some of this information resonates with you and helps! :)
Answered on 12/24/2020