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Attachment Anxiety: Causes, Signs & Healing In Children and Adults

| Attachment theory | The two dimensions in attachment styles | What is the difference between attachment anxiety and general anxiety | Causes | Signs in children | Signs in adults | Healing for children | Healing for adults | How to help an anxious spouse |

What is attachment anxiety

Attachment anxiety is the fear of being separated from loved ones such as parents, friends, and spouses. It corresponds to a negative working model of self-image and low self-esteem. People who suffer from it are chronically preoccupied with fear, vigilance, jealousy, and fear of abandonment. It is an insecure attachment style.​1​

While it is not fully understood what causes it, there appears to be an association between attachment anxiety and negative childhood experiences such as inconsistent parenting.

Anxious individuals often feel insecure in relationships and worry that the attachment figure will abandon them. They have difficulty believing that others will be there for them in times of need, resulting in an insecure pattern of behavior​2​.

man consoles crying woman

Attachment theory

The attachment theory framework is a psychological model that describes the nature of emotional attachment between infants and caretakers. It was first proposed by psychiatrist John Bowlby. The theory has been extensively studied since then and has been expanded upon by other researchers, such as psychologist Mary Ainsworth.

According to attachment theory, infants are born with a basic need to feel safe and secure by being around their primary caregivers. When babies feel threatened or scared, they cry and cling to caregivers. 

A primary caregiver who is nurturing and responsive to the infant’s needs will foster confidence and a secure attachment style in the child. Insecure attachment styles are formed when the caretaker is inconsistent, absent, or abusive.

In child development, attachment styles play an important role.

The two dimensions in attachment styles

Using a two-dimensional model, the parent-child attachment relationship can be categorized by the levels of attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance. 

Individuals with high attachment anxiety levels are preoccupied with their relationships and they fear abandonment.

Individuals with high avoidant styles are uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy. It is common for them to suppress their feelings and not rely on others for support, even when they are in distress. They are more likely to develop an avoidant attachment style.

Among people who are highly anxious, avoidance can be of different levels resulting in different types of attachment.

An anxious person with low avoidance tends to develop an anxious attachment style, also known as the anxious-preoccupied attachment style and anxious-ambivalent attachment style. while one with high avoidance tends to develop a disorganized attachment style.

What is the difference between attachment anxiety and general anxiety

Attachment anxiety differs from general anxiety in that it stems from the strong fear of rejection or abandonment related to relationships while general anxiety can encompass a wide range of issues. Some anxiously attached people may show anxiety in relationship-related issues, but not in other issues.

What causes attachment anxiety

The development of anxious attachment across childhood can be influenced by several factors.

Inconsistent parenting

If parents provide inconsistent care or don’t respond at all, children learn that they cannot rely on their caretakers for consistency and support. They lack a sense of security and feel unloved.

These children may become hypervigilant and show hyperactivation attachment behavior​3​.

Anxious parents

Insecure attachments in childhood can result in insecure attachment patterns and influence parenting styles.

A parent with an anxious attachment is likely to be preoccupied with the inconsistent care and accessibility of attachment figures in their own lives, leading to inconsistent parenting​4​.

Childhood emotional neglect

In children who have suffered psychological abuse or emotional neglect, attachment anxiety is more likely to develop. The risk of developing attachment anxiety after early childhood maltreatment is higher for women than for men​5​.

Signs of attachment anxiety behavior in childhood

Anxiously attached children are preoccupied with the availability of attachment figures. They show the following common signs:

  • Appear clingy or needy, especially when distressed
  • Worry about being rejected by parents or friends
  • Have a people-pleasing tendency and crave acceptance by others
  • Have doubts that parents will be available during distress
  • Mental health issues such as the development of anxiety disorders and panic attacks​6​
  • Have difficulty regulating negative emotions​7​
  • At risk for anxiety at separation​8​

Signs of attachment anxiety in adulthood

Anxiously attached adults worry that their partners will reject them, leading them to seek closeness and intimacy compulsively​9​.

Individuals with adult attachment anxiety tend to show the following characteristics:

  • Seek constant reassurance from their romantic partners
  • Disclose personal information about themselves early on in adult relationships in an effort to elicit positive feedback and achieve intimacy quickly​10​ 
  • Talk about their romantic relationships frequently during routine conversations with partners
  • Anxious behavior such as monitoring the availability of the partner vigilantly
  • More extreme reactions and feelings of anxiety to an attachment relationship threat​11​
  • Hypersensitive to what others think of them in close relationships or social interactions​12​
  • Engage more actively on social media eliciting likes or reactions from friends​13​
  • Media influence associated with body image dissatisfaction is easily internalized, particularly by women​14​
  • Higher revictimization rates among anxiously attached women who had received negative responses following childhood sexual abuse disclosure​15​
  • More likely to develop clinical disorders, anxiety symptoms, or depressive symptoms​16​
  • Emotion dysregulation​17​

Healing attachment anxiety in children

Failure to form a secure attachment with a caregiver in childhood places children at risk for more negative outcomes​18​.

To rebuild trust, caregiver behaviors can be changed to respond consistently. 

In addition to child-parent attachment relationships, children can also become attached to a trusted adult such as a school counselor or teacher and develop an earned secure attachment.

Children with severe anxiety or attachment issues may need professional help.

How to heal attachment anxiety in adults

Insecure attachments to caregivers risk retaining insecure styles in adulthood. However, insecure attachments in children do not necessarily translate to insecure attachments as they grow into adults. Awareness of attachment style allows you to formulate a strategy for seeking help.

Secure relationships are necessary for healthy development and competent emotion regulation. Attachment wounds heal over time with reliable comfort from attachment figures. 

Attachment repair or new relationships take time. Meanwhile, an experienced therapist or counselor can guide you in this process and provide support. They can also help you make sense of your past to reconstruct a healthy internal representation of relationships.

Learn adaptive coping strategies that can improve the emotion regulation process. Exercise, meditation, and mindfulness improve moods, as well as provide good self-care.

How to help an anxious spouse

People with attachment anxiety are hypersensitive to relationship threats and this may lead to less constructive behavioral responses. They may show more hostility during conflicts and undermine relationship stability.

Nevertheless, studies show that anxious people feel better about their relationship when their partner is being supportive or explicitly communicates affection​19​.

Your anxious partner may seem insecure and needy, but with your patient help, they can develop a healthy relationship. You can find help in this process through couple therapy.

Also see: Anxious Attachment Style

References

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