Attachments are an important part of life. From the attachments you form as a child with your parents to intimate attachments developed as an adult. How you form attachments can be a reflection of how you’ve been treated by others and an integral part of how you value yourself and others. However, not everyone finds it easy to develop secure and fulfilling attachments, which can often be associated with anxiety disorders and other mental health problems.
What is Anxious Preoccupied Attachment?
Anxious preoccupied attachment is an attachment style in which a person experiences anxiety in their relationships with significant others in their lives. It stems from attachment theory which argues that childhood experiences can affect our relationships later in life.
Attachment Theory, the underlying premise behind attachment anxiety, was a model proposed by British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s.
Bowlby believed that experiences during infancy and the quality of care given by your primary caregivers can influence your attachment style as an adult.
Continued research in the area went on to define four primary attachment styles in children and how these can be influenced by the behavior of parents or caregivers at a young age:
- Secure – when a child is confident that their caregivers can meet their needs
- Anxious-Ambivalent – when children are used to caregivers who are inconsistent so seek reassurance and exaggerate distress to elicit a caring response
- Avoident – when children perceive their caregiver as indifferent and insensitive so avoid showing distress
- Disorganised – when children are used to receiving inconsistent emotional support and often abuse so both crave attention but also show fear towards their caregiver, often associated with childhood trauma
Attachment Theory in Intimate Adult Relationships
Intimate relationships between adults differ greatly to those between infants and their caregivers, meaning the attachment styles are not identical. However, the core principles of attachment theory can still be applied to adults and their relationships.
The attachment style established during childhood can have a lifelong influence on your attachment patterns later in life. It can affect both your relationships with others and notions of self-worth. Anxious-Ambivalent attachment in particular has been shown to lead to a greater prevalence of anxiety disorders and anxious attachment in intimate adult relationships.
Anxiety Manifesting in Relationship Attachment Styles
Rooted in childhood attachment theory, there are four widely-accepted attachment styles in adult relationships:
Adults with a secure attachment style usually have positive views of themselves and of others. They are comfortable with intimate relationships, are able to trust their partner, and are not afraid of closeness.
Those with an anxious–preoccupied attachment style usually have low self esteem and a more positive view of others. They seek out intimacy and security from others, especially romantic partners. However, they can often become overly dependent on relationships which can lead to overwhelming panic and worry about their partners behaviors and intentions.
People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style tend to have a positive self view and a more negative view of others. Stemming from avoidant childhood attachment, they value their independence highly and may get nervous when someone gets too close. It is important for them to feel self-sufficient and often attempt to avoid attachment altogether.
A fearful-avoidant attachment style usually stems from either avoidant attachment or disorganized attachment as a child. Adults with a fearful-avoidant attachment style want intimate relationships but are uncomfortable with closeness and find it difficult to trust or depend on others. They are fearful of getting hurt if they get close to other people so choose to avoid intimate relationships instead.
The latter three are known as insecure attachment styles.
Individuals with these insecure attachment styles find it more difficult developing and maintaining healthy adult relationships. Those with anxious-preoccupied and fearful-avoidant attachment styles are also more vulnerable to mental health problems such as generalized anxiety disorders and depression.
Origins of Anxious Attachment
While genetics can play a role in the development of an anxious attachment type, the behaviors of parents and childhood experiences can also be a contributing factor.
Inconsistent and unpredictable parenting may be one such contributor to children developing an anxious attachment style.
Inconsistent parenting means that a parent is nurturing and attentive towards their child at times, but insensitive or antipathetic at other times. This can lead to the child feeling insecure, confused and distressed. They may act clingy and needy, and exaggerate discomfort or make a fuss in order to receive the comfort and closeness they need.
These anxious attachment behaviors can then be transferred into adult friendships and relationships.
Symptoms of Anxious Preoccupied Attachment
Some of the most common symptoms of an anxious preoccupied attachment style include:
- Negative self-worth
- Constant need for closeness and intimacy
- Worrying that your partner will leave you
- Being overly dependent in your relationship
- Constant fear of rejection and abandonment
- Constant need to please and gain people’s approval
- Difficulty trusting your partner
- Requiring frequent reassurance that you’re cared for
- Hypersensitivity to your partner’s actions and moods
How Anxious Attachment Affects Relationships
If you have anxious preoccupied attachment, you may have trouble feeling secure in relationships and have a strong fear of rejection and abandonment.
Due to this insecurity, you might behave in ways that appear clingy, controlling, possessive, jealous, or demanding toward your partner.
Such behaviors often result in the opposite to the desired effect and can actually put a strain on your relationship and push your partner away.
Anxious Attachment in Conflicts
Your attachment style can also play a large role in how you deal with conflict.
As a person with an anxious preoccupied attachment style, you may notice regular conflict in your relationships. This is often caused by insecurity, negative beliefs and hypersensitivity to your partner’s actions and moods.
During conflict, you may choose to continue arguing in order to elicit the response you want from your partner. You may also feel incapable of calming down after conflict until the other person has met your need for assurance.
Ways to Overcome Anxious Relationship Attachment
While you can’t change the attachment style you developed as a child, you can learn to overcome it and to work to feel more secure in yourself and your relationships.
In fact, people with anxious attachment tend to respond better to treatment than those with avoidant attachment styles.
Some strategies for overcoming an anxious attachment style include:
- Developing a better understanding of your own attachment style and being aware of how you behave in relationships
- Looking back at your attachment history and understanding why you relate to people in the way you do today
- Choosing a partner with a secure attachment style, or attending couples therapy if your partner also has an insecure attachment style
- Communicating with your partner so they are aware of your attachment style and can be empathetic towards your thoughts and behaviors
- Using mindfulness exercises such as meditation to help you regulate your emotions and behaviors
- Using cognitive behavior therapy to help identify and adjust dysfunctional emotions, thoughts, and actions
Finding a therapist who can aid with the above is a valuable tool. They can help guide you through the process from anxious-preoccupied attachment to secure attachment.
How ILC Can Help
At Integrative Life Center, we offer customized treatment programs to help you manage anxiety and overcome your anxious attachment style.
We use a number of traditional and nontraditional therapies to help treat anxiety, including: