Attachment style refers to the way you bond, communicate, share intimacy, connect with and separate from other people. You begin developing your bonding pattern in utero, and it continues to develop through childhood.
Genetics, as well as your early attachment experiences, can set the template for your relationships throughout your lifespan.
For example, if you had a positive, stable bonding experience with your primary caregivers in childhood, you’re more likely to have a secure attachment style. This means that you'll often feel safe and stable in your relationships and experience minimal distress and separation anxiety. On the other hand, if you experienced abandonment, neglect, or abuse as a child, or if you dealt with any type of trauma or instability, you might have an anxious, fearful, or avoidant attachment style as an adult.
People with an anxious attachment style will often experience the following symptoms in their adult relationships:
- Overthinking about why someone didn’t call or text you.
- Wondering if you did something wrong or if other people are mad at you.
- Catastrophic thinking such as imagining the worst-case scenario.
- Fantasizing about how you want the relationship to be.
- Fear that the other person doesn't like you or that you're lacking in some way.
- Preoccupation with other people and how they aren’t living up to your expectations.
- Feeling unworthy and as if you constantly have to prove yourself to other people.
- Impulses to fix things and solve other people's problems at your own expense.
- Feelings of extreme loneliness, emptiness, neediness, clinginess, or despair.
- High emotional reactivity when someone isn't available in the way you want them to be.
- Questioning your reality and whether you are overreacting to other people.
- Feeling stuck in anxiety, anger, or resentment.
- Fear of abandonment.
One of the reasons people experience these symptoms is because of the way their brain is structured. Early childhood trauma can increase the size of your amygdala, the part of your brain that deals with detecting danger. This will lead you to be more hyper-vigilant than someone who doesn’t have this type of brain structure. Because of this, you might perceive danger or threats where they don’t exist, and then miss actual red flags because you can’t tell whether you’re overreacting or not.
If you struggle with anxiety in your relationships, there are things you can do to calm your nervous system, activate a more helpful part of your brain, and re-establish a sense of grounding and inner strength.
7 Unhelpful Habits to Avoid When Your Attachment Anxiety Flares Up
1. Being too available + abandoning yourself. You're likely abandoning yourself if you find that you're stalking someone on social media, waiting all day until they call or text you, or chasing them by sending too many texts for every one word response they send you. This can be demoralizing and reinforces low self-worth, which is inherent in some attachment disorders. Self-abandonment can also include disengaging from your own life or dropping everything for the other person as soon as they want to see you. When you do this you're not valuing your time or boundaries. By abandoning yourself, you’re teaching other people that it's ok to abandon you.
2. Compromising your values to make someone happy. Your values serve as a compass to guide you through your life. In co-dependent relationships, people often abandon their values and boundaries to please others so they can feel a sense of belonging. This leads to feelings of resentment which is often a signal to calibrate your compass and set healthy boundaries.
3. Self-harm instead of self-care. When people experience separation anxiety it can bring up childhood feelings of pain and despair. When these feelings are overwhelming and intense, you're more likely to engage in harmful numbing behaviors such as binge drinking, overeating, under-eating, or not sleeping enough. This reinforces the trauma and wears away at your self-worth over time.
Read more: Anxious and avoidant attachment patterns are often similar to symptoms of codependence. Explore overlapping symptoms of codependency and attachment disorders.
4. Negative thinking. When people are triggered, they often get stuck in negative thought patterns. This includes spending a lot of time in your head, engaging in catastrophic thinking, imagining worst-case scenarios, ruminating on the past, and focusing on all of the reasons why you think you aren’t good enough.
5. Savior fantasies. Children with separation anxiety often fantasize about being saved. This is a coping mechanism to fill the void of abandonment. Bringing this into adulthood can make you prone to putting other people on a pedestal, giving them your power (or making them your higher power), and missing red flags or other realities of a situation.
6. Going out of your way to prove your worth. When children are abandoned or abused, it damages their self-worth. They move through life thinking they aren't good enough and have to prove something in order to get love. This is a destructive habit in relationships because it makes them susceptible to manipulation, care-taking, and overextending themselves.
7. Blaming or arguing when you’re triggered. Attachment anxiety can trigger primal feelings related to safety and survival, which puts you in fight-or-flight mode. When you're triggered it can be particularly challenging to have productive conversation.
Calming Attachment Anxiety: 7 Productive Ways to Cultivate Healing and Empowerment
1. Regulate your nervous system. This is the most effective strategy for rewiring your brain and healing childhood wounds. If you’re in flight, fight, or freeze mode, you aren’t able to think clearly and you’re more likely to act on impulses. The best way to counteract this surge of adrenaline and cortisol is to change your physiology. Pause for a moment and take three slow breaths into your belly and diaphragm. This will send a signal of safety to your brain. Find several different ways to self-regulate so you can interrupt the stress pattern no matter where you are. Most importantly, do something grounding to get out of your head and into your body. This might include exercise, yoga, and slow diaphragmic breathing techniques. If you need more help, get a massage, schedule an acupuncture session, spend 20 minutes in nature, or talk to a therapist.
2. Consistent self-care. Do something regenerative for yourself, every day, even if you don't want to. This will help you to release stress and tension while also building internal resources like resilience, mindfulness, and self-worth.
3. Reparent your inner child. If you numb out or avoid addressing your attachment anxiety, you’re abandoning your inner child. Practice compassion and treat yourself with the same love and kindness that you would treat an innocent child. Nourish yourself with things that give you energy. Instead of binging on junk food or social media, go for a walk, draw, drink water, or read an inspiring passage from a book. This is a powerful opportunity to reparent yourself and heal your brain.
4. Gain command over your thinking patterns. When you experience negative thought patterns, remind yourself that while the thoughts seem real, they aren't objectively true. Don't believe every thought you have. Take a breath, pause, and return to your body. Focus on this present moment and what is within your control. Give your mind a new activity, such as focusing on what you are grateful for. Gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to help you shift out of scarcity mentality and reconnect with a feeling of safety and abundance.
5. Externalize your feelings. Letting go of your thoughts and feelings will help you release stress and pent-up emotions. You can experiment with stream of consciousness writing, artwork, movement, or making music. Journaling is a useful practice for reparenting your inner child. For example, you can write from the perspective of the inner child, asking them why they are sad, and what they want and need from you. Then, write from the perspective of your most empowered adult self to gather wisdom, healing, and advice for the inner child.
6. Remember your worth. Cultivating healthy self-worth will help you to avoid putting someone else on a pedestal or abandoning yourself. Repeat this phrase every day: "Everyone is equally and inherently worthy. I am inherently worthy of love and acceptance."
7. Practice mindful communication. Prepare yourself for important conversations ahead of time by exploring non-violent communication, or the DBT technique, D-E-A-R-M-A-N. Mindful communication will help you approach the conversation with honesty and grace so you can make requests without being needy, bossy, controlling, or avoidant.
Addressing attachment anxiety can be a challenging yet liberating process. Be patient as you reparent yourself and remember that change is gradual. As you practice setting healthy boundaries and implementing self-regulation practices, you'll notice that you get back what you put into your self-care. Over time this will incrementally improve your sense of empowerment, self-worth, and general well-being.