Anxious attachment style is rooted in abandonment fears and care-related inconsistencies growing up. It’s often developed when children are dependent on unreliable caregivers. They repeatedly learn that their caregivers may or may not come through when needed. Over time, they begin to worry about whether or not their caregiver will be available or dependable, hindering their ability to form secure attachment.
What Is Attachment?
Attachment theory refers to the idea that a child’s relationship with caregivers sets the tone for all their relationships. Attachment styles are modalities of relating to others based on lived experiences and interpersonal relationships. Some styles are healthy and others are unhealthy, stemming from unmet childhood needs, but all are the compass for how people interact and the ways in which their dynamic grows and unfolds.
- Secure Attachment: Secure attachments allow a person to feel safe and supported in a respectful relationship.
- Anxious-ambivalent attachment: This attachment style is marked by anxiety and stress regarding the relationship, which results in a constant need for reassurance.
- Avoidant attachment: An avoidant attachment style results in the person being less interested in and devoted to relationships because they seem too challenging to too difficult.
- Disorganized attachment: Usually resulting from trauma, disorganized attachment leaves the person reacting in unpredictable and inconsistent ways to relationships.
What Is Anxious Attachment?
Anxious attachment is the result of greatly vacillating caregiver responses to children. When caregivers are emotionally present and attuned one day and emotionally unavailable and mentally not present the next, this breeds anxiety in children as they adapt to those inconsistencies.
Children quickly lose trust in their caregivers’ ability to show up for their needs, but they know they still need them. As a result, they worry about their needs while continuing to seek out attention from their caregivers. Anxiously attached children tend to have strong emotional responses to separation and, because they’ve learned their caregiver is unpredictable, feel a deep need to be very close to them.1
Signs of an Anxious Attachment Style
Signs of Anxious Attachment In Children
Children who have the anxious attachment style will likely show signs like an inability to label their feelings, poor emotional regulation, and separation anxiety.
Signs of anxious attachment in children include:
- Separation anxiety
- Poor emotional regulation and confusion
- Inability to name one’s own feelings
- Highly emotionally reactive
- Either too close or not close enough to caregivers
Signs of Anxious Attachment In Adults
In adulthood, someone who has anxious attachment issues will likely display low self-esteem, excessive worrying, and jealousy, among other things.
Signs of anxious attachment in adults include:
- Low self-esteem
- Needing approval from others
- Fear of rejection
- Jealous feelings
- Poor conflict management skills
- Overly clingy and having poor sense of boundaries
- Fear of being alone
- Prioritizing others needs ahead of one’s own needs
- Excessive worrying
Anxious attachment in adults is also linked with social anxiety disorder. Due to the nature of their attachment style, adults are more likely to use dysfunctional emotional regulation skills, which ultimately make social settings more stressful for them. They then tend to feel awkward in social situations and may avoid them all together. By doing this, they enter into a cycle of validating their own anxiety.3
Signs of Anxious Attachment in Relationships
For a romantic partner with an anxious attachment style, relationships can be stressful, even if it’s what they want. They may even blame unhappiness and doubt on their partner’s behavior. Since so much of this is based in insecurities, they often question their relationship status, how satisfactory the relationship feels, and where each partner stands.
Long term, someone with an anxious attachment style can trigger the other to exhibit avoidant attachment. This happens because the needs of the anxious partner wear on the other partner, leading them to distance themselves. This dynamic starts an unhealthy cycle of one seeking reassurance and the other pushing them further away. Ultimately, both partners learn unhealthy ways of relating to one another.4
Examples of Anxious Attachment
Anxious attachment can present in a number of ways. Someone with anxious attachment might:
- Crave attention, support, and intimacy from others
- Try to fix their partner’s issues and solve their problems
- Overstep boundaries and upset others
- Fear being alone
Someone with anxious attachment may be more willing to stay in an unhappy relationship to avoid the uncertainty of being alone. They could only focus on the positives of another person, rather than seeing a complete picture of how they are being harmed in the relationship.
What Causes Anxious Attachment Style?
The biggest cause of someone becoming anxiously attached is inconsistent parenting in childhood. At times, this can look like a caregiver being supportive on some days and unsupportive just as frequently. Children become confused by this inconsistency as they don’t understand why or how their caregiver changes from one extreme to another. This makes it difficult for children to trust in their caregiver.
If a child grows up feeling that their needs are only sometimes important or only important when it’s convenient, they may also enter relationships and friendships that are conditional and follow similar patterns. As adults, these children often find themselves in emotionally volatile and unsafe situations because these learned behaviors in childhood were normalized.2
Emotional Distance From Caregivers
The emotional distance of a caregiver can make the person anxious and unsure of themselves. They could respond by seeking out constant reassurance from others to avoid the discomfort of not knowing where they stand.
Anxiety and anxious behaviors can be learned from others. If someone’s caregiver was anxious, it could teach them that anxious responses are acceptable or normal.
Anxious Attachment Triggers
Anxious attachment styles may not present in all relationships or situations. It may require an anxious attachment trigger to emerge.
Circumstances that could trigger someone’s anxious attachment include:
Unresponsiveness or Distance From a Partner
If your partner becomes distant, physically or emotionally, you could respond with increased anxiety. The lack of information could make you question the entire stability of the relationship.
Feeling Like the Relationship Is Threatened
Whether the feeling is real or imagined, thinking that the relationship is in jeopardy will trigger an anxious response. You may fear being alone, idealize the other person, and crave more assurance.
Partner Starts Wanting More Independence
Wanting more independence in a relationship is not a bad thing, but an anxious attachment style can make it feel like the worst thing ever. You could believe that the partner is pushing away because they want the relationship to end. In reality, it could be too much closeness that is harming the relationship.
Unpredictable Behavior From a Partner
Anxious attachment styles crave consistency in a relationship, so if your partner begins acting differently, it could be confusing. You could jump to a number of conclusions about what is happening and what their intentions are. Chances are good that anxiety will steer you in the wrong direction.
Can You Change Your Attachment Style?
Change is possible, but it takes trust in yourself, others, and the process. These attachment styles are all coping mechanisms and the more you learn about your own inner wounds, the better you can learn healthier ways of coping. Think about the people who you have a healthy and secure attachment with and lean into those feelings to feel empowered to make positive change.7
How to Self Soothe Anxious Attachment
No one has to deal with anxious attachment forever. Fortunately, some of the best ways to find relief from anxiety also work to soothe your anxious attachment.
Here are some ways to self-soothe if your anxious attachment feels triggered:
- Practice relaxation skills
- Take care of your body with exercise, healthy foods, and plenty of sleep
- Identify the attachment style, not the relationship, as the problem
- Reassure yourself and practice positive self-talk
- Spend time with people you trust
5 Tips for Healing Anxious Attachment
While self-soothing can help in the short-term, it takes work to change the patterns of anxious attachment over time.
Here are five tips for healing anxious attachment long-term:
1. Learn More About Anxious Attachment
Gaining more information and a better understanding of a problem is a great way to improve it. Once you know more about anxious attachment, you can more accurately acknowledge when and how it is affecting your life.
2. Work on Your Communication Skills
If you can clearly state your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to your loved ones, the relationships have a better chance of success. With anxious attachment, you might be more likely to use passive communication that prioritizes the needs of others. This trend prevents you from getting what you need.
3. Learn From People in Your Life Who Are Securely Attached
At times, it may feel like anxious attachments are normal and natural, but there are plenty of other people who find success in securely attached relationships. Start a conversation with them and work to learn from their example. Perhaps they can offer simple tips to make your relationships more desirable and comfortable.
4. Go to Therapy
Therapy for anxious attachment often involves cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or family or couples therapy. Therapy in general provides an opportunity to build a reliable relationship in the context of healing. By forming a safe relationship with a therapist, you learn how to trust and unpack challenging emotions in a way that fosters healthy attachment.
The act of therapy alone can be powerful in healing the wounds of childhood, helping you understand how to modify past coping mechanisms to better suit the person you are trying to become.5
For children, understanding that their caregivers are flawed but committed to being more present can feel empowering. Another benefit is the space to work on expressing feelings and emotions.6
5. Journal About Your Feelings & Progress
Journaling progress and keeping an ongoing priority on growth between therapy sessions is another great way to reinforce the new ways of coping. It keeps you accountable and committed to yourself. In children, using an art journal can be a helpful, creative outlet to channel emotions.
Helping a Partner With Anxious Attachment
It can be challenging to have a partner with anxious attachment and feel as though nothing you do is enough. Try not to personalize this, and remember, your reactions can further validate their fears. Instead, listen to their fears and insecurities and join your partner in challenging their automatic thoughts. It may be helpful to work with a couples therapist to work through challenges together.
Anxious attachment may be difficult to grow from, but there are ways it can be achieved. It’s important to remember that a world of secure attachment does exist for you. It is never too late to help your inner child heal and grow into a healthy adult.
Anxious Attachment Infographics