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Anxious Attachment in Adults: Triggers & How To Heal

Katelyn Hagerty

Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 2/9/2022

It’s thought by many that our experiences as a child, and the sense of security we have as children (or lack thereof), shape how we attach and form relationships as adults. 

This theory, called attachment theory, was developed by a man named John Bowlby. He was a British psychoanalyst and was trying to wrap his head around the intense distress that infants who had been separated from their parents felt.

Bowlby wound up developing a theory that essentially is predicated on the idea that emotional disorders are connected to early attachment-related experiences — like separation from or harsh treatment from parental figures. Attachment in children can lead to issues as adults. 

To learn more about this fascinating concept, along with how it can lead to something called anxious attachment — keep reading!

Anxious Attachment and the Other Attachment Styles

Out of attachment theory, four different styles of attachment developed. The first is secure attachment style. As an adult, this means you understand you are worthy of love and have a positive way of attaching to other people. You generally believe that other people are accepting and responsive.

Then, there’s something called avoidant attachment. In infants, this is thought to display as a baby not seeming to notice or care that a parent has separated from them. In adults, similar displays of disinterest may show. 

Disorganized attachment is next. With infants, they don’t show any type of consistency in how they react when separated from a parent. Likewise, adults may show the same inconsistency in personal relationships if this is their attachment style.

Drumroll please…finally, we have come to the anxious attachment type, which is classified as an insecure attachment style and sometimes also called preoccupied attachment. Traits of an adult with anxious attachment style include someone who might need lots of attention and who is extremely expressive. Someone with anxious attachment may also idolize others and depend highly on interpersonal relationships.

It can also show up as needing reassurance, guidance and support because a person with anxious attachment doesn’t trust herself. 

People with insecure attachment styles find that it can interfere with their mental health.

What Are the Triggers of Anxious Attachment

Going back to childhood experiences, it’s thought that people with anxious attachment lacked a safe, loving parental relationship.This could be because of emotional neglect, abuse, abandonment, inconsistent parenting or an inattentiveness to needs.

As an adult, the lack of a safe, loving parental relationship can continue to have an effect — especially on romantic relationships. As mentioned above, someone who has anxious attachment needs attention and constant reassurance and often feels very dependent in relationships. 

Given this, anything that makes that person feel neglected or like a loved one is pulling away could be a trigger. For example, say you go to a party with a significant other and they spend the evening wrapped up in conversation with other people — that could cause you to feel ignored and upset. Or if you feel a close friend pulling away from you or getting sucked into a new relationship, it could lead to you spiraling in your emotions. 

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How to Heal Anxious Attachment 

Considering the fact that anxious attachment can affect your mental health, therapy is never a bad idea for someone dealing with this. 

While there are a number of different types of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be one worth considering. This type of therapy involves identifying patterns and behaviors that may not be helpful to your life and working with a therapist to develop problem-solving skills to cope.

If you think about it, CBT could be really helpful for those with an anxious attachment style. You could work with a therapist to look more deeply at the times you feel most neglected or needy and then come up with ways to address those feelings going forward.

Having an anxious attachment style can also cause conflict in adult relationships. To mitigate this, couples therapy could also be helpful to promote a healthy relationship. And speaking of romantic partners, one study also found that when someone perceived gratitude from a partner, there was a decrease in anxious attachment. 

If you’re single, looking for someone who is good at expressing gratitude may be wise. Already coupled up? Consider starting a daily gratitude practice with your significant other. Tell them something they did that you are grateful for and ask them to reciprocate. 

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Anxious Attachment in Adults

Attachment theory is based on the thought that the way we bond (or don’t bond) with our parents when we are young can predict how we will form attachments to others when we are adults. 

There are four different types of attachment styles. Anxious attachment is characterized as feeling like you need frequent reassurance and are dependent in intimate relationships.

You may notice these feelings increase if you don’t find your partner giving you the kind of affection you crave or if a loved one is suddenly a bit too busy for you. This style is also sometimes called preoccupied attachment or anxious-preoccupied attachment.  

To cope with anxious attachment, therapy may help. If you’d like to speak with a mental health professional, Hers offers the chance to speak with a licensed professional from the comfort of your own home. 

12 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Fraley, R., (2018). Adult Attachment Theory and Research. University of Illinois. Retrieved from http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
  2. Cassidy, J., Jones, J., Shaver, P., (2013). Contributions of Attachment Theory and Research: A Framework for Future Research, Translation, and Policy. Dev Pyschopathol. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085672/
  3. Secure Attachment. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/secure-attachment
  4. Avoidant Attachment. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/avoidant-attachment
  5. Disorganized Attachment. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/disorganized-attachment
  6. DeGangi, G., (2012). The Dysregulated Adult. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/preoccupied-attachment
  7. Braehler, C., Neff, K., (2020). Emotion in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/preoccupied-attachment
  8. Marganska, A., Gallagher, M., Miranda, R., (2013). Adult attachment, emotion dysregulation, and symptoms of depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Am J Orthopsychiatry. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23330631/
  9. Suttie, J., (2020). One Way Your Partner Can Calm Your Attachment Anxiety. Greater Good Magazine, University of California, Berkeley.
  10. What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral
  11. Campbell, L., Simpson, J.A., Boldry, J., et al., (2005). Perceptions of Conflict and Support in Romantic Relationships: The Role of Attachment Anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Retrieved from https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3514.88.3.510
  12. Park, Y., Johnson, M., MacDonald, G., (2019). Perceiving gratitude from a romantic partner predicts decreases in attachment anxiety. Dev Psychol. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31512890/
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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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