Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/17/2022
How we connect with people and form adult relationships is believed to be shaped by our childhood experiences — an idea known as attachment theory. Anxious preoccupied attachment is one of many styles of attachment in adults.
Attachment theory, developed by child psychology analyst John Bowlby, is based on the idea that emotional disorders are connected to early attachment-related experiences — like being separated from or receiving harsh treatment from parental figures.
Out of attachment theory, there are four attachment styles (sometimes called attachment patterns). One is anxious attachment style, also known as preoccupied attachment style or anxious preoccupied attachment style.
We’ll go over what this attachment style is and how to overcome it.
Before we get into what anxious preoccupied attachment is, let’s start with a brief introduction to the attachment types that come from the principles of attachment theory.
John Bowlby developed the theory that how children attach or bond with parents is part of their behavioral system. Later, child psychology researcher Mary Ainsworth expanded upon this idea by studying how children react to separation from their parents or caregivers.
Attachment styles are generally divided into two types: secure attachment style and insecure attachment style.
Abusive childhood experiences and other forms of childhood trauma can affect the development of secure attachment and may even predict the development of insecure patterns of attachment later in life.
In serious cases of neglect or trauma, a child may develop reactive attachment disorder, meaning they have trouble forming bonds with caregivers.
A secure attachment style means that as an adult, you understand you’re worthy of love and have a positive way of attaching to other people.
Then there’s avoidant attachment. This is when someone doesn’t appear to show interest when another person has separated from them, either as an infant or adult.
For instance, a baby with an avoidant attachment style wouldn’t notice if their parent separated from them. Adults with avoidant-dismissive attachment style show similar disinterest when someone separates from them.
Disorganized attachment style can show up as someone being uncomfortable with intimacy and closeness and lacking empathy. Infants and adults with this attachment style are inconsistent in how they react when separated from their parents or loved ones.
Finally, anxious attachment (also known as insecure attachment or anxious preoccupied attachment) means someone needs lots of attention and is extremely expressive.
If you have an anxious preoccupied attachment style, you may also rely heavily on other people for guidance and support, as you don’t trust your ability to support yourself.
Avoidant attachment, disorganized attachment and anxious preoccupied attachment style are all insecure attachment styles.
Adult attachment styles are thought to be influenced by how we attached or bonded with our parents or caregivers when we were younger.
Anxious preoccupied attachment style may develop in adults who didn’t receive care and safety from a loving parent — whether through childhood trauma, neglect or inconsistent attention.
This lack of attention can have an effect as an adult — especially on romantic and interpersonal relationships. As mentioned above, someone with a preoccupied attachment style needs attention and constant reassurance and may be very dependent on their relationships.
Those with anxious preoccupied attachment styles want intimacy but can also be anxious about whether their romantic partners will meet their needs emotionally and whether recognition from others is honest.
For example, if your significant other spends a party talking or hanging out with other people, it could cause you to feel ignored and upset.
Other traits of anxious preoccupied attachment in adulthood include:
Fear of abandonment
Moody or unpredictable
Difficulty trusting others
Constant need to please others
Lacking impulse control
Always looking for external validation
Insecure adult attachment styles — like anxious preoccupied adults — can impact mental health. Adults with insecure attachments were found to have more severe symptoms of depression and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
If you find yourself struggling with any of the above traits, you may be wondering how to overcome an anxious preoccupied attachment style.
Whether anxious preoccupied attachment is affecting your mental health or not, seeking help through psychological treatment, typically through therapy, is a good first step.
One type of therapy that’s proven to be helpful for insecure attachments, as well as for anxious adults, is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It involves working with a mental health professional to identify unhelpful patterns and behaviors, then developing problem-solving skills to cope.
Since anxious preoccupied attachment styles can also affect a romantic relationship, couples therapy could also be helpful for creating a healthier bond.
Anxious people who have a preoccupied attachment style may also benefit from self-care, as these issues can arise from attachment issues or anxiety in general. Physical activity is one way to reduce any stress or unease about your relationships.
Practicing gratitude can also benefit someone with an anxious attachment style, whether it’s you or your partner.
For anxious adults who find anxiety interfering with their daily activities, a healthcare provider may recommend medication. There are various medications used for anxiety, from antidepressants like sertraline (Zoloft®) and paroxetine (Paxil®) to beta-blockers and benzodiazepines.
If you have an anxious preoccupied attachment style, you may struggle with anxious thoughts about your relationships, like a fear of abandonment or the need for constant reassurance.
However, there are ways to overcome an anxious attachment and have healthier, happier relationships.
Therapy is a good place to talk about your fears and worries, and you can get started with a licensed professional from the comfort of your own couch.