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 they’re mad.
Catastrophic thinking such as imagining the worst-case scenario.
Fantasizing about how you want or don’t want the relationship to be.
Fear that the other person doesn't like you or that you're lacking in some way.
General preoccupation with your partner and how they aren’t living up to your expectations.
Impulses to fix things or prove yourself to the other person.
Feelings of extreme loneliness, emptiness, neediness, clinginess or despair.
Extreme emotional reactivity.
Questioning whether you’re imagining things or overreacting when your partner isn't available in the way you would like them to be.
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 soothe your nervous system, activate a more helpful part of your brain, and restore your sense of inner strength and balance.
7 Unhelpful Habits to Avoid
Self-abandonment. This goes hand in hand with being too available. It can be demoralizing to sit around waiting until someone calls or texts you. It's also not a good idea to chase someone electronically or send too many texts for every one-word response they send to you. This means you’re not valuing your time or boundaries. 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 abandon yourself, you’re teaching people to abandon you.
Abandonment of your values. This means not compromising your values and standards in a relationship. Make a list of non-negotiable standards and keep them nearby. For example, if you don’t want to put up with dishonesty or flakiness, commit to setting a boundary around this, whether that means communicating how you feel and making a request or moving on.
Self-harm instead of self-care. When people experience separation anxiety it usually brings up childhood feelings of pain and despair. When these feelings are overwhelming and intense, you're more likely to engage in unhealthy habits such as binge drinking, overeating, under-eating, or not sleeping enough. This only serves to reinforce the trauma and pain, and it also wears away at your self-worth.
Negative thinking. When people are triggered, it usually begins with negative thinking. You might spend a lot of time in your head engaging in catastrophic thinking, imagining the worst-case scenario, ruminating on past traumas, and all of the reasons why you think you aren’t good enough. This is a coping mechanism, likely developed in childhood to help you deal with the painful reality of your situation by escaping into your mind.
Savior fantasies. If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, it’s likely that you have an unconscious desire to be saved by another person. This will 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 the situation.
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 have to prove something in order to get love. This is a destructive habit in relationships because it makes you susceptible to manipulation, care-taking, overextending yourself, and feeling like you’re never good enough.
Starting a conversation or arguing when you’re triggered. It’s nearly impossible to have a productive conversation when one or both people are emotionally triggered.
7 Productive Ways to Cultivate Healing and Empowerment
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.
Consistent self-care. Do something regenerative that’s just for you, every day. This will help you to release stress and tension while also building internal resources like resilience, mindfulness, and self-worth.
Acknowledge that your inner child is calling for attention. If you ignore this signal, you’re abandoning your inner child. Have compassion and see if you can treat yourself with the same gentleness that you would treat an innocent child. Instead of binging on junk food, go for a walk, draw, drink water, or read an inspiring passage from a book. This is a powerful opportunity to re-parent yourself and heal your brain.
Set boundaries around your thoughts. Remind yourself that even though you’re experiencing negative thoughts that seem real, they aren’t objectively true. Shift your focus to things you are grateful for. Gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to help you shift out of scarcity mentality and reconnect with a perspective of safety and abundance.
Externalize your feelings. This will help you release stress and pent-up emotions. You can experiment with artwork, movement, gardening, singing, or writing. Journaling is also a useful practice--for example, you can write from the perspective of the inner child, asking her/him what they want and need from you. Then, write from the perspective of your most enlightened empowered self and see if this part of yourself has any advice or healing to offer the inner child.
Remember your worth. This will help you avoid putting someone else on a pedestal or abandoning your self. Repeat this mantra: Everyone is equally and inherently worthy. I am worthy of love and acceptance.
Practice mindful communication. If communication is a challenge for you, prepare yourself ahead of time by exploring non-violent communication, or the DBT technique, D-E-A-R-M-A-N. This practice will help you approach the conversation with mindfulness so you can make requests without being needy, bossy, controlling, or avoidant.
When you tend to your own needs, practice self-regulation, self-care, and set healthy boundaries, you’re empowering your worth from within. This will not only improve your sense of well-being, but it will also bring you into alignment with your most authentic, empowered self.
It might be challenging to apply these practices when you’re triggered, but it’s worth the effort. You get back what you put into your self-care, and over time this will incrementally change how you show up in relationships. Be patient with yourself and remember that change is gradual. As you heal your relationship with yourself and re-parent your inner child, this will shift your approach to relationships with others as well.