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Anxiety and Attachment Styles: A game of cat-and-mouse


Guest blogger: Emma Sartwell, owner of Somatic Spiritual Counseling

It’s been four hours.

You check your phone—he hasn’t responded. Maybe the little red number just isn’t showing up? You open the app—still nothing. Maybe my text didn’t go through? It did. I wish he had read the receipts. Maybe he’s at work, in meetings. Maybe he lost his phone. He probably realized I wasn’t the person he thought I was and he’s never going to text me again—I knew this would happen. Maybe he died in a car accident—I think that would be better. No, definitely not better. I shouldn’t have sent that monkey emoji—how stupid was that? I’ve definitely screwed this up. And he was so amazing. I’m too needy. I suck. I knew he didn’t like me . . . Maybe if I text him again, then he’ll see both texts . . .

Have you ever had a thought spiral like this?

Or maybe you’ve been on the other end of the partnership and your thoughts run more like this:

Why is he texting me again? Can’t he wait until I respond before sending another one? He’s so needy—I can’t do this. Why do men always try to take up my whole life? Doesn’t he have anything better to do? God, he must be an incredibly boring person who just sits around waiting for me to text back. Maybe if I text just one word, he’ll get the picture to cool it and act like a rational, self-sufficient adult. Doesn’t he know this is unattractive? Ugh, and that desperate monkey emoji . . .

If you can relate to these scenarios, then you probably also know the anxiety that comes with these dynamics. It may be harder to identify the anxiety in the second type of person, who may seem (and believe themselves to be) calm, cool, and collected, but both sides of this dichotomy are acting from fear: fear of abandonment or fear of engulfment.

In attachment theory, the first type of person would be said to be operating from an anxious-ambivalent style, and the second from an anxious-avoidant style.

What Are The Attachment Styles?

Let’s back up: if you know something about attachment theory, you have probably heard of Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation study. She examined toddlers’ reactions to the comings and goings of their primary caregivers. Based on their responses to separation and reunion, she postulated four basic attachment styles: ambivalent, avoidant, disorganized, and secure. (There are some subtypes and mixtures that we won’t go into here.)

I’m going to give a quick and dirty rundown of the four types below—see if you recognize yourself or your loved ones.

Ambivalent children have caregivers who are sometimes attuned and sometimes misattuned or absent (which could be due to intoxication, their own trauma, illness, etc). This inconsistency makes it hard for children to relax. They may be inconsolable when the caregiver leaves, but not relieved by their return, approaching and then pushing away. They desperately want the connection but are angry about the constant threat of disconnect. This is the type of person who perseverates about an unanswered text, in an attempt to regulate their anxiety.

The avoidant type has even less of their needs met by caregivers, who may be neglectful, resentful, or absent. The child’s response is to repress their needs. When their caregiver leaves, they appear not to care, and when their caregiver returns, they also appear not to care. As adults, these people may believe they are unaffected when people come and go, or others may even annoy them in the solitary comfort they have created. But underneath their solitude, the avoidant is distressed and still has their unmet needs driving their reactions to others.

Disorganized children have their attachment system fused with their trauma system: this means that the people they need to be close to are also people they need to get away from (either because those people are abusive or they have so much of their own unworked trauma that it creates a field of fear and insecurity). These children have inconsistent responses to caregivers because they are trapped in a horrible catch-22.

Finally, secure children have their needs, particularly their needs for closeness and space, mirrored and responded to in an attuned way, enough of the time. These children have some manageable, temporary distress when the attachment figure leaves and is happy at their return.

Your Attachment Style + Anxiety

Some researchers say up to 70% of people are securely attached, but I prefer to think of attachment as a fluid spectrum, with “securely attached” being an abstract ideal like “perfect health.” We are all at different points in relation to this idea, and our location will change based on who we’re in connection with, what’s going on in our lives, what resources are available to us, and many other factors.

We each have our own flavor of attachment anxiety, but the good news is that we’re not stuck in one place forever: we all have the capacity to work with ourselves and our patterns and gain empowerment.

By taking a look inside, we can start taking responsibility for our reactions and asking for what we need. There is no shame in asking for more closeness or more space, and sometimes, when we get what we need, we find we need less of it over time, freeing us up to be more comfortable in a wider range of situations.

And texting will certainly be easier.

Notes From Mindi

Regardless of your attachment style, there are so many ways to begin healing and repairing the psychological wounds we carry with us from childhood. If we don’t work on this, they will often find their sneaky ways into our adult lives whether we want them to or not. 
Attachment styles can heal with something called, “Earned Secure Attachment.” This is the invitation of someone with a healthy, secure attachment style to support you in creating a stable foundation for yourself while you heal. When someone with an insecure attachment style has just ONE person in their world with a secure attachment, it can make a world of difference as it enables us to have a mirror, to build trust, to learn boundaries, and to KNOW that we matter. 
At Inner Ocean  Center for Healing, we are happy to talk with you about any of this and more. Please also check out Mindi’s online course for anxiety where you have a chance to take a deep dive into the root cause of your anxiety, including working on your attachment style, drawing from Chinese medicine supports, and building warm, secure, trusting relationships. 

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