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How to overcome anxious attachment style

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When Carol was a child, her mother often struggled with anxiety. She was insecure in her relationship with her daughter, and she felt threatened by Carol’s relationships with her friends. To keep Carol close, her mother enforced strict rules about how often she could see and interact with her friends. 

As Carol grew into adulthood, the template her mother had modeled for her became her internal working model for relationships. She believes all relationships work this way, because this is what was normalized for her.

At work, Carol is known as a micromanager. She has to know what everyone on her staff is working on and how they’re accomplishing their tasks. There’s frequent turnover among her staff due to a lack of autonomy, but Carol values the feedback from her supervisors that her team is efficient, organized, and strong in accomplishing tasks. She attributes this feedback to her micromanagement.

At home, Carol runs a tight ship. There are schedules posted around the house to let everyone know what they should be doing at any given time. She keeps her children’s free time very structured and has rules about their interactions with friends. Her youngest child was recently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and Carol is looking into treatment options.

Carol’s husband has expressed discontent with the amount of structure and support she gives their children. He has tried to negotiate with her about the children’s being able to engage in free time or make some of their own age-appropriate decisions, but she resists seeing things from his point of view. 

Deep down, Carol is concerned that one wrong choice could derail all the hard work she’s put into making sure that their lives are as well balanced as possible. As a result, Carol and her husband have been having more arguments. 

Every time Carol and her husband argue, she feels more anxious about their relationship. And the more anxious she feels, the more attention and support she seeks from him to feel close.

Do you recognize yourself in Carol’s story? If you do, you may have an insecure attachment style called anxious attachment.

Understanding anxious attachment

An anxious attachment style (a pattern of interacting in relationships) is an insecure connection characterized by a lack of trust. When you feel anxious in a relationship, you have a hard time resting and relaxing into the relationship. 

The insecurity you feel from anxious attachment can lead you to seek control so you can manage your anxiety. Unfortunately, trying to control everything can have a negative impact on your relationships.

It’s not your fault for having an anxious attachment style. It’s not appropriate to blame your parents for it either—parents have no idea that they’re modeling their own insecure attachment styles for their children.

Why secure attachment is a healthy goal

Secure attachment is characterized by attunement in relationships, which involves meeting each other’s needs. This leads to the development of trust. 

Trust makes it feel safe to be vulnerable and share your thoughts and feelings. Without trust, vulnerability feels risky and is therefore often avoided. 

When both people in a relationship accept, validate, and support each other, it becomes easier to be vulnerable with each other. This is where secure attachment forms. 

A secure attachment relationship is a refuge from the world—a safe place. It’s a space that you can go to any time for comfort, closeness, and problem solving. 

Moving toward secure attachment

It’s important to recognize that your attachment style is merely a reflection of learned patterns of behaviors. The good news is that you can relearn and find new ways of relating. Here’s where to start:

Step 1: Increase your awareness

Moving toward more secure connections starts by becoming more aware of your patterns. Taking some time to journal or create a chart where you can record the interactions you have with significant others each day is a great first step. It will help you see your patterns more clearly. 

Think about which behaviors create positive and negative feelings within your relationships. As you become more aware of your behavior patterns, this will also help to increase mindfulness in the moment of interaction.

Step 2: Use anxiety management strategies

The next step involves learning strategies that can help you manage anxiety in the moment. Breathing, movement, or grounding techniques are all good strategies. 

Box breathing is one technique you may want to try. Start by breathing in for a count of four, holding the breath for a count of four, breathing out for a count of four, then holding for another count of four.

If you prefer to shift anxious energy out of your system through movement, try doing a few yoga poses or taking a walk outside. 

And lastly, grounding techniques involve using the five senses. A great intervention is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

Step 3: Change the way you think about control

Relationships automatically become healthier when you’re able to let go of your need to feel in control all the time. Remember that you can only control yourself—you have no control over others. 

In terms of what you can control, think more in terms of problem solving, creating a plan, and putting that plan into action. Regarding what you can’t control: You must learn to accept it. Once you’ve accepted that you can’t control everything, you can shift your focus toward taking care of your emotions using strategies like the ones described in step two, above.

Step 4: Develop healthy relationship-building skills

Finding a calm balance in your relationships can increase your ability to use compromise and negotiation as relational skills. Allowing trust to grow and working in coordination with the other person can strengthen that relationship. 

When you experience anxiety about the relationship, try thinking about some of its strengths, such as the things your partner has told you they like about you or the relationship. You can use these to create positive affirmations and mantras like “This relationship is a safe place,” or “I’m okay.” 

Work on coming up with statements like these when you’re not feeling anxious and when you feel confident in the relationship. Writing them down and reading them silently or out loud to yourself during those lower moments can be a big help.

You deserve happiness in your relationships

Remember that relationships are living things that need to be invested in to stay healthy. Think about what you are investing in the relationship. This is what you control and can change.

Now think about what your partner invests. Use these thoughts to help build your confidence in the relationship, keeping in mind that it’s a two-way street. You’re both investing in it because you both see the value in the connection. 

Finding confidence and security in your relationships will continue to help serve you in your journey toward secure attachment. It’s never too late to make healthy relationship choices!

About the author

Christina Reese, PhD, LCPC, has been working with children impacted by trauma for over 15 years. A passionate advocate for children and their families, she has worked with children in schools, court-ordered drug treatment, residential treatment centers, and the community. Her book, “Attachment: 60 Trauma-Informed Assessment and Treatment Interventions Across the Lifespan,” offers trauma-informed strategies to facilitate connection, rebuild trust, and restore positive emotions. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maryland and Pennsylvania, as well as a licensed clinical supervisor. She received her master’s in community counseling from McDaniel College and her PhD in counselor education from George Washington University.

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