Attachment Styles and Addiction: Does Insecure Attachment Cause Addictive Behaviors?
Someone who doesn’t establish secure attachment relationships during childhood is at a significantly higher risk of turning to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. This is because adult attachment is closely related to childhood experiences.
Attachment theory suggests that specific attachment patterns impact emotional regulation. If your parents didn’t know how to provide attention, care and love to you as a child, there’s a good chance you’ll struggle to self-regulate as an adult. Keep reading to learn more about the different attachment patterns and how they relate to adult and adolescent substance abuse.
What Are Secure and Insecure Attachment?
When you’re a baby, you form attachment relationships to caregivers to ensure your needs are met while you’re unable to meet them yourself. If an infant feels afraid or endangered or craves attention and affection, a caregiver should be there to offer comfort and protection. When caregivers consistently meet the child’s needs, a secure attachment is established.
Secure attachments show you in your earliest years that relationships — and in turn, the world — are safe and reliable and you’re able to get your needs met. Unhealthy attachments lead to increased stress levels, making it harder to self-regulate and increasing the chances of mental and physical illness.
Healthy attachments promote:
- Interpersonal functioning
- Emotional regulation
- Stress regulation
Secure attachment decreases the chance of:
- Conduct disorder
- Risky sexual behavior
- Anger issues
- Substance abuse
- Interpersonal problems
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
Attachment Theory: Insecure Attachment Styles
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth invented the concept of fostering attachment security in 1991. Put simply, they believe the connections we establish as babies and children form the basis of how we interact with people and the world as adults.
That doesn’t mean attachment styles are set in stone — quite the contrary. With the will to heal and therapy from licensed professionals, anyone can learn how to form and conduct healthy relationships.
Below is an explanation of the three primary insecure attachment styles.
Anxious Attachment Styles
Anxious attachment is usually the result of neglectful or emotionally unavailable parenting. It can lead to an intense fear of abandonment in adulthood that manifests in clingy or controlling behavior in romantic relationships. People with this style of attachment might struggle to set and maintain boundaries, can be hypersensitive to others’ feelings and may constantly worry about not being enough for their partner.
Avoidant Attachment Styles
Avoidant attachment is usually the result of abuse, aggression or severe neglect. In children, it manifests as indifference to caregivers, with avoidants showing no preference between strangers and primary caregivers. Attachment theory assumes that this stems from being punished or ignored when seeking help or comfort, teaching the child to avoid doing so in future.
As adults, people with this attachment style tend to struggle with intimacy and avoid it in relationships. They might seem emotionally unavailable and aloof and shut down when emotionally challenging situations arise.
Disorganized Attachment Style
Attachment theory stresses that people with disorganized attachment have a particularly hard time managing emotions and relationships. They’re unpredictable and frightened and often display atypical behavior for their age. This might include freezing or self-stimulating responses such as head-banging, pacing or skin-picking. Behavior is attributed to fear of a caregiver and the resulting conflict of instinctively wanting to seek comfort but practically wanting to flee.
As an adult, attachment theory posits that individuals with this style crave love and closeness but have strong, deep-rooted fears that people close to them will hurt them. They might seek out intimate relationships enthusiastically but respond to intimacy with fear or even anger.
Many people display generally insecure attachment patterns with a mixture of the different types. Extremely insecure attachment can lead to mental health issues and poor physical health, including substance abuse disorders, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, psychotic disorders or bipolar disorders.
Attachment Disorder, Drug Addiction and Alcohol Abuse
Your specific attachment pattern might have been a risk factor in developing mental disorders like addiction or depression. According to experts, you can think of substance abuse as self-medication. It helps addicted people compensate for the emotional and practical difficulties that arise from insecure attachment.
Let’s look at some of the main reasons problems with early caregivers play such a major role in adult substance abuse issues,
When you’re a defenseless baby and you cry, a caregiver should come to you, pick you up, hold you close and soothe you with words and affection. This isn’t just because it’s kind or the right thing to do — it’s because this is how people learn to manage stress and feel worthy of love.
If your earliest impression of the world is that it’s a place where tears are wiped, love is given and problems are solved, you’ll develop secure attachments. On the other hand, if you cry without comfort or don’t receive consistent care, you learn that the world is scary and your voice isn’t heard.
Many children who experience insufficient care develop emotional issues and low self-esteem because their early experiences teach them that no one comes to help them when they’re in need. Human beings are highly social, and we’ve evolved in part because we’re so good at living in communities and supporting each other. As such, nurture and love from early caregivers is vital for proper emotional development.
Someone whose emotional development was stunted due to poor parenting practices might turn to drugs and alcohol to help them manage their feelings. Substances can stimulate or calm down the immune system, acting as a fast track to feeling better. However, their effectiveness is severely limited. This is because they make the chemicals that govern your emotions even more unbalanced and difficult to control yourself.
Another major reason attachment disorders can lead to substance abuse is loneliness. Insecure attachments make personal relationships difficult to maintain, including friendships, familial relationships and romantic relationships.
For people experiencing isolation, drugs and alcohol can be incredibly comforting. When you don’t have loved ones to lift you up, celebrate successes with or confide in, life can feel chaotic and empty. Substances can take a person out of their mind, slowing down racing thoughts or inducing pleasure chemically to act as a Band-Aid over emotional wounds.
However, using drugs ultimately makes it harder and harder to manage feelings of isolation. As you become increasingly dependent on them, their effects diminish and you need more and more to get relief from your feelings. Eventually, they may stop producing the desired effects altogether and leave you feeling worse than ever.
Other Risk Factors for Addiction
Attachment style is just one risk factor in the development of addiction. Drug-dependent adolescents are at the greatest risk of struggling with substance abuse disorders in later life. Other major risk factors include:
- Genetic factors such as personality traits, parental addiction and neurobiology
- Environmental factors such as early exposure to substances, peer pressure and lack of parental supervision
- Mental health disorders
- Using highly addictive drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine
- Using substances that you smoke or inject
Treatment: Insecure Attachment
No matter what your childhood was like, it’s possible to treat attachment-related disorders alongside addiction. It’s a good idea to seek out individual therapy in addition to group therapy and where possible, get a couples or family therapist to help you work through issues with loved ones.
Some of the techniques a therapist might use include:
- Resolving trauma and grief relating to early experiences
- Identifying unhelpful beliefs and thinking patterns and learning how to restructure them
- Developing a more positive view of yourself
- Learning to communicate your needs and feelings effectively
- Practicing new behaviors
- Establishing a positive, secure attachment with your therapist
Having an addiction isn’t a life sentence provided you get the help and support you deserve. Seeking help as someone with an attachment disorder isn’t easy, but it’s the best way to move forward and break free of the habits and behaviors that hold you back. Let’s take a quick look at what to expect from drug and alcohol treatment.
Drug and Alcohol Detox
Before you start doing the work necessary to overcome addiction, you’ll need to go through detox. This is the process of purging your system of all toxins and chemicals so your mind is clear enough for treatment.
For many people, a complete change of scenery is necessary to break free from addiction. Residential rehab provides the perfect opportunity to hit the reset button and make a fresh start with a new, healthy routine that’s been curated by experts.
Perhaps the most important element of addiction treatment is therapy for regulating negative affect. Cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, EMDR and neurobehavioral therapy are just a few of the most effective treatments for addiction and attachment disorders.
Attachment-based family therapy is a great way to overcome issues with substance abuse and attachment. In these sessions, a therapist might help you and your loved ones:
- Focus on interpersonal development
- Learn to set healthy boundaries
- Promote autonomy and competence
- Establish trust and communication between families