Sam is a senior in high school with an anxious attachment style. On the surface, she's a straight-A student with lots of friends and a long-term relationship. But internally, she's struggling with:
- Needing constant reassurance from her partner
- Reading deeply into her partner’s change in emotions
- Feeling possessive or jealous of her friends' other friendships
- Anxiety about any type of rejection
- Fear of being alone
While it is impossible to accurately diagnose or describe an individual with limited information, the above sample character description captures many of the common traits seen in people with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style, which we explore below.
What are attachment styles?
Attachment styles are the types of behavior individuals showcase in and around relationships with others. Attachment styles can describe all kinds of relationships – friendships, romantic relationships, relationships between parents and their children, and more.
Knowing what your attachment style is can help you better understand why you feel certain emotions regarding relationships. These feelings may include fear and disgust, anxiety and vulnerability, security and confidence, or others.
Keep in mind that it is always possible to move from an unhealthy, or insecure, attachment style to a more secure one through the help of therapy or other types of support. Additionally, it is entirely possible to have more than one attachment style.
The basis of the four attachment styles rests on how individuals view themselves and how individuals view others.
What does this mean?
Ask yourself the following two questions:
- Do you believe you are worthy of love and support?
- Do you think other people are trustworthy, available, and accepting?
Based on your answers to the two questions above, a table of four attachment styles (below) is created.
The focus of this blog post is the attachment style in the top right corner, titled “Preoccupied.” Individuals who fall into this type of attachment style would generally answer “no” to the first question above and “yes” to the second.
What is an anxious-preoccupied attachment style?
Individuals within the anxious-preoccupied attachment style have a negative view of themselves and have a hard time believing they are worthy of love. At the same time, they have a positive view of others. Due to this combination, this attachment style describes individuals who strive for self-acceptance by gaining acceptance of valued others. These individuals want relationships but constantly worry about rejection from their relationships, friendships, romantic interactions, and more.
In a research article introducing the four-category model of attachment styles, researchers studied students in an introductory psychology course and asked them to fill out questionnaires. These questionnaires asked questions about demographics, friendships, self-esteem, self-acceptance, sociability, relationships, interpersonal problems.
From information gathered in the study, we know that individuals with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style are more likely to do the following:
Express themselves emotionally
Examples of this behavior may include crying frequently or crying in the presence of others frequently. It may also include revealing private information about themselves easily to others, sometimes even making others feel uncomfortable or oversharing.
Care strongly for others
Individuals with anxious-preoccupied attachment styles place others in high regard. They care deeply for others and often have less of a balance of control in friendships, which may lead them to be taken advantage of.
Lean on others emotionally
People with this attachment style feel that they need to use others as a sense of security, especially because they do not feel great about themselves. This can sometimes lead to codependency or other types of toxic relationships.
Have low self-esteem
Anxious-avoidant individuals are less self-confident and try to find a sense of self through constant reassurance from others. This can lead to being manipulated by others or not believing your own feelings or gut instincts.
What might cause someone to be anxious or preoccupied in relationships?
Charlie Health clinicians explain that the way we learn to attach to others is through the type of care we receive early in childhood. As a result, the following parental behaviors may lead to a child with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style.
- Inconsistent care
Parents who do not consistently provide care and are not consistently responsive to their child.
- Neglect or abuse
Children who experience neglect or abuse may have low self-esteem and worry about the reliability of caretakers or other relationships.
- Poor emotional regulation
Parents who have anxiety themselves, are not able to regulate their own emotions, or have poor emotional boundaries with their child.
It is also possible for an individual without any of the above experiences to develop an anxious-preoccupied attachment style. Through therapy, these individuals can work to understand the reasoning behind their fears and anxieties and move to a healthier and more secure attachment style.
Does having an anxious attachment style mean I have an anxiety disorder?
People who have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style worry and have anxiety about the relationships they are in. They fear rejection from the people they care about–sometimes even from strangers. This differs from anxiety disorders such as general anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder, reviewed below. It is certainly possible that individuals with this attachment style have overlapping anxiety disorders as well.
Generalized anxiety disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a disorder in which individuals have excess worry or fear about everyday events or circumstances. Individuals with GAD may feel worry related to typical stressful situations or topics – for example body image, trying to fit in at school, grades, family stressors, and more. However the worry and anxiety in individuals with GAD is more intense and lasts longer.
People who have GAD may be told that they are a perfectionist and worry about things that are not a big deal, think frequently about worst case scenarios, and need constant reassurance. In addition, they may have physical signs such as restlessness, difficulty with sleep, difficulty controlling feelings of worry, or issues with self-confidence or self-esteem. Therapy and, if needed, medication can help these individuals cope with this condition.
Social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is a type of anxiety disorder in which individuals have severe and often crippling anxiety related to social situations. These situations may include cafeterias, public parks, gyms, restaurants, work, school, or more. Symptoms may include fear of embarrassing oneself, fear of judgment, and even physical signs such as a rapid heart rate or shortness of breath that can lead to a panic attack.
When social anxiety disorder is severe, individuals will often go to great lengths to avoid situations that they feel are outside of their control and comfort zone.
Through therapy, individuals with social anxiety disorder can challenge negative thoughts and face situations that feel scary. Research has found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a particularly useful treatment modality for social anxiety disorder, among other types of anxiety disorders.
Moving from an insecure to a secure attachment style
Because individuals with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style often have low self-esteem, therapy can be a good way to help these individuals be more confident, have more of a balance in relationships with others, and regulate their emotions.
Some ways in which therapy can help include:
- Understanding why you feel anxious in relationships
- Unpacking why you might have low self-esteem
- Process past traumas that might be contributing to your anxious attachment style
- Prioritizing yourself and your feelings
- Discussing ways in which you can make time to engage in interests and hobbies that you enjoy independently without feeling a need to rely on others
- Working on self-care
Trauma-informed therapy at Charlie Health
At Charlie Health, we’re here to help. Our virtual IOP focuses on helping clients ages 12-28 work through serious mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, trauma, self harm, behavioral issues and more. We know that healing starts at the root, and sometimes that means getting to the core of your attachment style. Get started today.