Written by Dr. Dino Zuccarini and Tatijana Busic
Welcome to our third blog on anxiety! Today, we’ll be sharing some interesting information about anxiety and your relationships to others, such as your partner and children.
Several decades ago a British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, developed attachment theory, which provides a framework to understand how we experience our self and others in our relationships. Attachment theory helps explain the anxiety we can experience in relationships.
Attachment theory suggests that as human beings we are biologically hard-wired to seek out others and to connect to them—emotionally, psychologically and physically. These connections provide nurturance, soothing, contact and comfort to help us ease distress in everyday life. Attachment is from the ‘cradle to the grave’—-beginning with the soothing, non-verbal communications between a mother and child (e.g., comfort of a mother’s sound, smell and gaze to newborns) through to the nurturing, caring and intimate moments in our adult relationships with our partners (e.g., emotional, physical and sexual intimacy). Our experiences in these close relationships—from childhood and throughout our lives—play a role in determining something psychologists refer to as our attachment style.
When we have experiences in which our primary attachment figures (i.e., mother, father or whomever took care of us when we were younger) have been generally responsive to our feelings and needs growing up, we learn to be securely attached to others. In these circumstances, we develop a positive sense of our self— we see ourselves as competent, worthwhile, and lovable. We are also more likely to see other people in a positive light— reliable, dependable, and trustworthy. Early attachment relationships are the primary mechanism for developing our capacity for healthy relationships with others. We learn how to tune into our own feelings and needs and express them to others. We also learn how to empathize with others — the ability to tune into what others are feeling and respond appropriately. We also discover how to create closeness with others, while being independent and tolerating distance from our loved ones.
When we are raised in inconsistent environments — too much or not enough attention from our caregivers — then we might become anxiously attached to others. An anxiously attached person may have a negative sense of self —and may see themselves as unlovable or unworthy of care — while continuing to hold out hope that others are trustworthy, reliable and will eventually respond to their connection needs. An anxiously attached individual may experience fear about the availability of important people in their lives—they become preoccupied with how available their partner, friends or family members are to respond to their feelings and needs. These individuals may express a lot of emotional distress to communicate their feelings, needs and concerns to others, and at times, may come across as demanding in their efforts to solicit attention, care and support—this kind of anxious attachment can be overwhelming for others.
When you are anxiously attached, you also tend to overly rely on your children and partner for reassurance, affirmation and validation. You overly seek out others to reassure you and to soothe your anxiety about others not being available to you. You may need too much closeness and those around you might feel smothered. Your children and partner may get a sense that there is not a lot of room for them in the relationship — and stop sharing with you as a result — or they themselves might have to increase their expressions to been seen and heard.
If we are raised in environments where others were harsh and rejecting, we may become avoidantly attached to others. This attachment style makes expressing needs or feelings really hard—the other person is viewed negatively as unreliable and undependable during a moment of need. Avoidantly attached people experience significant amounts of anxiety as a result of the unavailability of their caregivers—however, their strategy is different than the anxiously avoidant—they learn how to avoid emotions to deal with emotional distress.
When distressed, avoidantly attached individuals struggle to express their feelings and needs—and, dependency on others for care and support does not seem possible during these moments. When dealing with difficult life moments they dismiss their own and others’ emotions as a strategy to cope—expressing themselves feels risky and may subject them to painful rejection once more. As a result of this strategy, children or partners may feel that you are unavailable or unable to tune into or attend to their emotional needs while you seek even more distance to avoid difficult feelings. Given these difficulties avoidantly attached individuals often over focus on tasks, rules and duties in their relationships—while struggling to understand others’ feelings and needs. This avoidance often results in significant others becoming anxious and distressed because they feel you are unavailable and unable to connect with them.
Here are some tips on how to deal with attachment anxiety or avoidance in your relationships:
For the anxiously attached:
- If you are anxious and preoccupied in your relationships, start working on developing a greater sense of yourself — learn how to enjoy a good book, find a hobby, keep yourself busy with activities—as opposed to being overly preoccupied with your children and partner.
- When you are worried about whether or not others are there for you, remember a time that you felt connected to others. Reframe how you think about the absence of loved ones. Try not to get overwhelmed by negative thoughts about their absence (e.g., I’m alone, I miss them), and focus on positive thoughts and feelings (e.g., I look forward—and feel excitement—thinking about my beloved returning home).
- Try to notice when you may be seeking too much closeness or reassurance from others and try to slow this process down. Although you are feeling fearful or doubtful about whether those closest to you love you—the more you do this, the more they might push you away. Learn to recognize
thementaland physical cues of anxiety and learn to calm yourself prior to communicating toothers.
For the avoidantly attached:
- Notice what you are thinking and feeling in these situations. Practice giving your feelings and needs a label—What do you feel and need? Take a risk to express these feelings and needs to a close friend or your partner.
- Learn how to recognize and attune to others’ feelings and needs. If you are not sure, ask them what they need or how they feel. Remember that the more you distance in moments of distress (yours or others), the more distress you create in your relationships.
- Recognize when you are distancing
fromyourself and others. Try to observe yourself inmomentsof emotional discomfort and to catch yourself in this distancing strategy.
A psychologist can help you assess your attachment style and its impact on important relationships (i.e., relationship with family, partner, children, friends and colleagues). After identifying your attachment style, a psychologist can help you to understand your own emotional reactions and needs and communicate to others more effectively. A psychologist can also help you learn how to respond to others’ feelings and needs so your relationships feel more secure and more satisfying.
Read more about CFIR’s Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.