What does anxious attachment mean, why does it happen, and how can you challenge it–even if you never realized it applied to you?

Anxious attachment is one of four main attachment styles, which are patterns of relating to others, usually formed in childhood. 

Most of the time, when you hear about anxious attachment, you will think of associated behaviors such as asking for constant reassurance, feelings of low self-esteem or insecurity, and clinginess. However, anxious attachment goes beyond these obvious signs. 

Anxious attachment can manifest in different ways. It can even be hidden. But the persistent characteristic is that people with anxious attachment fear abandonment. This fear causes all kinds of coping mechanisms we may not notice–until they wreck our relationships from the inside out. 

Is it possible that you could have an anxious attachment style in relationships without realizing it? In this article, we’ll address what it means to have an anxious attachment style, as well as why it happens and how to challenge it. 

What Are Attachment Styles?

Anxious attachment refers to a pattern of relating to others based on fear of rejection or abandonment. There are four primary attachment styles: 

  • Secure. Secure attachment is ideal. It is characterized by trust, the ability to self-regulate and express needs or feelings in relationships, the ability to accept support when one desires to, self-esteem, and (typically) lasting relationships. This form of attachment allows for healthy interdependence. 
  • Anxious. Sometimes also known as “preoccupied,” anxious attachment is characterized by clinginess, fear of abandonment, codependency, and a need for excessive reassurance. Jealousy and low self-esteem or confidence are common features.  
  • Avoidant. Sometimes also known as “dismissive,” avoidant attachment is characterized by difficulty building close relationships and an excessive need for independence. One may push others away and struggle to get close or be vulnerable in an intimate connection.
  • Disorganized. Sometimes also known as “fearful-avoidant,” disorganized attachment is characterized by intense fear and a mixture of avoidant/anxious traits. Getting close to others feels like a threat to the nervous system. So, someone may swing from clinginess or codependency to an excessive need for independence. 

Our attachment style creates patterns in our social and romantic relationships. While patterns associated with insecure attachment are often attempts to keep ourselves safe, they may actually hurt our relationships and make our lives harder. 

What Is Anxious Attachment Style?

How do you determine whether or not you have anxious attachment? While it can show up in different ways, anxious attachment is characterized by three main features: 

1) A preoccupation with fears of separation.

2) A desire to keep others close at any cost. 

3) A need for reassurance. 

These characteristics cause individuals to feel insecure when separated from loved ones and to seek out reassurance when feeling threatened. If someone doesn’t have the coping skills needed to address the fear of abandonment, feelings of anxiety, the desire to be “good enough,” and so on, it only makes sense that a person will seek security in the best way they can with what they have–including through maladaptive behaviors and patterns that can hide in plain sight. 

How Anxious Attachment Hides In Plain Sight

Insecure attachment has been linked to anxiety disorders such as social phobia (now called social anxiety disorder), panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and major depressive disorder (MDD). It’s also associated with other emotional and behavioral disorders, including substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicide attempts

Here are some hidden behaviors you might not realize are associated with an anxious attachment style:

  • You are afraid to say “no” or turn down an invitation. Sometimes, it isn’t that a person with anxious attachment texts excessively, gets upset when their partner says no to meeting up, or otherwise experiences “clinginess” outwardly. It can also be internal. This might mean that you cross your own boundaries or find it tough to honor your own needs. Say that you are busy and have no choice but to turn down your new love interest’s invitation to dinner – you may fear then that they will leave because you were not able to go, or that the opportunity won’t arise again. As a result, your distress may be disproportionate. A partner may even wonder why you are so upset that you can’t go or need to reschedule. 
  • You get nervous when your partner is in a bad mood, tired, or if they appear distant, even if you know it isn’t to do with you. For example, maybe they work late and take more time to text back than usual – they might let you know this, and you may still feel rejected or abandoned. 
  • Feelings of insecurity heighten in new relationships. Your overall feelings of insecurity might heighten in new relationships due to the fear of being left. You might worry about whether or not you will continue to be “good enough” for the partner. 
  • Negative thoughts or coping skills re-emerge as you become closer to someone. If you’ve ever thought, “my partner makes my anxiety worse,” or wonder why you go back to old, maladaptive coping skills as you start a relationship, it could be anxious attachment. Since close relationships can make those with anxious attachment feel as vulnerable (or otherwise activated) as they do, it could seem that your mental health worsens during this time – even if the relationship is a healthy and compatible one.
  • You use passive or indirect communication. You are afraid to ask for what you need, so you hint indirectly (e.g., an attempt to communicate that you’re upset by slamming cupboards in the kitchen rather than letting the other person know, or silently resenting a partner for not giving you something, like more affection or quality time, you never expressed a need for). 

Why Do People Have An Anxious Attachment Style?

Attachment theory suggests that the way we connect to caregivers in childhood has a direct impact on adult relationships. Anxious attachment is common among people who have parents that were abusive, narcissistic, or, perhaps more frequently, unreliable or emotionally unavailable. 

Sometimes, when we think of whether or not our needs were met as children, we think of physical needs. However, emotional needs are needs, too. Maybe, your parents weren’t savvy on how to meet your emotional needs as a child. Perhaps, you experienced trauma or live with a mental health condition. 

Anxious attachment isn’t only based in childhood. It could also be that you have had a series of unstable relationships in adulthood. All of these things can influence the way you attach to other people. 

It can be hard to hold space for ourselves and the ways that our needs weren’t met, when we know that our caregivers tried their best. But it is also important to acknowledge your own needs and experiences. You deserve to hold space for yourself, have healthy bonds, and heal, regardless of your privilege or others’ good intentions. 

How Can Anxious Attachment Hurt Your Relationships?

What are the specific ways that anxious attachment can hurt your relationships? If you’ve ever searched for “how to fix anxious attachment style,” it’s likely that you have experienced negative effects of some kind, that you feel may connect to your attachment style. Here are some of the possible impacts you might notice: 

  • It can make you take others’ boundaries personally.
  • It can make you take others’ struggles personally.
  • It can make you too on-edge to enjoy nice moments in relationships.
  • It can make you detach in relationships to avoid getting hurt (anxious-avoidant attachment).
  • It can create a reactive, hot/cold, push/pull dynamic in your relationships (anxious-ambivalent).
  • It can make it hard to set your own boundaries or otherwise speak up (out of fear of being left, or out of fear of being “too much”). 

At times, people even find that anxious attachment hurts them internally. The good news is that there are ways to stop anxious attachment from hurting your relationships, or your own mental health. Even though you may still notice little blips, awareness is a major positive step, and it can help you move through those blips. 

Ways To Challenge (and even fix) Anxious Attachment

Here are some ways to challenge anxious attachment and move toward more secure attachment:

  • Identify behaviors related to anxious attachment. The first step to challenging and healing anxious attachment is often to identify it in the first place. 
  • Learn to self-soothe. Positive affirmations, creative activities, and reaching out to your support system are all examples of healthy ways to self-soothe.
  • Reframe thoughts before you act. Do you have the urge to text a partner excessively? What about the urge to ask if they love you not once, but three, four, or five times that day? Are the anxious thoughts creeping up? These are all signs that it may be time to pause and reframe. 
  • Discuss attachment with a partner. Have a conversation with your partner about attachment as a whole; both yours and theirs. During that conversation, discuss your anxious attachment and how it shows up. Then, both of you can discuss your needs and what you can do to support the other. 
  • Seek partners that desire investment. Stable relationships can be crucial for those with anxious attachment. Consistent communication, healthy reassurance, affection, and trust can all be green flags. If you are single, verbalize what you’re looking for upfront (e.g., “Ideally, I’d like a long-term partner”). 
  • Work on overall self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is associated with positive emotional well-being. When you have self-acceptance, it can be easier to reframe your fears as well as thoughts of jealousy, low self-worth, and so on. 

As you work to build a sense of security and trust for your inner self, you may find that many of the feelings and actions associated with anxious attachment heal. If you need someone to talk to about relationships and attachment, or something else, Supportiv can help. Whether it’s a relationship that’s on your mind or something else, our peer support network is available 24/7.