According to attachment theory, attachment is the emotional bond between an infant and their caregiver (Bowlby, 1973). He describes attachment theory as an innate biological response that helps satisfy our basic human needs. Both he and Ainsworth (1979), another prominent attachment theorist, studied the link between maternal loss or deprivation and later personality development. They observed that an infant’s relationship with their caregiver influences their attachment style and how they perceive relationships throughout life.
There are four main attachment types:
The behavior of the primary caregivers (usually one’s parents) contributes to and forms the way a child perceives close relationships. The child is dependent on their caregivers and seeks comfort and support from them. If the child’s physical and emotional needs are satisfied, they become securely attached. This, however, requires that the caregivers offer a warm and caring environment and are attuned to the child’s needs, even when these needs are not clearly expressed (Paquette, 2020). If the child’s needs are not met, then they will develop an insecure attachment style of avoidant, anxious, or disorganized.
Having a secure attachment style has been linked with a wide range of psychosocial benefits, such as emotional regulation, positive mental health, and interpersonal functioning. It’s beneficial for emotional regulation because it helps improve resilience, social competence, and self-worth. It also has been linked to an improved ability to exhibit more productive coping mechanisms when distressed, compared to those with insecure attachment styles. In adults, secure attachment is characterized by comfort within close relationships and a generally positive view of the self and others (Justo-Nunez et al., 2022). On the other hand, those with insecure attachment styles need help when regulating their emotions and responding to stressful situations. This is because caregivers who are inconsistent will cause the child to feel unsupported and will hinder their ability to self-regulate. This can then manifest as an insecure attachment style. Kawamoto (2020) studied the anxiety attachment style in particular and found a positive association between self-esteem and self-concept clarity among those low in attachment anxiety. This suggests the importance of attachment styles in influencing self-development in adolescents and young adults.
In another study, research showed that a variety of life events are associated with changes in adult attachment styles. Fraley et al. (2021) followed 4,000 people during a variety of life events (e.g., starting new relationships, changing jobs, moving, etc.) and found that almost half had immediate changes in their attachment styles. The ways in which people perceived the events (positive vs. negative) were related to the extent to which their attachment styles changed. And although people tended to revert back to their original attachment style, it’s interesting to note that attachment styles have the ability to change.
In regard to which attachment style has a major impact on mental health, Serra and others (2019) found that insecure attachment styles, especially in young adults, were found to be associated with substance use disorder. Specifically, students who identified with one of the three insecure attachment styles were more likely to engage in polydrug use such as tobacco, cannabis, and alcohol use. This may be due to the fact that those with insecure attachment styles have less ability to cope in a healthy way and are more likely to rely on external factors to help meet their emotional and psychological needs (Nakhoul et al., 2020). This suggests that attachment styles can play a key role in the development of addictions.
Although attachment styles have been explored to have a major impact on mental health, they can also impact the effectiveness of therapy. Sauer (2020) examined whether client attachment styles impact their progress in psychotherapy. They measured all attachment styles and found that the anxiety attachment style predicted the most change in progress during therapy. Therapy was observed as being more effective with patients exhibiting low attachment anxiety, compared to individuals scoring high in attachment anxiety (Sauer, 2020).
With everything discussed, we know that attachment styles are formed in childhood by our parents and caregivers. They represent how we perceive relationships as adults, and can be changed by life events. The effects of the anxious attachment style may manifest in substance use disorder and can impact the effectiveness of therapy. If you are interested in knowing which attachment style you have, you can take the assessment here.