One of the challenges of being human is to achieve a balance between conflicting desires for independence (individuality and freedom) and the desire for intimacy and acceptance by significant others. The need for affiliation is rooted in our attachment system. Attachment is an inborn system that motivates an infant to seek proximity to a caregiver, especially in dangerous and uncertain situations.
The attachment system plays an important role in emotion regulation allowing individuals to deal with distressing events. When individuals (infants, children, or adults) are threatened or challenged, the attachment system becomes activated and triggers efforts to alleviate distress and restore felt security. In response, the attachment figure provides comfort and reassurance, thereby allowing distressed individuals to regain a sense of calm.
A sense of felt security provides confidence that one is worthy of others’ love and that important figures in your life will be responsive and supportive when needed. This sense of security is a resilience resource in times of need and a building block for mental health and social adjustment. Secure people perceive themselves as valuable, lovable, and special. They feel understood, validated, and accepted by their attachment figures.
Repeated interactions with the attachment figures are mentally formed as “if-then” strategies for stress management: “If I turn to my partner, then I will feel safe.” As a result of conditioning, the person providing the comfort becomes a cue for a sense of safety and relief. That is, simply thinking about the attachment figure, even in the absence of the attachment figure’s actual presence, can help one feel calm and safe.
But when a person’s attachment figures are unreliable or rejecting, the person may become chronically insecure with respect to close relationships. An insecurely attached individual doubts the availability and support of others and worries about one’s social value. Consequently, they adopt different strategies for dealing with threats and negative emotions. These insecure patterns of behaviors are known as defensive avoidance and anxious attachment.
Avoidant style involves denying attachment needs, suppressing attachment-related thoughts and emotions. An avoidant person distrusts relationship partners’ goodwill and tries to maintain emotional independence and distance. The avoidant individual feels trapped when they are too close to others.
In contrast, a person high in attachment anxiety worries that a partner will not be available in times of need. An anxious person makes insistent attempts to obtain reassurance and love from others, partly because of the person’s self-doubts about his or her worthiness. Anxiously attached people are preoccupied with rejection fears. These fears may motivate them to use sex, which is a prominent route for seeking proximity, to serve their unmet attachment needs (for example, achieving intimacy, approval, and reassurance).
Early attachment interactions sometimes shape people’s attachment patterns later on in adult life. For example, a secure adult has a similar relationship with their romantic partner, feeling secure and connected, while allowing themselves and their partner to move freely. On the other hand, the loss of a romantic partner may trigger depression among people high on attachment anxiety, because their anxiety relates specifically to separation and abandonment.
Those who suffer from panic attacks often have a history of childhood separation anxiety. The sudden arousal of social separation can lead to panic attacks. The panic attacks and separation anxiety make one feel as if the center of one’s comfort or stability has been abruptly removed.
Fortunately, research shows that a person’s attachment system, along with his or her sense of security, can be changed for the better. For example, a relationship partner who acts as a reliable security figure can restore a sense of felt security and help the person function more securely. Therapy can also be helpful. Effective treatment through reflective awareness and cognitive re-appraisal can facilitate neuroplastic changes in the patient’s unconscious mind and increase capacity for secure attachments.