Attachment Styles and Coping with Covid-19

Learn how people with different styles adjust emotionally to fears of disease

Posted Apr 06, 2020

Are you the one in your house who is constantly asking others to wash their hands and practice safe social distancing? This could lead to some tension and conflict within the home. Maybe you are the one who is totally frustrated that your spouse is such a nag and doesn’t trust you to wash your hands or wipe down your phone.

In either case, you may be a mixture of anxious, frightened, frustrated, or mad. For most people, this state of events will automatically activate the attachment system and could lead us to express our worst when we need to be at our best.

The attachment system is nature’s way of enabling you to reach a secure base of safety when faced with events that make you feel anxious, scared, or vulnerable (click here for a more detailed description). But, depending on how you were raised, you will have one of four patterns (called attachment styles) that predict:

  1. How you go about seeking security from others
  2. How you handle your emotions
  3. How you deal with your role as the secure base

These styles develop in childhood but become relatively stable personality traits that persist across your lifespan and impact all of your relationships.

People with “secure” styles are typically raised by consistently warm, available, and responsive parents. They get anxious and fearful, but not overly so and are likely to do a good job of balancing the relationship side of things with the more practical problem-solving side. They can calm themselves fairly well when distressed and, just like their parents before them, are likely to be consistent, warm, and responsive when other people reach out to them for support.  

If you have a family member with a secure style, you can trust them to tell you what they need in this difficult time. They may be upset but their level of distress is likely to be appropriate to the situation. They will appreciate and value social connections and staying close to others and will appreciate your being emotionally present with them.

Those with preoccupied styles are likely to be more distressed by COVID-19. Once activated and feeling fearful and anxious, they are likely to have more difficulty bringing their emotions under control on their own and can be expected to reach out to others for comfort and support. But if comfort and support are not readily forthcoming, they may become increasingly distressed to the point where they are just as upset at being let down and unsupported as by the virus.

If one of your family members has a preoccupied style, try being extra patient and giving them reassurance even if you have to do it multiple times. Show them that you understand how upset they are. Don’t try to calm them down by acting super calm and stoic. That won’t work and will just make the person’s distress worse.

If you want to find out more about the preoccupied attachment style, click here.

In contrast to those with preoccupied styles, those with dismissing attachment styles are likely to be significantly less distressed. They may appear to be very pragmatic and intellectual about the whole issue. Instead of telling you how they feel, they may tell you how to fix the problem. On the other hand, those who are really dismissing might deny being distressed, tell you that they do not feel vulnerable or afraid, and want to be left alone.

Those with dismissing styles, in particular, might struggle to provide support and reassurance to a needy and anxious family member. The more anxious someone is and the needier they are, the more the dismissing person will want to push them away and get them to simply “suck it up.”

If one of your family members has a dismissing/avoidant attachment style, try giving that person a little space to get away or retreat (figurately or literally). Those with preoccupied and anxious styles might assume that everyone needs the same level of support or care that they do. But this might activate a dismissing person who does not want to be activated. They spend a lot of time trying to suppress negative emotions, so when you are all cooped up in the house together, it might be a good idea to just let them.

For more on the dismissing style, click here.

The relative with the fearful style (sometimes referred to as disorganized or unresolved) might be the hardest to understand. These people are both anxious (like preoccupied people) and avoidant (like dismissing people). This person might be highly anxious and activated by the scary events that are happening around us. They might seem agitated or irritable. They might seem like they would like some comfort and support. But offering comfort and support might activate them even more and they may reject your attempt and actually get angrier with you.

If your family member has a fearful attachment style, understand that they may very much want comfort and support but not be able to tolerate your kindness. This one is tough. Try letting the person be dysregulated and distressed and ask them what they need. But, don’t intrude. They may stay upset but there is little you can do about that. You may simply need to tolerate it and let them know that you are there for them. Keep inviting them to participate in your activities although they may still act injured and not participate.

Information on the fearful/disorganized style can be found here.

Above all, remember that these styles did not develop in a short time span. They were formed across all of your childhood years. So, don’t try to make someone change to fit with your style just because you are stuck in the house together. Now is not the time to work through your core relationship issues. Now is a time to have as much compassion for each other as possible. Try giving your family members what they need even if it goes a little counter to your own style.

A note about children:

I do want to make a special caveat for children. In Western societies, we spend a lot of time focusing on our children developing their independence and autonomy. Under normal mildly to moderately distressing circumstances, we teach our children to comfort themselves. People usually do this through “symbolic proximity seeking.” That means that just having the idea that there are people you can turn to for comfort and support is enough to soothe you. But it is entirely healthy to seek real physical proximity (closeness) to people when things are scarier and more serious. This is one of those times.

A friend recently asked me to advise her on how to deal with her extremely anxious 13-year-old who was having a hard time sleeping and was anxious about catching the novel coronavirus. She wanted to know if she should seek anti-anxiety medication from the doctor or have her speak to a therapist. My advice was to let her daughter be a little girl. Now is not the time to work on fostering her independence. Now is the time to hold your kids as much as they want, hug them, tell them you love them, and even let them sleep with you if appropriate. As you know, being an adult is tough enough, so just for now, let them be kids.