The Secret to Inner Child Healing: Anxious Attachment and Nervous System Dysregulation
Do you feel especially sensitive to the needs of others and often question if they truly love and care for you? Do you struggle to be as kind and compassionate to yourself as you are with others?
If so, you may have developed an anxious attachment style. I often get questions about attachment and nervous system dysregulation, so here is an overview of some of the most commonly asked questions.
What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory, which dates back to the 1950s, is a psychological model which explains how people develop close relationships with others. It focuses on the connection between an individual’s early childhood experiences and their later behavior in relationships.
From an early age, the love and security we feel from our primary caregiver can have a lasting impact that shapes how we interact with people throughout life. Throughout his career as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, John Bowlby found evidence to suggest these childhood relationships profoundly influence future social connections and emotional bonds well into adulthood — from romantic relationships to colleagues in the workplace.
What is an anxious attachment style?
When a child is born, the first bond they develop is with caregivers (in most cases, their parents). This is when a child’s brain starts to form their perception of social interactions and relationships.
If the child is raised in a nurturing and supportive environment, where their caregivers are responsive to their emotional needs, a secure bond, or secure attachment style, is formed.
By providing a supportive, loving environment to their children, caregivers create an understanding that the child’s emotions and needs will be acknowledged and valued. This creates a sense of safety for the child, and they learn that people, in general, can be trusted.
On the contrary, when a child’s needs are left unmet, they are unable to build a secure and stable bond with their caregivers. This emotional distance creates a lack of a sense of safety in the world and intense emotional discomfort, leading to a distorted perception of how relationships work.
How does an anxious attachment style differ from other attachment styles?
There are four main attachment styles. Each of these can be categorized as a secure attachment style or an insecure attachment style.
The 4 main attachment styles are:
- Secure attachment – this is the only secure attachment style, while the rest are called insecure attachment styles
- Anxious attachment – also known as preoccupied attachment, or anxious ambivalent attachment in children
- Avoidant attachment – also known as dismissive attachment
- Disorganized attachment – also known as fearful avoidant attachment
An anxious attachment style is characterized by feelings of insecurity, fear, and mistrust toward the partner. People with anxious attachment styles may be overly dependent on their partners and need constant reassurance of affection and love. They likely struggle with low self-esteem and a fear of abandonment due to inconsistent parenting.
On the other hand, people with a secure attachment style are more independent but still maintain deep emotional connections in their intimate relationships. They feel secure in the relationship and trust that their partner will be there for them when needed. They don’t rely on their partner for validation or comfort as much as those with an anxious attachment style do. They generally have high self-esteem
Secure individuals also tend to respect boundaries, whereas those who are anxiously attached may constantly seek approval, be overly fixated on the needs of others, and have difficulty setting healthy boundaries in relationships.
What is the impact of having an anxious attachment style on the nervous system?
Not only does your attachment style affect your relationships, but it also affects how you regulate your sensitive nervous system. Attachment is the foundation of Nervous System regulation, and anxious attachment is one of the root causes of nervous system dysregulation. This can manifest in a range of symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping, feeling on edge and anxious, bouts of panic attacks, difficulty regulating emotions, and withdrawal from social situations.
When does an anxious attachment begin to form?
Attachment and nervous system regulation are largely based upon how our attachment figures relate to us in the first two years of development, but it also constantly evolves in life.
The experience of being seen, felt, and responded to by our parents or caregivers builds trust and a sense of safety at the nervous system level. As we grow older, we internalize these early experiences of attachment and use them to regulate our emotions and bodily sensations in life.
Who can develop an anxious attachment style?
The main factor in developing anxious attachment is that the caregivers feel unreliable. The child feels that the love is there sometimes, and sometimes it isn’t, which can feel unpredictable to them. As a result, the child may develop a coping mechanism of hyper-focusing on their caregiver in order to maintain their attention and ensure they don’t slip out of reach. When they grow up, they need approval and validation from others and often have a hard time being alone or feeling confident in themselves.
How can I tell if I have developed an anxious attachment style?
If you have an anxious attachment style, you may find yourself feeling overly attached to certain people or engaging in clingy behaviors. You may also find yourself overthinking your relationships and constantly questioning if those around you truly love and care for you.
Other signs of an anxious attachment style include difficulty being alone, difficulty regulating your emotions, and difficulty setting boundaries. Additionally, you may find yourself needing a lot of reassurance from others.
How do I know if my child has an anxious attachment (or anxious ambivalent attachment) style?
Signs of anxious attachment in children include:
- Constant clinginess
- Difficulty tolerating separations
- Difficulty calming down after an emotional upset
- Shyness and reluctance to try new activities or environments
- Difficulty adapting to situations or people outside of the family
- Difficulty expressing emotions
- Problems with self-regulation
They may also demonstrate behaviors such as aggression, verbal outbursts, defiance of parental authority, and anxiety when separated from their primary caregiver.
How do I know if my partner has an anxious attachment style?
Identifying anxious attachment in your partner may include recognizing behaviors such as neediness, codependency, difficulty with boundaries and separation, hypersensitivity to criticism or rejection, fear of abandonment, and loss of self-esteem when not in a relationship.
Your partner may be overly reliant on you for emotional support and validation and seek constant reassurance that you care about them. They may also struggle with trusting you or feeling secure in the relationship.
Other signs of anxious attachment in a partner could include jealousy, possessiveness, overprotective behavior, and needing constant communication and contact.
What are some examples of anxious attachment triggers?
Anxious attachment triggers can include:
- Feeling neglected or unimportant
- Not receiving enough reassurance or validation
- Feeling unheard or dismissed
- Feeling as if your needs are not being met
- Witnessing conflict between other people
- Experiencing physical distance or separation from a partner
- Feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities
- Feeling isolated
It can also be triggered by events such as breakups, moving to a new place, or starting a new job.
How does anxious attachment affect my parenting?
An anxious attachment style can impact parenting in a number of ways. If you are struggling with anxious attachment, your parenting may be characterized by overprotection, overly controlling behaviors, obsessing about the safety and well-being of your children, being overly preoccupied with their needs, and not giving them enough freedom or independence.
You may also have difficulty setting clear boundaries or trusting your children to make decisions for themselves. Your children may also feel suffocated by your presence, which could lead to feelings of rebellion or resentment.
Where do I go for help and support to heal an anxious attachment style and a dysregulated nervous system?
Because attachment is the foundation of our ability to self-regulate, healing attachment wounds and healing a dysregulated nervous system go hand-in-hand.
Healing an attachment wound and building a regulated nervous system requires time and commitment, but it’s absolutely doable. Many different approaches can help you learn to regulate your nervous system and heal your attachment wounds.
One option is The Nervous System Solution, our world-class program that teaches you to how to heal your nervous system and reverse the damage accumulated from years of dysregulation. Our program uses body-based practices to help you build emotional regulation, while providing the structure and support needed to cultivate a more secure attachment style.
Enrollment for The Nervous System Solution will open again soon! Make sure you don’t miss that window of opportunity by joining the waitlist here.
Nervous System Regulation – Best Resources to Get Started
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Dr. Linnea Passaler
Dr. Linnea Passaler has dedicated 20+ years to serving patients, first to a small number of individuals as a successful surgeon and then to thousands of people worldwide as the CEO of a digital health startup. After overcoming her own struggles with a dysregulated nervous system, she created Heal Your Nervous System (HYNS) to empower others in their healing journey. Her combination of neuroscience and somatic work helps those struggling with overwhelm, trauma, burnout, and anxiety to heal their dysregulated nervous systems and thrive.