Anxious Attachment Style: How It Develops & How To Cope

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published June 06, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Anxious attachment is one of four attachment styles that develop in childhood and continue into adulthood.  Attachment styles refer to the particular way in which an individual relates to other people. 

Anxious attachment (also called ambivalent) relationships are characterized by a concern that others will not reciprocate one's desire for intimacy.

Individuals with an anxious attachment exhibit a preoccupation with the availability and responsiveness of significant others, such as parents, friends, and romantic partners.

Such individuals crave intimacy but also remain anxious regarding whether other romantic partners will meet their emotional needs. Autonomy and independence can make them feel anxious.

In addition, they can become distressed should they interpret recognition and value from others as being insincere or failing to meet an appropriate level of responsiveness.

Attachment styles as secure, anxious, avoidant or fearful outline diagram. Labeled educational axis scale with high or low avoidance and anxiety as influence to people relationship vector

Individuals with an anxious attachment hold a negative self-image and a positive image of others, meaning that they have a sense of unworthiness but generally evaluated others positively.

As such, they strive for self-acceptance by attempting to gain approval and validation from their relationships with significant others. They also require higher levels of contact and intimacy from relationships with others.

Additionally, they are preoccupied with dependency on their own parents and still actively struggled to please them.

What's your attachment style?

Attachment theory was proposed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. He proposed that children develop an attachment style in early life depending on the parenting of the primary caregiver. 

The concept involves one’s confidence in the availability of the attachment figure for use as a secure base from which one can freely explore the world when not in distress as well as a safe haven from which one can seek support, protection, and comfort in times of distress.

Bowlby argued that one’s sense of security as a child is critical to their attachment style as an adult. 

It is generally accepted that there are four attachment styles (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978):

  • Anxious – those with an anxious attachment style have problems trusting others. They often worry that people will abandon them, so they often seem clingy or needy. 

  • Avoidant – this attachment style is characterised by problems with intimacy and low emotional investment in relationships.

  • Secure – this is characterised by feelings of trust and safety in relationships. Children who are securely attached feel safe and supported by their caregivers. Securely attached adults are capable of forming lasting relationships.

  • Disorganised – this is marked by a mix of behaviour that can range from avoidance to clinginess. People with this attachment style often long for close relationships but also fear trusting others and getting hurt (Main & Solomon, 1986).

Secure attachments with caregivers are believed to be essential for healthy development. It is considered that about 50% of the population has a secure attachment style while the rest fall into one of the insecure categories (anxious, avoidant, and disorganised). 

If a child is brought up in a nurturing and supportive environment where caregivers are responsive to the child’s needs, a secure bond is formed. However, if a child perceives that their needs are not met, the child is not able to build a secure and stable bond with their caregivers. 

The attachment style you develop in early childhood is thought to have a lifelong influence on your ability to communicate your emotions and needs, how you respond to conflict, and how you form expectations about your relationships.

Although the attachment style you were raised with does not explain everything about your relationships and who you become as an adult, understanding your style may help explain patterns you notice in relationships.

What are the signs of anxious attachment in children?

Anxious attachment is one of types of insecure attachment types. Children with an anxious attachment express distress when their caregiver leaves and are difficult to soothe when they return.

They behave as if they are not certain that they can rely upon the caregiver, and show some resentment to being abandoned.

Some of the key signs that a child may have an anxious attachment style include:

  • Extreme distress when separated from parents

  • Inconsolable when upset – not easily comforted

  • Clinging to parents and caregivers

  • A fear of strangers

  • Poor relationships with other children

  • Limited exploration of their environment

  • Appearing anxious in general

  • Difficulty regulating and controlling negative emotions

  • Displaying aggressive behaviour 

Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is an anxiety disorder related to anxious attachment, generally diagnosed in childhood.

Children with SAD may refuse to go to school, fear being separated from their caregivers, and experience extreme anxiety when separated from loved ones. While most children grow out of this issue, it can persist into adolescence and adulthood. 

How anxious attachment develops

While there is not always a clear-cut answer for why a child may develop an anxious attachment, it could be as a result of some of the following factors:

Emotional distance

If a parent or caregiver is distant or neglectful of the child’s needs, the child will not feel a sense of security and stability.

Children who do not get their emotional needs met, especially when feeling distressed or anxious, are likely to experience elevated levels of these emotions. 

If their emotional needs continue to be neglected, the child is likely to develop an anxious attachment style.

This can continue throughout life in terms of friendships and romantic relationships in which others do not provide the comfort that the individual expects. 

Inconsistent parenting

Anxious attachment is often associated with an inconsistent parenting pattern. Parenting is inconsistent when there are times of support and responsiveness to the child’s needs, but at other times, this is not the case.

In some instances, the caregiver may be cold, insensitive, and emotionally unavailable.

The child may become confused about their relationship with a caregiver who is sending mixed signals.

This inconsistency can make it difficult for the child to understand what their parent’s behaviour means and what kind of response to expect, resulting in insecurity and anxiety. 

Caregiver’s ‘emotional hunger’

Oftentimes, the caregiver’s emotional hunger may be linked to a child developing an anxious attachment style.

This is where caregivers seek emotional or physical closeness with the child for the purpose of satisfying their own needs. Because of this, they are neglecting the child’s emotional and physical needs.

These types of caregivers may appear intrusive and preoccupied with their child’s life and can be overprotective. They may replace actual love and affection of their child with using the child to feed their own needs.

The child therefore does not get their needs met and may put everyone else’s needs above their own as this is what they have been used to. 

Anxious caregivers

It is common that children with an anxious attachment style are likely to have parents who are also anxiously attached.

This is likely not due to genetic factors, rather it is a continuation of behavioural patterns being repeated throughout generations.

Moreover, without management, the anxiously attached child may grow up to have their own children who are anxiously attached. 

What are the signs of anxious attachment in adults?

It might not always be easy to recognise an insecure attachment style in adults. Some of the key signs include:

  • Needing constant contact and support from others

  • Constant need for reassurance that they are good enough

  • Hypersensitivity to rejection and abandonment 

  • Negative self-view or self-worth

  • Overly sensitive to other’s actions and moods

  • Craving intimacy

  • Having difficulty setting and respecting boundaries

  • Impulse to fix things and solve other people’s problems at one’s own expense

  • High emotional reactivity when someone isn’t available 

  • Positive view of others

  • Afraid or incapable of being alone

  • Ruminate over and over analyse small things

Anxiously attached adults are likely to have issues with regulating their emotions. They may show more intense reactions to threats, see situations as more threatening than they are and experience more distress. They are hesitant to seek support and are likely to do this in indirect ways such as crying. 

Adults who have an anxious attachment may also be at an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders such as social anxiety disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, and panic disorder.

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. 

What are relationships with anxious adults like?

Romantic relationships with anxious adults can be intense and stressful for both the anxious person and their partner. 

A common theme which is observed is that people with anxious attachment tend to form relationships with those who have an avoidant attachment style.

Those with an avoidant attachment struggle to commit and feed into anxious attachment anxieties. 

Below are some ways in which an anxious attachment can affect a relationship:

Clinginess 

Someone who has an anxious attachment style may become very fixated on a romantic interest. They may desire to jump into relationships very quickly, wanting to commit very fast.

Consequently, they may struggle with long-distance relationships as this will cause a lot more anxiety. 

They may become very preoccupied with their relationship and fall in love easily to the point where they may become ‘obsessed’ with their partner.

They may be more likely to project everything they desire onto one person which can in fact cause anxiety levels to elevate. 

Fear of rejection

An anxiously attached adult may be constantly worried about losing their partner or not being able to contact them in times of need. 

The slightest disappointment or sign of rejection from a partner could be incredibly harmful to the anxious person’s already low self-esteem.

If a loved one rejects them or fails to respond to their needs, the anxious person may blame themselves and believe they are unworthy of being loved. 

Need for constant reassurance

Due to the anxiously attached person feeling extremely insecure and having low self-worth, they may turn to their partner for reassurance. 

While it is normal to want reassurance, someone who is anxious may be persistent in their attempts to seek reassurance from the partner.

This can put a strain on the relationship if their partner is constantly having to prove that the anxious loved one is worthy of love. 

Emotional ups and downs

Being in a relationship with someone who has an anxious attachment style can feel like an emotional rollercoaster.

There can be a mixture of high and low emotions meaning that their partner may not know what to expect from one moment to another. 

The relationship can often be filled with a lot of anxiety, stress, and even unhappiness for those involved.

The partner of an anxious person may have low relationship satisfaction if their partner is not able to offer them emotional stability. 

Feeling underappreciated

An anxiously attached person may often feel unappreciated and resentful if they do not think they are getting the love they deserve.

They may worry about where they stand in the relationship and whether their partner loves them as much as they do in return. 

They may often fantasise about how they want the relationship to be and may desire to always stay in the ‘honeymoon stage’.

If they do not receive the same priority that they perhaps had at the start of the relationship, they may become suspicious of their partner.

They may accuse their partner of being unappreciative or untrustworthy if they feel their emotional needs are not always being met. 

What can trigger anxious attachment?

Triggered anxious attachment can present as getting into arguments or becoming over-emotional in attempts to re-establish a connection with their partner. Since they may have difficulties with regulating their emotions, they can appear overly dramatic or cry as a way to communicate their needs. 

Some ways in which anxious attachment can be triggered include:

  • A partner behaving inconsistently

  • When a partner comes home later than expected

  • When a partner seems distant or distracted

  • If a partner forgets important events such as anniversaries 

  • Partner not messaging or calling when this is expected

  • A partner failing to notice something

  • When a partner does not seem to be paying attention such as spending a lot of time of their phone or work

  • Not receiving enough attention

  • Getting into arguments

  • Having trust broken, such as realising that a partner lied or broke a promise

These triggers can result in the anxiously attached person feeling even more insecure about their relationship and be filled with more self-doubt. 

Practice awareness

If you have an anxious attachment, you may be more likely to have automatic responses to negativity. However, gaining an awareness of these automatic responses can help you think of a healthier way to respond.

Take time to think about how you feel in a moment and what thoughts come up. Be aware of these thoughts and the meaning that is given to these thoughts. Then, you can consider the best way to respond. 

If you feel that you find this difficult, you could even remove yourself from the situation before responding. Go for a walk to gather your thoughts before returning to the situation.

It's especially helpful to practice being aware of how you interact in relationships to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. 

Regulate your nervous system

Triggered anxious attachment can put you into fight, flight, or freeze mode. When in this state, you are not able to think clearly and are more likely to act on impulses. The best method of tackling this is to change your physiology. 

Take some time to pause and breathe. You could even place your hands on your belly to connect with the breath. This will send a signal to the brain that you are safe. 

When feeling anxious, it can also help to do something grounding, so you feel less stuck in your thoughts. Doing exercise, yoga, getting a massage, or going for a walk in nature can help you to feel grounded. 

Reparent your inner child

Often, it can be beneficial to heal your inner child who first experienced the anxious attachment with a caregiver. This can be done by giving yourself the love, support, and kindness that you did not receive as a child. 

Be compassionate with yourself, forgive yourself for mistakes, check-in with, and comfort yourself if this is what you need.

You can think of this as treating yourself the same way you would show kindness to an innocent child. 

Challenge your thoughts

When you are experiencing negative thought patterns, remind yourself that while they seem real, the thoughts are not necessarily true. 

Do not believe every negative thought you have and instead try to challenge them when they come up.

Consider what solid evidence there is that your thoughts are true and whether there is a more likely explanation. 

Self-care

Try to take some time everyday to do something to take care of yourself. Be consistent with this to soothe your anxiety. 

Self-care activities such as engaging in your hobby, taking a long bath, or watching your favourite TV show can help reduce stress and tension.

Self-care can also build internal resources necessary to handle anxiety such as resilience and recognising self-worth. 

Externalise your feelings

Letting go of your thoughts and putting them into something meaningful can be a healthy way to manage strong emotions. This could be expressed through creating artwork, movement, or music. 

Keeping a journal is a helpful method for getting out your emotions and it may help you recognise some patterns in your thoughts and behaviours.

You could even journal from the perspective of your inner child, writing down why they are sad and what they need.

You can then write from the perspective of an empowered adult self to pass on wisdom, healing, and advice for the inner child.

Practice mindful communication

You can prepare yourself for meaningful conversations ahead of time by exploring nonviolent communication.

This can help you to approach the conversation with honesty as well as kindness so you can make requests without coming across as needy or controlling. 

Therapy 

If you need some extra support with your anxious attachment style, you can seek help from a therapist. Through therapy, you can learn to recognise your attachment patterns, examine your feelings about yourself and learn to approach relationships with others in a healthy way.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a therapy which focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviours.

Interpersonal therapy (IPT) helps individuals learn how to improve their interpersonal relationships and social interactions.

Also, psychodynamic psychotherapy helps people to focus on unconscious emotional dynamics and can help to examine how attachment styles may present in the therapy relationship itself. 

How to help your anxiously attached partner

If you have an anxiously attached partner, there are some things you can do to help them:

Understand their attachment style

Learning about attachment theory and getting to know your partner’s attachment style through research can be a good starting point to understand them better. 

Express gratitude

While you may feel as though you are showing your gratitude in your actions, an anxiously attached person may not pick up on this.

Explicitly telling them when you are appreciative of something can make your intentions clearer. It may be helpful to start sentences with ‘I appreciate that you…’ or ‘Thank you for…’ 

Give attention and reassurance

As anxiously attached people are very insecure and are filled with self-doubt, they will often seek reassurance from you.

However, if you verbally express to them your affection and love, they are more likely to be reassured than if you just assume they know how you feel. 

Verbally reassure them that you value them as a partner to help them see that you are committed to the relationship and are willing to accommodate their needs. 

Stick to your word

Since people with an anxious attachment have trouble trusting others and fear abandonment, it is important to show them that you can be trusted. If you make promises and commitments, ensure that you follow through with them.

This can also apply when setting boundaries. When doing this, ensure you have clear boundaries and expectations and make sure you reinforce them.

A partner who acts as a reliable security figure can restore a sense of felt security and help the anxious person function more securely. 

Discover their love language

If you struggle to know how to express your love and gratitude for your anxiously attached partner, you could discover what their love language is.

Once you know what their love language is, you can cater your words and actions to match.

For instance, if your partner’s love language is ‘words of affirmation’, you can ensure you verbally tell them that you love them and why.

If their love language is ‘physical touch’ you can try to incorporate more intimacy and physical closeness to your partner to show you love them. 

Couples therapy

Couples therapy can be beneficial for any relationship to help strengthen it. It can be especially helpful for couples where one is anxiously attached and the other has an avoidant attachment. 

Couples therapy gives the opportunity to participate in a discussion with your partner with the help of a skilled moderator.

They can help your partner and yourself to process any negative thoughts and feelings in the moment and provide tools to communicate with each other outside of the sessions. 

Is there a way to change from anxious attachment to secure attachment?

Sometimes change can happen when someone who is anxiously attached is in a relationship with someone who is securely attached.

Having a partner who has a secure attachment style can facilitate emotional closeness and a sense of calmness and stability for the anxiously attached. This could help to shift their perception and develop new patterns of thinking and behaviour. 

Being aware of and making a conscious effort to change negative behavioural patterns can make someone more mindful of how they act in relationships with others. It is important to recognise that the past does not have to predict present and future experiences.

Although it may not always be possible to change an attachment type that has been present since childhood, anxiously attached individuals can put in the work to feel more secure in themselves and their relationships.

It is not an easy and passive process and will require a lot of conscious effort and self-awareness.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, June 06. Anxious Attachment Style: How It Develops & How To Cope. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/anxious-attachment-style.html

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