How Insecure Attachment Styles Can Lead to Addiction

Humans rely on their caregivers for all of their basic needs throughout infancy. Those early interactions shape how a person comes to view relationships and closeness as they grow up. Children raised in an attentive, supportive environment develop healthy attachments to their caregivers. Those individuals are more likely to view relationships as safe. They have the security and confidence needed to learn about and explore their world.

People raised in less stable environments where their needs are not consistently and reliably met may develop insecure attachment styles. Those who develop insecure attachment styles may have difficulty with emotional and stress regulation as they engage in relationships where the bond is fundamentally contaminated with fear.

The ability to self-soothe and self-regulate are fundamental coping skills that enable a person to exercise independence, engage in healthy relationships, and effectively handle stress. When these skills are underdeveloped, individuals may be more susceptible to depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. In an attempt to self-regulate, and in the absence of a typical support system, individuals with insecure attachment styles often find other coping strategies, like drug and alcohol use, to handle emotional distress. Because of these predisposing factors, people with insecure attachment styles often abuse substances to manage stress.

Insecure Attachment Styles

There are three main types of insecure attachments. Each type tends to display behavior rooted in a particular manner of upbringing that manifests in distinct, frequently predictable ways. Understanding how these styles influence individual behavior is helpful in identifying alternative coping strategies.

Anxious-Avoidant: Avoidant people frequently shun intimacy and often find it difficult to ask for help, which leads them to develop a false sense of autonomy. People with this attachment style usually had an upbringing that was characterized by caregivers who were emotionally distant and grow up learning not to trust others.

Anxious-Ambivalent: People with ambivalent patterns of attachment are often anxious and pre-occupied, and they may gravitate towards dependent relationships that are filled with intense contradictions. As children, these people never knew what to expect, and they show a compelling need for closeness and affection, always desire approval, and are generally over-sensitive to rejection. Since their relationships often give them anxiety, they may engage in escapist and avoidant behavior, like substance use or self-harm.

Disorganized/Disoriented: Disorganized attachment is marked by a total lack of real coping strategies, leaving a person incapable of handling the real world.  This pattern is often the result of abuse, trauma, or extreme inconsistency during childhood. They may have been left alone during times of distress or intimidated by physical punishment from their caregivers. Those with this type of attachment often disconnect emotionally when people or relationships make them anxious, causing them to respond unpredictably and unexpectedly.

Insecure Attachment and Substance Abuse

Insecure attachment styles often lead to emotional distress, relationship issues, and drug and alcohol abuse. While this topic has many layers, the essence of the current research indicates than individuals with insecure attachment styles are more likely to use drugs or alcohol, or engage in binge behavior.  Since individuals with insecure attachment issues may not have supportive parents, partners, or close friends available to talk to and often have not practiced healthy coping strategies, these are usually quick and easy ways to cope with external stresses.

This can be compounded by the fact that those with insecure attachments may have problems forming supportive social relationships as they mature. As previously explored, all three insecure attachment types may experience anxiety or distress when creating and maintaining relationships thanks to the precarious interactions that they experienced as children.

The pervasive lack of trust and a false sense of autonomy that characterize insecure attachments also results in a lack of supportive partner relationships and a dysfunctional view of self.  In the absence of practicing healthy self-soothing and self-regulating techniques, drugs and alcohol offer a convenient, accessible way to self-regulate in times of distress. Further, without supportive, healthy relationships, these individuals are also more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, continually entrenching those practices.

Conclusion

Attachment patterns are developed during infancy based on how caregivers respond to a child’s needs. These relationships dictate how children relate to themselves and to other people as they grow up. Since insecure attachments lead to a fundamental lack of trust that hampers their ability to form real, healthy relationships and does not encourage the development of healthy coping skills, these individuals often turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to manage stress.

Drugs can provide a ready escape from anxiety, which tends to run high in those with insecure attachment patterns. To compound the situation, the lack of close, supportive friends and family may make it easier to isolate and foster conditions for drug abuse.

If any of the above attachment styles resonate with you, know that there are addiction treatment opportunities, such as Medication Assisted Treatment, that incorporate treating emotional and mental health alongside the actual addiction. Getting to the source of the addiction will ultimately help your progress in overcoming your addiction in the long run.