Attachment Disorder And Addiction: Coping With The Absence Of A Secure Childhood

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Attachment Disorder And Addiction: Coping With The Absence Of A Secure Childhood

There are numerous theories as to the causes of addiction, and over the years, many models have been created – most only to be updated or rejected as new ideas emerged, and our understanding of the etiology of addiction expanded. Among the most popular models of addiction treats the condition as a manifestation of attachment disorder.

Attachment theory developed from the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the mid-1900’s, who were determined to show that infants become automatically stressed and agitated when they are separated from their main caregivers.

In more recent years, researchers have begun to recognize and improve understanding of the relationships between dysfunctional attachment patterns and addiction development.

When examining the disease model of addiction, we understand that there is are both environmental and biological elements of addiction and that both factors can alter brain chemistry and function.

Attachment Disorder | Just Believe RecoveryMoreover, Bowlby describes two variables, one being the dependability of an attachment figure, and the other being self-worth as it is reflected by this person.

Both variables significantly impact behavior, personality, and our ability to regulate emotions later in life – in other words, childhood experiences affect adult attachment patterns.

A history of poor early attachments has been associated with many addictions, and it is believed that individuals with impairments in emotional regulation engage in substance use and addictive behaviors as a means to self-regulate.

Also, a secure early attachment is needed to function ideally within relationships or to have the ability to both be intimate and independent. When a person has an insecure attachment style and develops some type of addiction, the addiction perpetuates the cycle and results in increasing isolation, which leads to a reinforcement of insecure attachment.

Attachment Styles

Healthy, secure attachments are critical in the development of adaptability, empathy, communication, resilience, trust, inter- and intrapersonal functioning, and stress and emotional regulation. The ability to regulate stress, for example, is vital because it impacts the individual’s level of independence, learning skills, and degree of functioning within relationships.

Attachment Disorder | Just Believe RecoveryPeople with insecure attachments, conversely, often have under- or over-exaggerated responses to distress, and may be more vulnerable to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other effects of an unhealthy attachment history may include risky sexual behavior, criminal behavior, anger management issues, problems with intimacy, drug and alcohol abuse, and a dysfunctional view of oneself.

Insecure Attachment Styles

There are a few different insecure attachment styles, each of which can result in relationship problems in adulthood as well as other maladaptive behaviors, such as substance abuse and addiction They include the following:

Anxious-preoccupied, in which the individual needs high levels of approval and intimacy from significant others.

Fearful-avoidant, in which the individuals want to form close relationships, but is uncomfortable with intimacy.

Dismissive-avoidant, in which the individual is fiercely independent and doesn’t seek emotional bonds with others.

Insecure Attachment and Substance Abuse

Research has linked insecure attachment styles to drug and alcohol use. For example, one study found that users of alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, or marijuana were more likely to fear intimacy and to exhibit an insecure attachment style.

Attachment Disorder | Just Believe Recovery

Other associations between attachment disorder and substance use include the following:

Individuals who have insecure attachments in romantic relationships tend to engage in substance use more than those with secure attachments.

Individuals who have attachment anxiety are more likely to suffer from the negative consequences of drinking alcohol and are also more susceptible to drug use and stress-motivated substance use.

These links are often thought to the be the result of having an insecure attachment style and turning to alcohol or drugs during periods of distress instead of confiding in someone close or implementing healthy coping mechanisms.

Treatment For Attachment Disorder And Substance Abuse

While attachment styles develop early in childhood and do influence our behavioral patterns as adults, people within insecure attachment styles can learn to implement more adaptive ways of engaging in social interaction and can increase their ability to be intimate in relationships.

Treatment for co-occurring disorders such as addiction and attachment disorders can be rendered on an inpatient or outpatient basis at an addiction treatment center. It is important to note that both conditions must be addressed simultaneously and that mental health issues are a priority, not an afterthought during the development of a treatment program.

Treatment programs include psychotherapy, in which a therapist will engage with the individual to help him or her develop healthier relational patterns and create a balance between intimacy and independence.

A therapist may implement a number of techniques to help the individual, such as:

  • Resolve trauma and grief associated with early childhood
  • Identify and reframe maladaptive thought patterns and beliefs
  • Develop a more positive perception of oneself
  • Improve communication skills to better express needs and feelings
  • Engage in new, healthier behaviors

Treatment also includes group counseling, in which personal growth can be fostered further through interpersonal interactions.


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