Attachment Theory, Attachment Styles, and Adult Mental Health

Do you often wonder why specific thoughts and behaviors reoccur in every relationship? Are you mistrusting, clingy, abrasive, or afraid in close relationships? Do intrusive thoughts, impulsive actions, and confusion hinder your ability to strengthen and develop relationships with others? Understanding relations, beliefs, and behaviors towards others is possible when you examine attachment theory and the roots of attachment issues. 

Attachment Theory 

Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby pioneered attachment theory through various journals and experiments in the late 1950s. Attachment theory analyzes relationships through a psychological, evolutionary, and ethological outlook. The theory essentially states that children must have a secure attachment to at least one caregiver to ensure the normal development of social and emotional skills. According to attachment theory, secure attachment is as necessary as nourishment. 

Attachment Theory Claims 

Attachment theory is the primary theory used in practice. It includes many claims whose foundation stems from countless research papers and experiments, but the following three points are necessary to understanding attachment theory.

1) Reduced sensitivity and the responsiveness of a caregiver encourage self-doubt, unstable self-esteem, and overly high regard for others’ opinions later in life. 

2) Interactions between a child and caregiver determine future attachment security and encourage emotion regulation. 

3) Lack of support from caregivers and reduced feelings of security with them deter the development of social skills, resulting in future problems with relationships. 

4) We are social beings and see purpose in other people’s lives outside of our own needs and desires. 

5) Former attachments are not broken but may change in closeness and availability. We form new attachments without breaking or replacing old ones.

Harlow and Harlow Experiment

A famous study published in 1958 on attachment theory conducted by Harlow and Harlow examined the effects of separating infant monkeys from their biological mothers. They used surrogate dolls in place of the mothers. One of the dolls had a metal wire body, while the other had a terry cloth body. The metal wire body doll was the monkey’s primary source of food. 

Throughout the study, the monkeys favored the terry cloth body doll despite the wire doll’s provision of food. The young monkeys held tight to the terry cloth doll and moved with a greater sense of security when the comforting surrogate was close. 

While the stationary, soft-clothed doll provided the monkeys with a sense of comfort, it did not teach the young monkeys necessary social skills. The monkeys raised with the surrogate mother were scared or aggressive towards other monkeys. The experimental monkeys often hurt, ignored, or killed their infants later in life. 

Formation of Attachment Styles 

From attachment theory, we can outline four major attachment styles. These attachment styles in adulthood develop based on the interactions with primary caregivers in childhood.

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment in children is associated with ‘rapprochement.’ Rapprochement is the idea that the child has a safe and secure place to return to, ideally a primary caregiver. The primary caregiver provides assistance and comfort when necessary. These positive interactions between child and caregiver instill a sense of security in the child and encourage the development of healthy social skills. 

Signs of a secure attachment style include.

1) The child freely explores and engages with others.

2) When the caregiver is absent, the child is upset but happy upon their return. 

3) The caregiver appropriately meets the needs of the child.

Anxious Attachment

We find anxious attachment styles in children whose caregiver ignores their needs until the parent needs the attention. The caregiver is engaged, but only when it’s convenient or necessary for them. 

Signs of an anxious attachment style include.

1) The child may hesitate or experience anxiety when exploring. 

2) When the caregiver is absent, the child is overly distressed. 

3) Upon the caregiver’s return, the child is resentful and resists the caregiver’s attempts at attention. 

Avoidant Attachment

This attachment style tends to develop when a child’s caregivers are disengaged. The child’s needs are unmet. The child no longer believes that the caregiver will or can help them. 

Signs of an avoidant attachment style include.

1) The child will refuse and avoid exploration. 

2) The child will not acknowledge the caregiver’s disappearance or return.  

3) Caregivers and strangers are treated similarly. 

Disorganized Attachment

Disorganized attachment means that the child has no clear coping style. We find this attachment style in children who find their caregivers either chronically terrified or terrifying. The child’s earliest interactions with the caregiver were chaotic and unclear. 

Signs of a disorganized attachment style include.

1) The child will either seek or avoid attention

2) The child will pull the caregiver close, then push them away again.  

3) The child may be fearful or unable to communicate their needs. 

Secondary Attachment Strategies

Secondary attachment strategies develop instead of proximity-seeking when caregivers are frequently unavailable or unresponsive to the child’s needs. For insecurely attached individuals, the following attachment strategies form to control attachment-system activation and the discomfort of failing to connect. 


When insecurely attached individuals determine they can obtain proximity through incredible effort, they demonstrate a hyperactivating strategy. These actions are often intense and insistent. Hyperactivating tendencies may come across as clingy or controlling. Individuals exhibiting these tendencies fail to read the cues of the potential attachment and frequently attempt to identify possible threats. Hyperactivating strategies are often associated with the Anxious attachment style. 


As opposed to hyperactivating strategies, deactivating strategies stem from an individual’s attempt to manage their safety alone. This strategy develops due to unnatural and uncomfortable attempts at proximity. Deactivating techniques deny the need for attachment and avoidance of close relationships. The insecure individual develops this strategy to deactivate the attachment system. Deactivation allows them to avoid pain and confusion due to a potential attachment’s lack of availability or capability of meeting their needs. Deactivating strategies are more closely related to an avoidant attachment style. 

Insecure Attachment Styles and Adult Mental Health

Secure attachment styles allow individuals to see themselves and others positively. Individuals with this attachment style are open to seeking help and participating in treatment plans. Insecure attachment styles accompany a destructive view of oneself and others. These views harm mental health

Anxious Attachment on Mental Health

Adults with an anxious attachment style have low self-esteem but high regard for others. Due to the lack of confidence, they turn to attention-seeking and demanding behaviors. 

The mental health symptoms associated with this attachment style are as follows. 

  • Excessive worrying
  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Disruptive trauma symptoms
  • Anger and Irritability
  • Impulsivity 

Individuals with anxious attachment are more likely to seek mental healthcare and participate in treatment. 

Avoidant Attachment on Mental Health

Adults with an avoidant attachment style tend to separate emotions from thoughts and behaviors. On the surface, avoidant individuals may appear calm and composed, but underneath they experience unresolved distress and trauma. 

The mental health symptoms associated with this attachment style are as follows. 

  • Excessive worrying
  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Emotional Suppression
  • Destructive Independence
  • Self Serving Tendencies

Individuals with an avoidant attachment style are far less likely to seek support and mental health care than those with an anxious attachment style. 

Disorganized Attachment on Mental Health

A disorganized attachment style combines elements from both anxious and avoidant attachment styles. Adults with a disorganized attachment style mistrust others and often view themselves and others negatively. Individuals with this attachment style seek intimacy, then reject it, sabotaging any chance of a healthy relationship. 

Individuals with a disorganized attachment style are the least likely to seek, participate, and complete treatment. 

Mental Health/Attachment Disorders

Accompanying insecure attachment styles is pathological narcissism, low self-esteem, trauma, anxiety, and depression. An avoidant attachment style is closely related to overt narcissism, grandiosity, and self-denial. An anxious attachment style relates to covert narcissism, sensitivity to the opinion of others, and a sense of entitlement. These flawed beliefs increase the risk of the insecurely attached individual developing a mental disorder like the ones listed below. 

Attachment Disorder

An attachment disorder is a mental health condition defined by the failure of a child and their caregiver to form an expected attachment. This mood and behavioral disorder prevent the child from forming and caring for relationships throughout life. 

Reactive Attachment Disorder

Reactive attachment disorder, or RAD, is a psychiatric disorder defined by poor social skills. Disturbing or inappropriate social concerns generally start before the age of five. This disorder often spawns from emotional neglect or physical abuse in early childhood. 

Treatment Options

There are various treatment perspectives and options. However, the following three treatment options are most beneficial in treating insecure attachment styles and improving relationships. 

Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy 

This evidence-based, non-coercive treatment option focuses on the standard principles of attachment theory. It can benefit children who experienced trauma, loss, abuse, and neglect. Dyadic developmental psychotherapy treats RAD and attachment disorder.


As the name would suggest, theraplay is play therapy. The goal of theraplay is to help parents and children improve their attachment relationships. Treatment consists of modeling healthy interactions and building healthy parent-child attachment. 

Trauma Based Therapy

Insecure attachment styles spawn from unhealthy relationships between a child and a caregiver. These flimsy, destructive, or dangerous relationships often result in childhood trauma. In some cases, working through the trauma and becoming aware of your default attachment style can reduce the impact an insecure attachment style has on relationships and mental health.

Published by alswartz

I am an aspiring novelist working on my first book. I have an interest in mental health and each of my works is related to mental health in some way.

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