You are probably familiar with the most stereotypical question that therapists and counselors often ask: “What was your childhood like?”
It is easy to laugh at this question. What could your experiences as a young child have to do with difficult problems – like an addiction – that you might be facing as an adult? But the truth is, it can matter a great deal.
Humans are highly social creatures. The way that we relate with the world is not just hardwired into our bodies; we learn a great deal from the world as small children that will go on to affect us throughout our lives.
Attachment theory is a method of describing the different ways that children learn to relate to their caregivers through early experiences of nurturing. The theory argues that the way you were nurtured instills in you a particular style of attachment; the two main categories of attachment style are secure and insecure.
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Children form secure attachments when they grow up expecting their core needs to be met by their primary caregivers. This means that their main physical and emotional needs are met without too much effort. They learn to trust those around them to respond to their needs.
Generally, people with secure styles of attachment find it easy later in life to form lasting relationships with other people, regulate their own emotions, and feel safe and stable in the world around them.
Young children form insecure-anxious attachments when they cannot always be sure if their core needs are going to be met by their primary caregivers. If a parent is struggling with money or their own mental health problems, for example, they might not always be able to give the child the support that the child needs. This is known as inconsistent care.
The anxiety that children growing up receiving inconsistent care feel is often transferred onto their relationships in adulthood. Therefore people with insecure-anxious attachment styles find it difficult to feel safe and secure in their relationship to other people and the rest of the world as they grow up.
Young children form insecure-avoidant attachment styles when they learn that expressing their needs is not a good way to get those needs met. They are likely to grow up feeling that there is not much point in relying on others and avoiding intimacy.
People with avoidant attachment styles are likely to continue to try and avoid relying on others as they grow older. They may transfer their emotionally or physically distant relationship with their primary caregivers onto their relationships with others as adults.
Since researchers first established these core attachment styles there has been a lot of work done in this broad and rich area of research. But understanding these basic three styles is enough to understand the core insight: that the way that we learn to relate to our caregivers as small children affects our relationship with the world later in life.
There is a strong link between insecure attachment styles and addiction.
People with an insecure attachment style are more likely to:
People then often turn to substance abuse to cope with the stress that having an insecure attachment style causes. Substance use can also serve as a replacement for those feel-good bonding chemicals that may come more naturally to those with a more secure attachment style. Some people abuse substances as a way to regulate their emotions, which an insecure attachment style can make harder.
These are some of the reasons why having an insecure attachment style is considered a major risk for developing an addiction later in life.
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Having an insecure attachment style is not a life sentence. Our childhood years are incredibly important in shaping how we relate to the world as adults: but our brains continue to be highly malleable. Many people can learn to form healthier, more secure attachment styles later in life.
There are many ways you can strengthen your ability to form secure attachments to other people:
Understanding how your brain is working is the first step to breaking the link between an insecure attachment style and an addiction. Whatever your personal history may have been, you can learn to feel whole and secure in your relationship with the world around you, and live your life to the fullest.
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