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Why Many Anxiously Attached Individuals Are Struggling in relationships?

Those who struggle with an anxious attachment style already live in this state of fear and uncertainty. With lower self-esteem, a nervous system primed for hypervigilance, and a need for a lot more reassurance within their relationships than others, the pandemic pushed the anxiously attached into even murkier waters. The new “normal” is an adjustment that can be much harder for this population.

The theory of adult romantic attachment was originally formulated by psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver in the 1980s. Their research stated that 25% of people are anxiously attached, 19% are avoidant, and up to 56% of people have what’s known as a secure attachment style. We can think of our attachment style like this: The way in which we adapt or not to get our needs met by our primary caregivers as children is indicative of the relational strategies we use in our adult bonds.

Attachment theory explains that anxious attachment stems from inconsistency in caregiving and stable connections in development years and the attachment style formed in childhood shows up for individuals later in their romantic life and other close bonds. These patterns that form have an evolutionary or biological component. We are adapting as children in order to survive and stay in connection.

And when it comes to attachment theory, there are numerous studies that have proven individuals that are higher in attachment anxiety struggle more with threatening situations. They have a higher propensity to focus on their distress, struggle coping, and have an overall higher incidence of mental health problems.

In short, this pandemic put anyone with an anxious attachment style in an even more vulnerable position. With lockdowns, social distancing, and mask wearing, those who are anxiously attached have been forced to distance themselves even further from those they rely on for love and support. This has left many confused as to how their world got turned upside down and no real understanding of why it was so hard for them specifically. A recent study has shown that people with anxious attachment are just less likely to bounce back as restrictions are lifted and life returns to normal.

Here are some of the reasons why those with an anxious attachment style struggled to a higher degree through the pandemic and continue to struggle to find any semblance of a “new normal.”

A deep fear of abandonment lays at the very foundation of someone with an anxious attachment style. They tend to live in a state of hyper-awareness and their nervous system is always on guard for possible abandonment around every corner, be it real or imagined. Given the immense threat of death that we had to live with on a daily basis during the pandemic, if an anxious person was attached deeply to a partner or family member at this time, it was likely their constant fear of losing their loved one was on overdrive.

This tendency to live in a state of hypervigilance for any perceived threats has kept their internal nervous system on high alert. The years of worry during this pandemic has exhausted their autonomic nervous system and many spent an enormous amount of time in sympathetic activation, which never allowed them to fully rest. When you tax your nervous system out for an extended period of time, it is natural to also feel deflated, depressed, and at times, utterly hopeless.

They tend to struggle with a lower self-esteem and general feeling that they aren’t good enough. In order to deal with uncomfortable sensations and experiences at a young age, anxious individuals survived by internalizing a feeling that something was wrong with them. They now look for reassurance from loved ones who might have not been able to offer the same support because they were also in a fear state from the pandemic. If the inability to connect with their partner or family for reassurance has been stripped away, it leaves the anxiously attached with less coping skills than ever when they need the reassurance from others to feel safe.

This isolation and lack of connection has been hard on most people. But those with an anxious attachment style already have an active preoccupation and drive to be in connection, especially when they feel scared. When they feel this fear, their learned behavior is often to run towards what they are scared of losing in order to reestablish that connection as soon as possible. Many couples were forced to be apart during the pandemic, for many reasons, leaving anxious people with a tall task to deal with, particularly the extremely uncomfortable sensations that arise when they cannot get in connection with the ones they love. Many struggled in silence as they tried to learn ways to cope with what can feel like crippling anxiety.

This anxiety felt so intense for the anxiously attached because social isolation is not how humans thrive and anxious people need that connection more. Anxious individuals need people on a deeper level, due to their higher need for what we call coregulation (sometimes with less of an ability to self-soothe). They feel more at ease when they are in connection with others as they just have a much more prevalent fear of abandonment and being alone. Often, this stems from a deeply rooted tie to early abandonment. They tend to be hyperware of any signs that their partner or loved one may be abandoning them and being alone can be destabilizing.

While the pandemic’s end is still unfolding, our “new normal” looks a lot different for almost everyone. One of the main transitions we’ve seen is the way in which we interact with others. On any given day, we may find ourselves choosing to converse with friends and family over FaceTime, Zoom, or social media platforms. While we feel connected in the moment, this only gives us the illusion of fulfilling our fundamental human need for in-person connection.

Without a true feeling of connection with others, we as humans, no matter our attachment style, will suffer. This pandemic has made it harder to connect, and now given us the false illusion of connection through technology. Understanding how natural and imperative human connection is, the lack of it is something many are still recovering from. Those with an anxious attachment style need a strong foundation of connections with the right support system in order to understand and develop their inner resources to build more reliance. Due to neuroplasticity it is possible for anxious individuals to form new pathways and gain “earned security.” Gaining an understanding of one’s attachment needs is on the rise and opens an opportunity for this population to fully understand why they are suffering and start healing.

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