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Is Addiction an Attachment Disorder?

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

Author: Shernide Delva

There are many theories on why some people struggle with addiction and others do not. Some say it is due to environmental factors while others point to biological changes in the brain. It will take more time to understand addiction entirely. However, each day researchers learn more about it. One of the theories being suggested is the attachment theory of addiction. This theory delves into addiction from birth and says that life circumstances lead children to develop a survival mechanism that encourages them to seek outside nurturement. If a child is not getting the attention they need, they attach to something that will fulfill that need. Could this attachment be related to addiction?

What is the Framework of Attachment Theory?

To understand the attachment theory of addiction, we must define it and understand how it works. The attachment theory states that children who do not grow up in a secure environment learn unhealthy attachment skills. Therefore, in treating addiction, it is critical that treatment provides a model of secure attachment, so individuals can understand how to respond to pain and discomfort other than acting out in addictive behaviors.

As humans, we have a longer period of dependency on caregivers, more than any other mammal. Not only do we need our caregivers for food and safety, but for emotional connection, affection and love. When we are infants, we naturally turn to our caregiver in times of distress. Babies cry, and they learn they have support when they need it.

Here is what it looks like when secure attachment does not happen: Baby is upset and turns to their caregiver for comfort and connection. However, instead of their needs being addressed, the baby is ignored, left alone or abused for having needs. Over time, this patterns results in the child learning not to turn to their caregiver in times of distress.   The child will stop seeking care and comfort from their caregiver, and instead, look for ways to regulate and self-soothe from the outside world.

This period in life is where some researchers believe addictions starts to develop. As a child grows in this unhealthy attachment environment, they learn not to turn to humans for care and comfort. Instead, they seek alternatives. Addictions to drugs, food, and rituals around food like over- or under-eating become coping mechanism for replacing security a secure attachment would have provided.

The Internal Working Model

Furthermore, in infancy, a child learns necessary skills for survival and develops what the attachment theory calls an Internal Working Model (IWM). Our IWM helps us find out how to view the world and ourselves. A child’s IWM is dependent on their upbringing. The theory argues that a child’s attachment style has a significant impact on whether they will develop a substance abuse dependency.

To fully understand unhealthy attachment, you should first understand secure attachment. Secure attachment is when a caretaker shows awareness of a child’s emotions and quickly attends to the child when they are distressed. The theory suggests that when a child is properly taken care of, they feel free to explore the world and acquire independence because they develop a sense of certainty that their caretaker will be there if anything goes wrong. They rarely feel uncertain or insecure in their independent journey because they know they have a caretaker there if needed.

However, if the attachment system a child has growing up is deficient, the child will struggle with emotional regulation as an adult. Children raised in an insecure environment grow up learning to blame themselves when they are unable to provide for their emotional needs on their own. Instead of developing security in a healthy manner, they will use addictive substances or behavior to define comfort and safety.  The use of addictive substances and behaviors will lead to continued dysfunction and continued addictiveness.

Treating Addictiveness through Attachment-Oriented Therapy

Recent studies positively confirm a link between insecure attachment and substance dependence. Fortunately, there is hope. “Attachment-Oriented Therapy” or AOT is a way of “eliciting, integrating and modifying styles represented within a person’s internal working model.” (Flores 2004). The therapy works to shift the internal working model an addict has acquired to self-sooth since childhood.

The point of the therapy is to teach those struggling with addiction how to regulate their emotions and feelings, so they avoid seeking outside sources as a means of managing their emotions.  Addicts learn how to explore the deeper problem of why exactly they use their addictive behavior to escape their emotional pain and where this method of survival was rooted.

AOT is rooted in providing a way for individuals to explore themselves from the inside out. Attachment theory states that a model is necessary for patients to understand how to stop seeking answers on the outside and learn to heal. By providing a haven for addicts to learn to feel and express emotions, a better solution can be found.

Learning how to regulate emotions and self-sooth are skills that we develop from infancy. Therapies like AOT help in reestablishing methods of secure attachment. If you struggle with managing your emotions, seeking help is the first step. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135.

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