How attachment styles make you vulnerable to addiction
If you are along the anxious attachment spectrum you will get ‘activated’ within close relationships. This means that your stress response system is constantly triggered. You will scan for signs of abandonment and tend not to trust other people’s motives. Because there is always a heightened sense of anxiety, you will probably struggle with worrying about what other people are thinking, doing, feeling and can end up looking for excessive reassurance. You will often feel a sense of unease and this can result in:
- anger outbursts
- people pleasing / inability to say no
- feelings of resentment and hurt
- controlling / demanding behaviour
- jealousy and manipulation.
- difficulty being alone
- difficulty tolerating uncertainty
Many of your relationships are usually rife with conflict as you never really trust or feel secure.
People with an avoidant attachment style, very early on in life, have learned to shut down or distance themselves from the stress of an activated attachment system. Just like anxious attachment, they too experience anxiety around relationships but avoid intimacy as far as possible so that they don’t experience the stress that it causes.
If you are along the avoidant spectrum, you will value your independence over everything. You take pride in being able to take care of yourself and not having to rely on anyone. As with anxious attachment – you don’t really trust other people but you don’t keep trying to connect like anxious types do – you learnt long ago not to even bother trying.
Feeling vulnerable is excruciating for you so you rarely allow yourself to get in a position that will cause this and as a result, you will rarely ask for help. Your relationships will lack true intimacy as you won’t allow yourself to be open and honest about what you are really feeling.
But we are biologically programmed to emotionally connect with other people and so you are likely to experience the emotional signals that push us to connect
- A feeling that something is missing
- Deep feelings of dis-satisfaction due to unmet emotional needs
Because relationships are not a place of comfort and stability for you, you are likely to devalue them and be on the judgmental side, which means you might feel a lot of anger and irritability with others.
So for both types, there is an internal unrest – avoidants tend to feel under-stimulated – bored, empty, depressed and feeling like there is something missing. Anxious types struggle with over-stimulation – fear, anxiety, stress and anger.
There is rarely an internal feeling of peace, calm or satisfaction. Relationships, which for most people provide stability, safety and support – cause insecurity, conflict and emotional distress.
Find out your attachment style here
So how does this lead to addiction?
Whatever the feelings that attachment disorders generate, there is a substance that can help to soothe. For people with anxiety, alcohol is the perfect antidote. It calms the physical agitation, switches off worrying thoughts and allows a period of peace. For avoidants, it can quell the rising feelings of loneliness and soften the rigid thought patterns that make it difficult to relate to others.
Heroin provides a blissful cocoon that can numb intense anger and rage at the world. Meth creates a feeling of focus, motivation and power that those with anxiety might never otherwise experience allowing even the most unconfident person to make connections.
Drugs, alcohol and food provide temporary feelings of connection, well-being and satisfaction that people with attachment issues often find it hard to experience. They provide the secure base that was never established in childhood.
With these underlying issues, just stopping substance use is not the answer.
Yes, it will provide a temporary boost of self esteem and motivation to change, but the internal emotional instability will start to re-emerge within days of stopping
Alongside having to deal with emotional difficulties, there will also be the strong cravings to use or drink again – despite fully understanding the consequences of doing so.
The amygdala -the brain’s radar system – will have made strong associations between a substance and feeling good. The amygdala’s job is to basically push us towards something that is good for us and away from danger. It is responsible for triggering the fight or flight response when it detects a threat and a craving response when it detects something beneficial for survival. So this tiny almond shaped organ is responsible for a whole host of problems – including addiction anxiety and anger.
It isn’t a very precise structure- it can’t rationally decide what is good or bad – it makes its decision on the feelings that are generated in response to something. So when it continuously notices positive emotions with substances – it starts to notice everything that is associated with the experience.
If you have an insecure attachment style, the feelings of relief, relaxation and pleasure will be far greater than a securely attached person because of the pre-existing discomfort that you live with day to day.
And so the amygdala notices this and thinks “wow – this really must be good for my survival – I must remember this and try and get more”
The amygdala gets its information from all our senses, our thoughts and our internal feelings. so it will ‘remember’ smells, sounds, taste, sights and feelings that were experienced at the time. Then in the future, when you encounter similar situations, it will generate a mild stress response that will only be alleviated by the substance. This is the craving.
This is why you could be happily going about your day and suddenly for no reason, you will get a craving to drink or use. It could be something as subtle as the smell of peanuts that are usually sitting on the bar next to where you used to drink.
It’s often said that drugs and alcohol hijack the brain. But that’s not true. If this were the case everyone who ever tried drugs or alcohol would become dependent. The truth is your amygdala hijacks drugs and alcohol when the relief and pleasure that they give is high because of how you normally feel.
The more we repeat a behaviour – the deeper the neural pathways in the brain become. When you rely on substances for a prolonged period of time, there will be deep ‘neural grooves’ between the addictive behaviour and triggers.
Why is it so difficult just to stop?
It can be quite difficult to change patterns initially, as the amygdala wants to keep you drinking or using. And this is a very powerful part of the brain that is difficult to over-ride. If we were able to ignore it easily, we would have died out as a species long ago.
What makes humans so distinct from other mammals is our pre-frontal cortex. This is the only part of the brain that can over-ride the amygdala so it is a key structure in overcoming addiction and fear based emotions such as anxiety and anger.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for:
- connecting with others
- managing emotions
- empathy and resilience
- focus, motivation and following through on plans
- over-riding impulsivity
- delaying gratification.
So it is the pre-frontal cortex that says – “don’t drink, you know it will end in carnage” “just stop now, you’ve had enough” and the amygdala that says “No, I want more and more” just one won’t hurt”. The battle of addiction is between these two structures. The amygdala using all its emotional power to make you use or drink and the pre-frontal cortex trying to stop you.
If you have an insecure attachment style, you are likely to have deficits in your pre-frontal cortex that make it difficult to over-come addictive tendencies. And the more you drink or use, the less effective the pre-frontal cortex becomes.
If you are struggling to manage or stop using substances you need to tame the amygdala and build up your pre-frontal cortex.
If you want to know more about how you can do this email us – to set up a free no obligation 30 minute consultation.