Attachment and Mental Health

As people, whether we like it or not, we are essentially social creatures who depend on attachment to others for almost everything. Interpersonal attachment is a fundamental human motivation. Throughout life, our attachments change and develop, but they are always necessary to some degree. Learning about having health attachments is very important to helping us maintain happiness, and mental and physical health throughout our lives. Good relationships provide us with compassion, belonging, and other factors key for our mental and even physical health.

We start off life as very helpless babies completely dependent on our parents for survival. Their responses to our needs are life or death situations for us. We need our caretakes not only to feed and clothe us, but also to interact with us, respond to our moods, and teach us basics like speech and how to relate to the world. Attachment theory explains that attachment styles are developed very early in life (Years 1-5) and maintain somewhat stable throughout adulthood. In this time, we may develop social anxiety and avoidance of social situations. Those that grow up with more secure attachments to their caretakers do not develop anxiety or avoidance, however, report higher levels of emotion regulation and much higher levels of psychological well-being. These factors are even linked to physical well-being.

As we begin to mature, we still very much need the presence of community and secure attachment in our life. We do also sometimes need to put a bit of effort into making sure we develop and maintain that for ourselves. Maintaining good relationships with a circle of friends, significant others, family, community, or at work can make a huge difference for out health. Making sure we don’t self-isolate is very important.

Self-compassion and mattering are two attachment constructs that have been shown to relate to well-being in adults.  Self-compassion involves self-kindness, mindfulness, and feeling a sense of common humanity, especially in times of pain or suffering. Mattering means that you are aware your presence is desired, and others rely on and care about you. These aspects are very fruitful targets for clinical intervention in adults.

Self-compassion has shown to correlate with optimism, happiness, social connectedness, emotional intelligence, and self-acceptance. You can develop it by being gentle to yourself when you are suffering, recognizing that you are not alone, and other people suffer as well, and observing your thoughts without becoming overly involved in them. People with anxious attachment style have trouble being nice to themselves and mindfully approaching their issues because they may have internalized an unsupportive parent-child relationship. Mindfulness-based stress reduction therapies are implanted for people with fibromyalgia, heart disease, chronic stress, organ transplants, and cancer. Self-compassion leads to increased self-worth and perceived support from others and secure attachments to others.

Mattering has also shown to be negatively associated with depression, self-consciousness, and alienation; it is positively associated with self-esteem and social support. Not being lonely and feeling one’s presence is needed and wanted also gets people to take care of their health. They exercise and eat healthier and have lower cardiovascular risks. Feeling like you matter also means you ask for help in constructive ways during times when you are stressed.

In our busy lives, it is important to prioritize our relationships to the people around us. Maintaining good relationships literally keeps us same and healthy. Although much of our attachment style may already be determined in early childhood and infancy, with our efforts and therapy we can improve our attachment styles well into adulthood. Developing our self-kindness, mindfulness, and our sense of mattering can truly heal our old insecurities from childhood and help us have a healthy social life.

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