If you have a physical illness, disease, or medical condition, we don’t have to tell you the impact ill health can have on one’s life. Illness can affect our work life, what we’re able to do day-to-day, and self-confidence. But it clearly doesn’t end there; research shows that physical ill-health can also change how we function in relationships.
But what about the other way around? Can our childhood relationships influence our physical health in adulthood?
The majority of research on early relationships so far has focused on how attachment shapes our emotions and social lives. However, recently, experts have begun to shine a light on the link between insecure attachment and physical health.
So, can insecure attachment cause a disease or medical condition? The evidence suggests that, yes, it can. Our early experiences don’t just shape our adult attachment, they can also alter our physical health as adults, in several ways.
To answer all of your questions on attachment and physical health, in this article, we’ll cover:
Attachment is the unique bond that develops between a child and their primary caregiver. Children develop one of four attachment styles (one secure and three insecure) based on how their caregiver responds to their needs.
Furthermore, if you don’t know your attachment style and want to find out, you can do so using our free Attachment Style Quiz.
The relationship between attachment and physical health isn’t clear-cut and could depend on many other factors, such as:
However, evidence does indicate a relationship between insecure attachment and physical ill-health. Let’s explore this in more detail.
Insecure attachment may not directly cause a disease or medical condition. However, having an insecure attachment style is linked to greater health risks in four key ways:
Our attachment style influences how we perceive stress, how we react to and recover from stress, and the strategies we use to cope with it.
This effect may be due to how children who experience early attachment insecurity tend to show several significant brain changes, such as:
As a result of these changes to the brain, insecurely attached children may be more prone to high stress levels and unhealthy responses to stressful situations, and they may find it harder to cope with life’s challenges.
An insecure attachment style often increases risk-taking behavior. For example, someone with an insecure attachment style may be more prone to alcohol and drug misuse, poorer eating habits, physically inactivity, and risky sexual behaviors.
You may be wondering why this is the case; well, evidence suggests that people with an insecure attachment style tend to see threats and danger as somewhat “safer” than securely attached people do. This pattern may be because someone with an insecure attachment is often more familiar with unpredictability, feeling on edge and, in the case of abuse or neglect, danger.
Our attachment style also impacts our susceptibility to developing a serious disease or medical condition, as it may increase the chance of risk factors for certain illnesses.
For example, children who receive less responsiveness, support, and warmth from their primary caregiver tend to have more physical “wear and tear,” including higher blood pressure and levels of inflammation. This relates back to what we discussed earlier about the impact insecure attachment can have on a child’s stress system.
Moreover, children who receive lower-quality caregiving or maltreatment typically show more health problems in later life. But what classifies as “lower-quality caregiving”? It could be high levels of maternal rejection, changes in primary caregivers, harsh discipline, or physical or sexual abuse in early and late childhood.
As we covered earlier on, our attachment style in childhood shapes our beliefs about others, ourselves, and the world. These beliefs include how much compassion we feel we deserve and how much we feel we matter.
If we believe that we don’t deserve compassion or that we are unimportant, this can reduce our self-compassion later in life. These beliefs can also influence how we access social support during times of need.
For example, the following is how self-compassion and support-seeking may play out in secure vs. insecure attachment styles:
Secure attachment: “I am important and deserve compassion. Therefore, I will ask for help when I’m unwell.”
Insecure attachment: “I am unimportant and don’t deserve compassion. No-one is going to want to help me feel better, and maybe I deserve to feel unwell.”
If you find these beliefs difficult to read, it’s OK. We will address how to reduce the risk of insecure attachment leading to physical health later in the article.
But for now, let’s address how each attachment style can affect our physical health.
As we now know, children with a secure attachment style may be more likely to seek professional support when they experience signs of ill-health. However, the differences don’t end there. Attachment security may also help children with a chronic disease or medical condition use healthy methods to manage their symptoms. Evidence suggests that securely attached children with a chronic disease may be better able to:
Securely attached children may also be less likely to experience physical illness in the first place. Why? Because they don’t have an overactive stress response like insecurely attached people.
A child typically develops an avoidant attachment style because their caregiver was emotionally or physically unavailable or rejecting. Due to this, avoidant attachers may develop beliefs early in life that they can’t rely on others to respond to their needs. These beliefs may cause them to retreat from others during times of distress, making them less likely to seek professional help for a disease or medical condition. It’s also common for people with an avoidant attachment style to minimize and ignore their distress and physical pain because of these internal beliefs.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that avoidant attachers try certain risky behaviors more frequently than securely attached people. As an example, avoidant attachers may be more likely to travel in a car without using a seatbelt. Unfortunately, engaging in risky behaviors and not seeking medical help when necessary can increase our negative emotions, physical pain, and risk of disease or medical condition.
If you have an anxious attachment style, you may be more vigilant about your physical health, attending to signs of illness quickly. While this may sound like a good thing, hypervigilance is often a sign of an overactive stress system. So, you may catch the signs of some physical illnesses early on, but hypervigilance may put you at risk of developing physical illnesses associated with an overactive stress system.
And there’s evidence to back this up: Research shows that those with an anxious attachment style are more likely to report high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks. These are all physical illnesses that can come from chronic stress.
Additionally, similar to avoidant attachers, evidence shows that people with an anxious attachment style often find self-compassion difficult, and may respond to distressing situations with unhealthy coping strategies. For example, anxiously attached people typically use more emotion-focused strategies when they’re distressed, which can worsen their worries and keep their stress response system continually active. This, of course, can lead to disease and medical conditions.
Unfortunately, there’s not as much research on the relationship between disorganized attachment and physical health as there is with the other insecure attachment styles. However, the limited evidence there is has some interesting findings.
Evidence suggests that children who develop a disorganized attachment style are typically exposed to the most stressful, hostile home environments. Therefore, children growing up in this unhealthy environment experience the changes in their stress system we spoke about earlier. However, the difference is, they experience these to a heightened degree.
The overactivation in their stress response system enables them to respond appropriately to the tense situations they often faced as children. However, unfortunately, this chronic exposure to stress can affect their mental and physical health, increasing the likelihood of health problems in the future. For instance, children with a disorganized attachment often end up with chronic inflammation as adults.
Understanding the relationship between insecure attachment and physical health can be frightening, especially if you have an insecure attachment style. But we want to offer some reassurance; insecure attachment may make you more likely to experience physical ill-health, but it’s not a guarantee. Everyone is different, and our experiences of physical illness reflect this.
But if this hasn’t eased your worries and you want to know how to reduce the risk of developing a disease or medical condition from insecure attachment, check out our three tips below.
Our insecure early relationships can make us more at risk of developing unhealthy adult relationships. However, if we can begin to understand our attachment style and process the difficult emotions we have about our early relationships, we can start to form healthy relationships in later life.
Healthy, supportive, high-quality relationships can have a positive impact on our physical health. For example, if people see their partner as available and responsive to their needs, this minimizes the impact of insecure attachment on their physical health. Furthermore, having a friend, partner, or family member to whom we know we can turn when we need support can reduce “wear and tear” on our bodies.
You can learn more about how to form healthy relationships in our article on Attachment-Based Goals for Relationships That Last.
Furthermore, to discover how to attract a secure partner, check out our article on Attracting a Partner With a Secure Attachment Style.
As we know, insecure attachment is associated with risk-taking behaviors. So, reducing risky behaviors can reduce your likelihood of developing a disease or medical condition.
But how can you do this? First, you can become more aware of what defines “risks.” This includes being able to recognize a risk, understanding the impact of this risk, not forgetting or repressing it, and taking all of this information into account before you act.
High-risk behaviors are defined as “acts that increase the risk of disease or injury, which can subsequently lead to disability, death, or social problems.”
The most common risky behaviors relate to:
One way to identify the riskiness of a behavior is to weigh up the pros and cons of this action, and ask yourself:
While it’s completely possible to transform your insecure attachment style on your own, many people benefit from the support of a professional, such as a counselor or psychotherapist.
With the help of a counselor, you can process emotions relating to your past experiences and develop healthier strategies and relationships in your adult life. Moreover, mental health support can help you cope with comorbid conditions that are often associated with an insecure attachment style. Mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression are commonly associated with both insecure attachment and poorer physical health. Improving your mental health through counseling can, therefore, limit the indirect impact of insecure attachment on physical health.
As you can now tell, attachment and physical health share a complex relationship that can be difficult to comprehend. While having an insecure attachment style may not guarantee a physical illness, it can increase the risk of developing a disease or medical condition in later life.
Nevertheless, it’s reassuring to know that forming healthy relationships, reducing risky behaviors, and seeking professional help can help protect you against the indirect effect of insecure attachment on physical illness.
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