Attachment Styles and Stress Responses

This article addresses the link between attachment theory and stress responses. In the aftermath of the pandemic and the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, understanding how our attachment styles influence how we cope with stress is of utmost importance. Awareness is the first step toward progress.

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

William James

Stressful situations are unavoidable. These situations could be psychological stressors, such as the prevailing worry about the end of a relationship. Or perhaps environmental ones like a dysfunctional work environment. Regardless, most of us usually recognize the common symptoms of stress; anxiety, a pounding heart, beads of sweat, and difficulty breathing. 

Stress on a short-term basis is necessary for responding to the inevitable challenges we encounter regularly. However, long-term stress can be damaging both emotionally and physically. Whether we cope with stress effectively or allow it to become long-term is usually dependent on our stress responses. 

An expanding area of research focuses on how the attachment styles we develop in our early years influence our ability to cope with stress. So, to help answer any questions you may have about how your attachment style can impact your stress response, this article covers:

  • What stress is
  • The symptoms of short-term (acute) stress
  • Long-term (chronic) stress effects
  • Each attachment style’s (secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized) stress response
  • How to cope with stress based on the traits of your attachment style

What Is Stress?

Stress is an emotional and physiological response to circumstances in which we feel under pressure or threat. It usually occurs when we have a perceived lack of control over what is happening around us. 

Stress usually comes in two forms; short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic).

The Symptoms of Short-Term (Acute) Stress

When we experience stress in response to a trigger such as public speaking, a phone call from our boss, or an argument with our partner, we send a hormonal signal to our sympathetic nervous system. This automatic response system reacts by setting off a series of physiological and psychological responses – otherwise known as our “fight or flight response.”

As we discussed in our previous article, The Scare Factor: How Your Attachment Style Influences Your Fears, the fight or flight response helps to keep you out of harm’s way by raising your levels of focus and awareness. It does so by facilitating the release of the stress hormones; adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones send a surge of physical and emotional responses through our bodies that enable us to either fight against the perceived threat or flee from it. Essentially, this short-lived response to a challenging situation is called acute or short-term stress.

In general, acute stress induces several emotional reactions. The following are the most common of which:

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Low mood/depression
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Forgetfulness
  • Using substances (e.g., alcohol) more often

The following are the common physiological symptoms of acute stress:

  • Sweating
  • Pounding heart
  • Headaches
  • Stomach upsets/gastrointestinal issues
  • Muscle tension
  • Increase in illness/infection
  • Dryness of mouth

The Effects of Long-Term (Chronic) Stress

Acute stress is the typical (albeit dramatic) reaction we experience in response to a stressful event. In contrast, chronic stress is a persistent feeling of pressure and burden over a long period of time. Sometimes even after the stressful event has passed. 

Due to raised levels of stress hormones over a lengthy duration, chronic stress can create mental health difficulties, as well as physiological harm. Common causes of chronic stress include a maladaptive family environment, persistent relational issues, job dissatisfaction, and poverty. Essentially, people coping with chronic stress feel a long-term lack of control over their circumstances. 

Due to how chronic stress can persist in the absence of a clear, stressful situation, its symptoms can be challenging to detect. Furthermore, the symptoms span the cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral domains, as well as vary from individual to individual. 

Having said as much, the following are some known indicators of chronic stress. If multiple of these symptoms persist for longer than a couple of weeks, you may have chronic stress:

  • Changes in behavior (such as social withdrawal)
  • Sleep disturbances such as insomnia
  • Persistent low energy
  • Appetite increase or decrease
  • Aches and pains
  • Difficulties concentrating or focusing
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • An increase in substance use (drugs or alcohol)
  • Extreme emotional reactions to others

Continuous maladaptive responses to stress can have serious implications for our quality of life, productivity, well-being, and relationships. Fortunately, understanding how our attachment styles equip us to deal with stress can help us mitigate its effects and regulate more effectively.

Attachment and Stress

A developing area of research is largely concerned with how our experiences in our early years impact how we respond to stress. Specifically, how our bond with our primary caregiver(s) primes us to cope physically and emotionally with challenges later in life. These findings have helpful implications for the collective understanding of how we can adjust our beliefs and actions to manage stress more adaptively. In other words, with knowledge and work, we can free ourselves from the burden of chronic stress.

If you don’t yet know your attachment style, we recommend taking the free quiz on our website for your report. 

Note: Attachment is a spectrum. So, where we fall on the dimensions of attachment can change according to our circumstances and experiences. Keep this in mind when interpreting your attachment style stress response.

The Secure Attachment Style Stress Response

In a nutshell, secure attachers typically can manage their fight or flight response to stress by quickly engaging their secondary, more cognitive (rational) strategy. As we’ve established in previous articles, people with a secure attachment style were shown consistent affection and validation as children. Thus, they typically have healthy levels of self-esteem and self-worth, as well as established connections with others. Their experiences taught them that the world, and the people in it, are to be trusted.

As adults, secure attachers have an in-built protective system against the adverse effects of stress. They understand that they can rely on others for support, as well as self-soothe when stressed. Ultimately, secure attachers have the resources to cope with stress and are typically great problem solvers. Therefore, they are equipped to get through difficult situations and regulate their emotions effectively.

The Anxious Attachment Style Stress Response

People high on anxious attachment are primed to be hyperresponsive to stressful situations. Due to the inconsistent patterns in how they were treated in their formative years, people with an anxious attachment style are likely to show increased behavioral, physiological, and emotional responses to even mildly stressful situations. 

Anxious attachers also tend to lack a sense of permanence in their situation and feel a sense of helplessness when faced with stress. They also typically feel overwhelmed and sensitive to the reactions of those around them. As a result of these feelings, someone with an anxious attachment style engages their “fight” response when stressed. So, they vigilantly search for reassurance and support – especially in their relationships. But they may not think of engaging their internal self-soothing strategies as a result. 

Unfortunately, along with their hyperresponsiveness to stress, anxious attachers also often struggle to recover from difficult ordeals. Hence, anxious attachers may be more prone to chronic stress than other attachment styles. They may feel burnt out, but might still come across as “needy” to others in their search for consolation.

The Avoidant Attachment Style Stress Response

People high on attachment avoidance may minimize their stress levels. Avoidant attachers typically experienced patterns of rejection from their caregivers in their formative years. Therefore, in an attempt to protect themselves from distress, they engage their “flee” strategy by shutting down their attachment system and denying their negative feelings. 

Avoidant attachers may even become irritated by others’ outward reactions to stress. They’re primed to tackle a problem independently, so they typically don’t ask for outside help. In many ways, this can be a useful trait – for example, during a workplace problem. However, it’s not a sustainable strategy. These inclinations may make avoidant attachers less skilled at dealing with personally challenging situations, such as relational or familial problems.

So, although avoidant attachers may successfully manage short-term stress because they disengage their emotions, their feelings are still there. Just bubbling under the surface. Therefore, continually dealing with life’s difficulties alone can lead to emotional and physical burnout.

The Disorganized Attachment Style Stress Response

People with a disorganized attachment style often alternate between the dimensions of attachment avoidance and anxiety. For this reason, stressful situations can be particularly perplexing for someone with this attachment style. Their early years were often frightening and unpredictable, so disorganized attachers typically weren’t provided with the necessary skill set to problem solve. 

Disorganized attachers tend to display an “I hate you/Don’t leave me” attitude towards others. So, they both desire and push away support during times of stress. This pattern of behavior leaves them feeling conflicted about the best course of action to take, so they may vacillate between switching off their emotions, to becoming hyperresponsive. 

Because of their difficulties regulating their emotions, people with the disorganized attachment style may be particularly prone to experiencing burnout and chronic stress. Furthermore, they may attempt to cope with these experiences through increased alcohol consumption or drug usage.

How to Cope With Stress Based on Your Attachment Style

Understanding how your attachment style can affect your levels of stress can help you pinpoint the areas in which you can improve your coping skills. Overall, remember that kindness and consideration for what you’ve experienced – and what you are going through – are of utmost importance in this process. After all, many of us experience burnout because our inner narrative gives us a false perspective of our abilities and available support.

The following tips may help you understand how to manage stress with consideration of the traits of your attachment style:

#1. Know your attachment style

Self-awareness can help you pinpoint the moments in which you allow stress to take over, or when you feel yourself shut off from it emotionally. The different attachment styles are associated with different emotional regulation strategies. If you wish to learn more about how your attachment style affects your emotions, check out our previous articles on the subject or take our emotion regulation quiz.

#2. Practice grounding exercises

Grounding exercises allow us to focus on the “here and now” rather than spiraling into catastrophizing. Both anxious and disorganized attachers can benefit from strategies such as these as they are prone to focusing on the negatives of a situation. The next time you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, try the 5Ws technique.

The 5Ws Grounding Technique

First of all, pay attention to your breathing. Take slow, deep breaths until you feel like your breathing is under control. Once you have done so, try the following steps:

  1. What can you see in your environment? List FIVE things.
  2. What can you touch in your environment? Touch FOUR things.
  3. What can you hear in your environment? Pay attention to THREE sounds.
  4. What can you smell in your environment? Acknowledge TWO smells.
  5. What can you taste (e.g., chewing gum, your last meal, etc.)? Note One taste.

#3. Trust in someone

 Avoidant attachers, in particular, need to learn how to lean on others more during times of stress to help lighten their load. Start small and pick someone who has demonstrated themselves to be reliable in the past. For example, send them a text message and suggest grabbing coffee together. During the coffee date, share a small element of how you’re feeling with them. Chances are, this person will respond empathetically. Meaning that you can expand your ability to rely on this person more and even extend this trust to others over time.

#4. Reframe your mindset and environment

This tip works for everyone – not just insecure attachers. Planning ahead, organizing time and workspaces, and putting things into a hierarchy of importance, are excellent strategies for managing stress. Moreover, identifying and challenging your tendencies to speak to yourself negatively when feeling overwhelmed can help you see the situation with perspective. For example, instead of saying to yourself, “I can’t cope with this. I’m definitely going to fail,” try, “I’ve gotten through situations such as this in the past. This time will be no different.”

#5. Avoid boiling point

All of the insecure attachment styles are prone to reaching a boiling point from either being over- or under-responsive to their feelings of stress. There’s nothing wrong with taking time to yourself during particularly stressful situations. Perhaps take a short walk and check in with how you’re feeling instead of using other people to balance your emotions. Ask yourself questions like, “What am I feeling in my body at this moment?” Or, “What emotions can I identify right now? How can I help myself feel better?”

Alternatively, if you’re prone to suppressing your feelings of stress, express how you’re feeling to someone else in a way that doesn’t compromise your need for boundaries. For example, by saying, “Do you mind helping me figure this out? I have a lot on my plate right now.”

#6. Try therapy

Therapy is often the best investment people can make. Talking to a trained professional in your area of need may help you understand why you respond to situations the way you do. They can also help you recognize the necessary steps for achieving change and guide you along the way.

Final Words

Stress may be an inevitable part of life, but this doesn’t mean it should affect your quality of life. If you have been experiencing chronic stress, make sure to talk about your experiences with loved ones, employers, or friends. Alternatively, there is a range of mental health professionals who are trained to help you cope in adaptive ways. You are not alone – and a problem shared is a problem halved.


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