Insecure attachment as a risk factor for later-life mental health issues


An instinctive drive for attachment is our fundamental survival mechanism in early childhood. According to Bowlby’s attachment theory (1969), an insecure, or unreliable and inconsistent attachment relationship with a caregiver in infancy decreases resilience in managing traumatic and stressful situations and makes children liable to mental breakdowns in critical circumstances, whereas a secure, or consistent and sensitive attachment style is a basis for a more constructive and optimistic trajectory of a child’s development. Insecure attachment, influenced by environmental and genetic factors, can be considered as a predisposition, or susceptibility to mental illness; however, the formation or reinstatement of a feeling of a secure attachment may improve resilience and enhance psychological wellbeing.

In general terms, the attachment can be defined as a specific mode of relating to other people, and attachment dynamics can be distinguished into secure and insecure. Insecure attachment patterns in childhood have been found to confer risks to the development of psychopathology in adulthood. Insecure attachment style is represented by insecure-avoidant, insecure-resistant and disorganised attachment types. Attachment behaviour is any type of action intended for getting a response from a preferred person, someone who is typically wiser or stronger. Bowlby (1977) observes that many psychiatric patients are insecure and immature people, who in stressful situations develop mental disorders. Research confirms that most of these individuals have experienced neglectful parenting, which is at the core of insecure attachment in infancy.
Strange situation, developed by Ainsworth in 1978, is a method which evaluates the attachment quality in children. Bowlby claimed that depending on caregivers’ attachment style, children form the internal working models which are conceived as the background for directing one’s views, emotions, and actions in the context of later-life interactions.

A substantial body of research, including longitudinal studies of the long-term consequences of insecure attachment relationships in early years on mental illness in later life, supported Bowlby’s ideas. Findings of Harris, Brown, and Bifulco (2012) demonstrate that the loss of a parent or long separation from parents in early life confers risk to adult depression. Coffino (2009) pointed out that the strongest predictor of depression in adulthood was the history of parental death between 5 and 10 years old.
Carlson, Egeland, and Sroufe (2009) investigated in a longitudinal study the developmental pathway of borderline personality disorder (BPD), from childhood to adulthood. They confirmed that repetitive contradictory cues representative of disorganised attachment in childhood, are strongly linked to a failure in regulatory tactics to manage stressful situations. The study reports that disorganised attachment, characterised by severe conditions of maltreatment in childhood, is linked to dissociative processes in later life, a marker in the development of BPD.

However, insecure attachment relationships do not result in psychopathology linearly, but other factors such as social and family life, intelligence, substance abuse are likely to augment the effects of insecure attachment on the way to a mental disorder.

While insecure attachment styles are conceived as risk factors for mental illness, the formation and regeneration of a feeling of security may improve mental health and resilience to stress. Mikulincer and Shaver (2012) report that the effects of an improved sense of security on different psychological indicators have been observed in the “security priming” trials that employed triggering mental associations with caring attachment figures. The researchers stated that security providers’ name priming alleviated symptoms of eating disorders, including distortion of body perception, in women diagnosed with eating disorders. There is also evidence of an improved patient’s psychological condition resulted from the feeling of security that was generated in a psychotherapeutic relationship.

Attachment in the context of psychology generally refers to the permanent emotional proximity between children and parents, or caregivers, which is necessary to prepare children for challenges of adulthood. Secure attachment in childhood facilitates the development of mental wellbeing and generates emotional resources for the management of difficulties, whereas insecure attachment style usually results in psychopathology. Formation or reinstatement of a feeling of secure attachment has been shown to enhance resilience to hardships and alleviate symptoms of mental illness.




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