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How to Self-Soothe: Anxious Attachment and Stress Management

Everyone feels anxious sometimes. Between work and school, friends and family, there are a lot of things that need our attention.

But if you’re worried about your relationships above all, that can cause a lot of undue stress. 

How does your partner feel about the relationship? Is your best friend drifting away? Do you feel like your sister is mad at you? Does your boss feel like you’re slacking off?

If you think like this a lot, you may need to pay attention to your attachment style.

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory, explained by John Bowlby, describes the ways that children connect with their caretakers. The theory suggests that early childhood experiences of connection and disconnection impact future relationships1. Research in the field identifies four types of attachment.

Secure Attachment Style

A securely attached person is able to have long-lasting and satisfying relationships without undue anxiety. This person is able to self-soothe if they experience anxiety in their relationships. From there, they can approach conflict with the assumption that the relationship will survive.

Insecure Attachment Styles

The avoidant attachment style drives people to seek a high level of independence, almost like they want to avoid connection altogether. Though they try to avoid hurt by keeping people at arm’s length, they still crave connection and acceptance2.

The disorganized attachment style is characterized by an outward desire for close relationships, but a tendency to push people away, much like the avoidant style3. This person can come across as very hot-and-cold to the people they love.

The anxious attachment style is a feeling of general insecurity in a relationship. This person is constantly worried that their loved ones will leave them, and they tend to have low self-esteem4.

What Is Anxious Attachment Style in a Relationship?

Romantic relationships are already an emotionally charged part of life. Having an anxious attachment style doesn’t help. 

In adult relationships, a person with an anxious attachment style is often driven to change themselves in order to fit their partner better. They often won’t protest behavior that crosses their boundaries, because they feel that every conflict could end the relationship.

Because of all this, anxious attachment can also keep a person from developing a sense of self or healthy boundaries. They can’t focus on their needs. Their happiness is tied to the happiness of others.

When two anxiously attached people are in a romantic relationship, it can easily lead to codependency. They can cross each other’s lines and even hurt themselves to try to keep their partner, even if the relationship is very unsatisfying.

Insecure attachment doesn’t have to be toxic. By learning how to identify and deal with triggers, a person can have healthy and satisfying relationships. 

What Triggers an Anxious Attachment Response?

A trigger is a sensory experience that brings to mind painful events and the emotions associated with them. If you see or smell something that reminds you of past pain, not only will you remember it, but your brain and body can feel like you’re reliving the experience5.

When it comes to insecure attachment, triggers can be very diverse. They are usually related to not feeling connected and worrying that people around you will be upset with, hurt, or abandon you. 

Common triggers include:

  1. Feeling lonely
  2. Feeling rejected
  3. Feeling betrayed
  4. Feeling put down
  5. Feeling like someone is angry at you
  6. Feeling like your loved ones will leave you

15 Tips on How to Cope with Anxious Attachment Triggers 

15 tips on how to cope with anxious attachment triggers

Often, when a person with an anxious attachment style is triggered, they want someone else to help them to feel better. But the fact is that sometimes we have to be responsible for regulating our emotions on our own.

Mindfulness

Did you notice that triggers are tied to our feelings? Our bodies and minds react to what a situation means to us, more than the situation itself. 

In order to move past anxious feelings, you have to change how you respond to the world around you.

1. Feel your feelings

The first step to being able to manage triggers is to recognize when a strong emotion is activated. Emotions are a physical response to the environment, not just a mental one. That means that you can look for certain signs of strong emotions coming on.

Your heart might start racing. You might notice tension in your shoulders or the beginnings of a headache. Maybe you have a sinking feeling in your gut. All of these physical signals come together to form our emotions.

Try using the Emotion-Sensation Feelings Wheel to build your understanding of the way your body responds to how you feel. 

2. Derail your train of thought

You can only feel different if you change the way you’re thinking. But sometimes your mind is racing, and it’s hard to focus on something different. 

Thought stopping exercises are meant to force your brain on a different path. They are puzzles, problems, or prompts that force you to think of something completely unrelated to the situation. They have to be intense, otherwise you’ll end up right back where you started.

Try counting backwards by 13 from 897. If you’re bad at math like me, you have to focus. This is much better than counting backwards by 10. With something that easy, you’ll find your mind tugged back to the problem before you reach 7. 

3. Ground yourself in the present moment

When a person experiences anxiety, they are often thinking about a future situation. Unfortunately, their mind and body will react to that situation instead of what’s right in front of them.

Grounding is bringing yourself back to the present moment using your five senses. It’s a great way to soothe anxious feelings by focusing on something pleasant. Engaging with soothing stimuli, like music, can slow your heart rate and ease tense muscles. X Labbé

Identify three things that you know make you feel good. It could be a favorite sweater or hugging your dog or having a glass of tea. Pick one of them, and use all of your senses to experience it. What do you see, feel, hear, smell, and/or taste?

4. Relax your body

Because anxiety prompts us to be ready to deal with something unpleasant, it leads to tense muscles. Our nervous system prompts us to prepare to deal with a threat. Your neck and shoulders, glutes and hamstrings, and even your hands are likely to get tense. 

Due to this natural response, another way to self-soothe anxious feelings is to deliberately relax. When you force your muscles to relax, it sends a signal to your brain that you are out of the “danger zone” and can let go of the anxiety. Once your brain gets that all-clear, it sends a signal to the body to relax further, and starts a spiral of relaxation.

Our faces have a lot of small muscles that respond to stress. Relax your face to a neutral expression. Now, tip the corners of your mouth up into the barest hint of a smile. You might feel an immediate release of tension you didn’t know you were carrying. That’s the power of relaxation!

Attend to your body

The body and mind are linked to each other. Therefore, it’s important to check in with yourself to make sure your body is in the best state it can be in.

5. Make sure you’re hydrated

make sure you're hydrated

I tell clients all of the time: if you feel like you hate everyone, you might be hungry. If you feel like everyone hates you, you might be dehydrated. 

The human body relies on an optimal level of hydration. When there isn’t enough water in the system, there are subtle signs of discomfort from the whole body. Dry skin, muscle aches, and stiffness are some of the signals that you need to drink something.

Remember how our bodies are a big part of how we feel our emotions? Well, that all over discomfort can reinforce unpleasant feelings. And if the result of an emotional trigger is feelings of loneliness and disconnection, that’s what’s going to be emphasized.

Consider carrying a water bottle with you to make it easier to drink water on the go. 

6. Fuel up, if you need it

Being hungry makes every unpleasant emotion at least 3 times worse in my experience. Without enough energy to keep the body running, there’s nothing left over to help regulate emotions.

What a person needs to eat and how often depends on their individual needs. In general, I recommend that people get a balance of carbs, proteins, and fats to help keep blood sugar levels even. This prevents spikes and dips in mood.

Remind yourself to eat regularly. You might eat bigger meals. You could keep snacks readily available. (I’m a big fan of applesauce pouches and homemade trail mix.) If you’re not sure what would work for you, consider reaching out to a dietitian or nutritionist.

7. Get up and move

Moving your body can improve your mood in the short and long term. It’s a way to feel more physically connected to yourself and the world around you. 

A lot of people experience shame when it comes to movement, because they equate it to “exercise.” Because of this, I encourage people to find something that they genuinely enjoy doing, or joyous movement

Pick a physical activity to do once a week. It might be going for a walk, taking a dance class, or even going for a leisurely swim with the girls. By building a regular and enjoyable activity into your routine, you’re more able to call on it when you need it.

8. Make sure you’re resting

Sleep is very important for regulating emotions, but it’s one of the most neglected forms of self care. Without it, an overworked brain can’t recuperate. The general recommendation is to get 8 hours of sleep. Some people need more, some people need less. But there’s no one in the world who doesn’t need at least some.

Rest describes letting at least one part of you slow down and relax, even if another part of you is still active. Mental and emotional rest might look like walking the dog while listening to your favorite audiobook. Physical rest could look like relaxing on the couch as you watch an engaging drama series. 

Check in with yourself about your sleep and rest needs. If you’re an early bird, see if you can shift tasks from the evening to earlier in the day. Night owls, go the opposite way. Be honest with yourself about whether you need more sleep. Set an alarm and take a nap if you’re feeling exhausted. 

Redirect your energy

When you experience an intense, unpleasant emotion, you’re likely to keep thinking about the upsetting situation. Unfortunately, dwelling tends to make you feel worse, not better6. Shifting your focus to something else can help you calm down and feel better.

9. Phone a friend

Your support system is there to, well… support you. These are the people that you know you can rely on, even if you are feeling anxious and disconnected. This could be a friend, your sibling, or a work spouse.

A person who experiences anxious attachment often feels disconnected. When they experience an attachment-related trigger, the feeling only gets more intense. They are in need of emotional support.

It’s important not to make other people responsible for how you feel. But if you feel better just hearing your best friend’s voice, without asking them to comfort you, then calling a friend is not a bad idea.

Update the favorite contacts on your phone to include at least one person who you can always call to talk about something fun. Remember: this person is there to distract you, not be your shoulder to cry on.

10. Start an artistic project

start an artistic project

Taking the time to make something is a great way to shift your focus inward. This could be a charcoal drawing, using a coloring book, a writing project, doodles on a page, or sculpting. There’s no wrong way to express your creative side.

Even just a half hour of time to be creative has been shown to relieve tension and improve overall mood.

Pick a fun art project that’s not going to cause you too much stress. Set a timer for half an hour, and throw yourself into creating. Don’t worry about finishing what you work on. This is for you, and no one else. You can always return to it later if you want to pick it back up.

11. Volunteer

Doing something nice for others is a great way to channel your energy if you’re an anxious person. Volunteer work can help us feel like we’re making a difference in the world while also using some of the excess energy that tends to come with emotional triggers.

Just like art, volunteer work can be a variety of things. You might work with a big organization like the Humane Society or Habitat for Humanity. You could help a smaller non-profit with their filing. Or you might just go on a walk by yourself and pick up trash.

Look up volunteer organizations in your area. Consider reaching out to a volunteer coordinator and getting some training. You might not be able to volunteer every time you come across an anxious attachment trigger, but regular volunteer work can help you feel more effective in your own life.

Work on yourself

Ultimately, I can’t tell you how to deal with anxious attachment related stress without encouraging you to focus on your self-awareness. The rest of the self-soothing techniques are helpful, but these skills will teach you how to overcome anxious attachment stress.

12. Take note of what triggered you

Probably one of the most important things you can do to self-soothe anxious attachment is to know what your triggers are. If you know that certain people, places, things, and experiences cause a lot of distress, you can avoid or prepare for them in the future.

Avoiding triggers, when you can, doesn’t mean you’re running away from life. It simply means recognizing when you don’t have to put yourself through a stressful situation and choosing not to. This can be as simple as not having candles in your home that remind you of painful memories.

Preparing for triggers doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble. Instead, you are recognizing that we can’t avoid every potential trigger in the world. You’re practicing your self-soothing behaviors before you even run into the unpleasant situation.

Pick one of the six common triggers listed above. Think of something you and your partner can do to help reduce those feelings. For example, if you know you might feel rejected when your partner spends time with friends, you might wear a special piece of jewelry that reminds you of their love.

13. Challenge negative self-talk

Negative self-talk is an internal understanding of ourselves and our relationships as negative or disconnected. For someone learning how to self-soothe anxious attachment stress, this is one of the most difficult hurdles to get over.

Positive self-talk is a pattern of thinking that is focused on connection and being able to influence the world around you. Securely attached people are often able to access this type of self-talk a bit easier, but with practice, anyone can improve their self-talk. 

If you catch yourself worrying about your loved ones leaving you, remind yourself to balance that thought with something more positive. For example, your partner may not have invited you out with his family, but he does enjoy spending time with you and has let you know that before.

14. Remind yourself of your boundaries

Boundary setting skills play a large part in approaching a more secure attachment style. It starts with recognizing that boundaries are not about pulling away from people. In fact, boundaries are meant to help us to be more comfortable with the people around us.

Boundaries are for you, not the other person. You are not forcing someone to think, feel, or do anything when you set a boundary. Instead, you are reminding yourself of what you are okay with, and what you don’t want to accept in your life.

Think of a situation with a friend that made you uncomfortable. Think about how your friend would feel if they knew they were making you feel that way. Remind yourself of what you don’t want to experience, and practice telling your friend that you would prefer to do something different. 

15. Talk to a professional

talk to a professional

You’re not going to learn how to move from anxious attachment to secure just from an article on self-soothing. You might read a lot of articles, in fact, and watch a few videos on the subject. But that’s not a good substitute for speaking with someone outside of yourself.

A professional coach or mental health professional can help you to recognize patterns of thought and behavior that are not helpful to you. They can teach you personalized ways to self regulate and coping skills that apply to your specific circumstance.

FAQs

Is the anxious attachment style toxic?

A person dealing with anxious attachment can fall into codependent behavior. But don’t have to. Learning how to self-soothe anxious attachment-related stress can go a long way to maintaining healthy relationships.

Can anxious attachment lead me to be manipulative?

It can be a form of manipulation to change yourself to fit what you think your partner wants. Practicing mindfulness and focusing on yourself can help you avoid these behaviors.

What happens when two people with an anxious attachment style get together?

Two anxiously attached people can date, but if they aren't careful they can run the risk of codependency and frustration with the relationship. Both parties have to commit to managing their stress and honest communication to keep the relationship healthy.

Conclusion

Regulating your emotions in the face of triggers relating to anxious attachment isn’t easy. But with this list, I hope you’ve been able to identify at least three strategies to try.

6 Sources:
  1. Bowlby, John. Attachment and Loss. Basic Books, 2000.
  2. Carvallo, Mauricio, and Shira Gabriel. “No man is an island: the need to belong and dismissing avoidant attachment style.” Personality & social psychology bulletin vol. 32,5 (2006): 697-709. doi:10.1177/0146167205285451
  3. Dan, Orrie et al. “The relationship between individuals with fearful-avoidant adult attachment orientation and early neural responses to emotional content: An event-related potentials (ERPs) study.” Neuropsychology vol. 34,2 (2020): 155-167. doi:10.1037/neu0000600
  4. McCarthy, G. (1999). Attachment style and adult love relationships and friendships: A study of a group of women at risk of experiencing relationship difficulties. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 72(3), 305-321.
  5. Labbé, E., Schmidt, N., Babin, J. et al. Coping with Stress: The Effectiveness of Different Types of Music. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback 32, 163–168 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-007-9043-9
  6. Sheppes, G., & Gross, J. J. (2011). Is Timing Everything? Temporal Considerations in Emotion Regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(4), 319–331. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868310395778
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