Attachment Disorder and Addiction

Written by Journey Pure Staff

Understanding Attachment Disorder

Human beings are biologically hardwired for social bonding. Infants possess a survival instinct to instinctively attach to caregivers. When babies’ physical and emotional needs are met, they develop secure attachments, learning to trust, communicate and take steps toward independence. Infants completely rely on adult caregivers for emotional regulation. When parents or other caretakers are responsive and responsible, children receive the foundation of personal security necessary to learn emotional self-regulation.  

Babies that do not receive predictable and appropriate attention from caregivers are unable to form secure attachments and thus resort to seeking alternative ways to calm their distress. Figuring out how to comfort a crying baby can be challenging for any parent. It’s estimated that even the most devoted parents are only able to accurately respond to their children’s needs around half the time. So, even well-intentioned caregivers can fall below the threshold of responsiveness necessary for a child to form secure attachments. Factors like abuse, neglect, or trauma further compromise a child’s ability to form attachments.

All forms of childhood attachment disorders (disorganized, ambivalent, anxious-avoidant) feature unique characteristics but share a common trait in the child’s search for external forms of comfort. Since a secure attachment to primary caregivers is a developmental necessity, babies with attachment disorders may never reach the milestone of learning to self-soothe.

The Role of Addiction

So how does attachment disorder relate to addiction? As children grow, they naturally become less dependent on caregivers. For children with attachment disorders, however, the search for external forms of emotional support and regulation continues into the teenage years, when many people encounter drugs and alcohol for the first time. Since teenagers with attachment disorders have been searching for emotional control since infancy, they are especially vulnerable to eating disorders, self-harming behaviors like cutting, aggression, hypervigilance, or perfectionism. These young adults may also develop unhealthy relationships marked by manipulation, dependency, or avoidance.

For many young people, drugs and alcohol become reliable, easy, and powerfully effective forms of self-soothing. It is common for alcoholics and addicts to describe their first drink or drug as a remarkable experience of feeling truly at peace for the first time. Psychoactive substances like drugs and alcohol have commanding emotional effects. In the beginning, they can create temporary feelings of euphoria that can become addictive over time. People with attachment disorders commonly internalize feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem early in life which can manifest in fear of intimacy later in life. Drugs and alcohol seem to offer a panacea to teenagers seeking emotional comfort while navigating the awkward waters of adolescent relationships.

The Path Forward

Understanding the link between attachment disorders and addiction allows treatment facilities like JourneyPure At The River to tailor programs to the specific needs of each individual patient. Drugs and alcohol foster isolation and detachment so an essential part of recovery is developing trustworthy bonds with reliable people. Relationships that foster intimacy and honesty provide a foundation for individuals in recovery, helping to repair and challenge the patterns of avoidance and isolation commonly exhibited during active addiction. 12-step recovery programs provide an excellent setting for fostering intimate friendships based on honesty and mutual support.