Wellness·5 min read

What Can Attachment Theory Tell Us About Loneliness?

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May 3, 2023

The US Surgeon General recently called loneliness an "epidemic" and “one of our generation's greatest challenges." It’s no wonder since research has shown that friendship is on the decline, and more than one in three Americans feel “serious loneliness.” At the same time, other research suggests that rates of secure attachment are declining. Are the two connected? And how can attachment theory help us understand — or even strengthen — the relationships we have? 

What is attachment theory?

There are four main attachment styles, generally known as:

  • Preoccupied (or anxious) attachment. Those who are “afraid they're gonna be rejected,” says Leslie Becker-Phelps, a psychologist and author of “Bouncing Back from Rejection.” “They become preoccupied with trying to earn love, support, caring, acceptance ... Even when they get it, they don't feel like it's for them because they already feel unworthy.”

  • Dismissive (or avoidant) attachment. Those who have low anxiety and high avoidance. “They feel good about themselves,” says Becker-Phelps. But, “they don't think other people are going to be available … so they don't even look.”

  • Fearful (or anxious/avoidant) attachment. Those who have both high anxiety and avoidance. “They have the anxious thing about like really longing for … closeness, but they also have the avoidance aversion of too much closeness,” says Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and co-author of “Attached.” It’s the least common attachment style and the most likely to breed loneliness.

  • Secure attachment. Those who have low levels of both anxiety and avoidance. They “form relationships much more easily,” says Dr. Levine, because they tend to believe that “love is good, closeness is good, relationships are safe.”

If I’m feeling lonely, should I examine my attachment style?

It could help. Research shows a connection between the two — specifically, that those on the "insecure" side of the spectrum may be more likely to feel socially isolated. Dr. Levine says that knowing more about your style can help, but Becker-Phelps says putting a label on it may not be necessary because attachment tendencies can be fluid, potentially changing over time or from relationship to relationship.

She recommends getting to the bottom of why you’re feeling lonely by asking yourself: “How lovable do I feel on a scale of I'm a lovable, acceptable person, all the way to I'm unlovable, and there’s something wrong with me?” How you answer this question could offer insight into whether you’re lonely because you’re not receiving enough love or you don’t think you’re worthy of accepting love. 

Your Move 

You can learn to form more secure attachments and mitigate loneliness by training your brain to trust and accept love. To get you started:  

  • Prioritize those who make you feel secure. Having a relationship (romantic or platonic) with someone with a secure attachment style can pull you in that direction. 

  • Seek out inclusive people. And “learn to become more inclusive yourself,” says Dr. Levine. Because loneliness doesn’t just stem from not having enough people to connect to — it’s often about how accepted and included your connections make you feel. 

  • Train your brain to recognize security. Becker-Phelps recommends an exercise: Think of a secure attachment in your life — a relationship that is safe and trusting. Pull up a picture of you and that person together and remind yourself that this person cares about you. 

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Cover Art of "The Wellness Trap" Book besides the author, Christy Harrison
Abbey Moore Photography

Well Read

We feature buzzy books in the health and wellness space. This week, we read:  

"The Wellness Trap: Break Free from Diet Culture, Disinformation, and Dubious Diagnoses and Find Your True Well-Being,” by Christy Harrison

Author Credentials: Harrison is a registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, and journalist. 

Table of Contents: 

  • “The Wellness Trap” combines history, memoir, reporting, and practical advice to form a qualitative and quantitative takedown of the wellness industry. 

  • The goal? To “help people begin to approach alternative and integrative medicine and the wellness industry in general with as much critical thinking and skepticism as they would conventional medicine,” says Harrison. 

Why We Bookmark’d It: Harrison’s analysis of the trillion-dollar global wellness industry is revealing on a societal and individual level. The macro trends she highlights — like anti-vax sentiments — speak to the power of misinformation when it’s dressed up as wellness.

At the same time, the book is personal. Harrison says she wrote it for people who “feel unheard or unserved by the conventional health care system” and are “struggling under the pressures of wellness culture” (whether they know it or not). And she gets it because she’s been there herself.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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