By the end of our first few years on the planet, our tiny baby brains are imprinted with many of the beliefs, behavioral patterns, and fears we’ll exhibit as adults, mirroring how our primary caregiver—usually our mothers—treated us. According to this so-called attachment theory, each person has a particular attachment “style” because of these early childhood experiences: secure or insecure attachment, the latter being further broken down into avoidant or anxious attachment.
A securely attached person has grown up with the expectation that there will be someone to turn to for help when needed, and therefore they both intrinsically trust people in their relationships and feel themselves able to care for others as well.
But what happens if you’re one of the 40 to 50 percent of babies who are insecurely attached due to parents or caregivers who were far from perfect? These people tend to push people away in their relationships, whether due to their own reluctance to connect or conversely due to their sometimes suffocating desperation for connection.
According to John Bowlby, the British psychoanalyst who founded attachment theory, these insecurity-prone people are also more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and stress. When the relationship with your caregivers is damaged or insufficient, your knowledge of yourself, others, and the world can be distorted. This insecure attachment may affect your ability to self-regulate your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, which at least partially increases the likelihood of mental health difficulties.
But here’s the good news: According to a recent scientific study, even if your upbringing was far from perfect, there’s a particular kind of habit that can help offset the effects. It’s one that should be none too surprising for many people in the mbg community: mindfulness.
Researchers surveyed 400 people about their feelings about the close relationships in their lives (to determine their attachment style), how they practiced mindfulness in their daily lives (specifically, their levels of self-knowledge, self-control, self-compassion, and mindful awareness), and their levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. While people with insecure attachment tended to be susceptible to this slew of mental health struggles, the study found mindfulness—particularly mindful awareness and self-compassion—actually seemed to decrease these people’s depression, anxiety, and stress levels.
“An individual with insecure attachment who has higher mindfulness and self-compassion experiences has a lower level of depression compared to an individual with insecure attachment who has lower levels of mindfulness and self-compassion,” the paper explains.
That means if you find out you’re a person with an insecure attachment style—that is, you’re someone who is either avoidant or anxious about their relationships—that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to unsatisfactory relationships and the poor mental health that comes with them.
The more you know yourself, the more you know why you’re responding the way you do. Mindfulness gives you an opportunity to be objective and reflective on both past and present experiences in order to integrate them into your life in a way that’s productive for your future. Observing your thoughts rather than being engaged in them enables you to be less judgmental and reactive about what’s happening in your relationship. If you can add self-compassion to the mix, you can easily avoid the self-criticism or unkind thoughts you might have about yourself that are usually at the heart of feeling anxious about your romantic relationships or wanting to remain distant in them. Through consistent mindfulness practices, you can choose to approach yourself with more acceptance and understanding—and then make a conscious decision to show up differently.
“Practicing mindfulness is essential for any change. In relationships, shifting from reactiveness to responsiveness can lift us out of our early attachment patterns toward a healthier, more secure style,” writes marriage counselor Linda Carroll, M.S. “For those of us with anxious or avoidant attachment styles, practicing the art of self-compassion, self-soothing, and self-awareness is a counterintuitive move.
You will need to constantly remind yourself not to fall victim to old fears or tell yourself old stories, but the longer you act as if you are securely attached, the truer it will inevitably become.”
To get started on your own mindfulness practice, try exploring stress reduction techniques you love, which can range from being in nature to cooking your favorite meal to dancing in your own living room to talking to a trusted confidante. You can also dive deeper into different types of meditation, such as loving-kindness. By practicing healthy ways of self-inquiry, self-compassion, and self-control when it comes to your thoughts and behaviors, you can protect and nurture your mental health no matter what type of attachment style you have.