attachment theory and addictionThere are many theories to explain the etiology of addiction.  Historically, various models have been developed, become widely accepted and then rejected or modified as new theories emerged and our understanding of addiction grew.  One model that has been gaining popularity is the concept of addiction as an attachment disorder.

Attachment theory comes from the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.  Much of their research was done in the mid-1900's and sought to prove that human infants instinctually become distressed and agitated when separated from primary caregivers.  Additionally, when tired, stressed or fearful, an infant will purposefully seek out physical proximity and contact with the caregiver.

Much more recently, many researchers have recognized and sought to better understand the connection between maladaptive attachment patterns and the development of addiction (http://www.substanceabusepolicy.com/content/1/1/32, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030646030600270X, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306460305001553).  From the disease model of addiction, we know that there is both a genetic and an environmental component to addiction and that both can change brain chemistry and structure.  One such change is the neurological consequences of poor or inhibited early attachment experiences.  Much of attachment theory is based on 2 variables described by Bowlby: dependability of an attachment figure, and judgement about worth of self as reflected back by the attachment figure.  Both of these factors heavily influence later behavioral and personality consistency as well as one's emotional regulation.  We now have a better understanding of the way that childhood relationships affect adult attachment styles (i.e an individual raised in an addictive environment will tend to display a more insecure attachment style throughout adulthood).

Early attachment deficits have been shown to be correlated with many addictions, and it is thought that those with poorer emotional regulation use substances or addictive behaviors to help regulate themselves. (http://www.naadac.org/attachmentandtrauma, Addiction as an Attachment Disorder, by Philip J. Flores)  Additionally, secure attachment is necessary for optimal functioning within relationships (having the capacity for both intimacy and independence).  When attachment style is insecure and one develops an addiction, a vicious cycle begins:  increasing addiction leads to more and more isolation from others, and therefore perpetuating the insecure attachment style.

Research has shown that 12-Step programs are a highly effective solution for addiction recovery when viewed through the lens of attachment theory because these programs focus on social support, connection with others and unconditional positive regard for self and others (Smith and Toniga, 2009).

Although attachment styles are formed in early childhood and do carry over into our adult lives, those with insecure attachment styles can learn healthier, more adaptive ways of interacting with others and can improve their capacity for intimacy within relationships.  In terms of addiction treatment, this can be a crucial concept for counselors and therapists to understand in their efforts to tailor the treatment in this manner as well as helping the recovering individual decrease shame that is so often attached to addiction.

New Hope Recovery Center is located in Chicago and offers individualized alcohol and drug addiction treatment in a loving supportive environment.  Contact New Hope Recovery Center at 888-707- 4673 (HOPE).

Written By: New Hope Recovery Center