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The Intrinsic Link Between Attachment, Trauma, and Addiction

January, 18, 2024

By Alina P. Halonen, LPCC, CCTP


By nature, we are wired to turn to loved ones for care and comfort. Yet, there's nothing inherently dysfunctional about wanting to be loved. However, when this nurturance isn’t provided, we tend to find alternative methods to self-soothe. It's at this juncture that addiction and attachment begin to intertwine.

Addictions to substances, such as drugs and alcohol, or behaviors involving food, gambling, and sex, can become compensatory mechanisms for substituting the internal balance typically provided by a secure attachment. This isn’t to say that someone with a secure attachment style can’t experience addiction. However, research in the area illuminates the prospect of addiction as an attachment disorder.

In this article, we’ll delve into the relationship between addiction and attachment theory, covering:

  • The link between addiction and attachment.

  • The biological and psychological aspects of addiction.

  • Addiction as an attachment disorder.

  • Treating addiction through connection.

Addiction and Attachment Theory

Any substance dependence or addictive disorder is complex – both in how it develops and is maintained. However, one perspective views addiction as an attachment disorder.

To be human is to be social. From an early age, we are innately driven to forge connections with others to meet our needs for closeness and comfort. According to Bowlby’s attachment theory, how our caregivers meet these needs determines the attachment style we develop.

When a caregiver is available and sensitive to a child’s needs, the child develops a secure attachment style. Consequently, the child gains a sense of safety, security, and comfort, which function as a source of resilience against life’s difficulties.

In contrast, children with an insecure attachment style might lack these resources. Those with inconsistent caregivers, rejecting, or neglectful may be vulnerable to addictions as a way to cope with feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and discomfort. Of course, not every insecure attacher develops an addiction. Our life experiences are unique, and our responses to them vary.

Understanding Adult Attachment Theory

How Attachment Styles Influence Addiction and Recovery

Adult attachment theory, an extension of Bowlby’s original work, sheds light on how our early relationships shape our approach to relationships in adulthood. This theory categorizes attachment styles into three primary types: secure, anxious, and avoidant. Each style influences how individuals interact with others and cope with stress, potentially impacting their propensity toward addiction.

The Link between Attachment Styles and Addiction

  1. Secure Attachment: Individuals with a secure attachment style generally have a history of consistent and responsive caregiving. They tend to form healthy relationships and have robust coping mechanisms. While not immune to addiction, they often have a stronger support system and effective strategies for dealing with stress and trauma.

  2. Anxious Attachment: Those with an anxious attachment style usually experience inconsistent caregiving. They may constantly seek approval and reassurance, leading to heightened emotional distress. This group might turn to addictive behaviors as a means of coping with anxiety and insecurity.

  3. Avoidant Attachment: Characterized by a dismissive attitude towards close relationships, individuals with an avoidant attachment style often had caregivers who were emotionally distant. They might use addiction as a way to numb or avoid dealing with emotions and intimacy issues.

Each attachment style comes with its unique challenges in the context of addiction and recovery. Recognizing and understanding these styles can be pivotal in developing effective treatment strategies.

The Role of Therapy in Addressing Attachment Issues

Therapeutic interventions can play a significant role in helping individuals understand their attachment style and its impact on addiction. Therapy can provide a safe space to explore past experiences and develop healthier coping mechanisms. This understanding is crucial for effective treatment and long-term recovery.

In the next section, we’ll delve into the neurobiology of attachment and its profound impact on the treatment of trauma.

The Neurobiology of Attachment and Its Impact on Trauma Treatment

Understanding the Brain's Role in Attachment and Recovery from Trauma

The intersection of attachment theory and neurobiology offers profound insights into the treatment of trauma. Understanding the brain's role in forming attachments and responding to trauma is key to addressing the root causes of addiction.

How Attachment Affects the Brain

  1. Dopamine and the Reward System: Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, plays a critical role in attachment. Secure attachments formed in childhood can lead to a balanced dopamine response, while insecure attachments might cause maladaptive alterations in this reward system, potentially leading to addictive behaviors.

  2. Oxytocin and Emotional Bonds: Oxytocin, often called the "love hormone," is crucial for forming emotional bonds. It influences social behavior and emotional responses. Insecure attachments can disrupt the natural oxytocin response, affecting one’s ability to form healthy relationships and manage stress.

  3. Glucocorticoids and Stress Response: The body’s stress response, mediated by glucocorticoids, is significantly influenced by attachment styles. Chronic stress or trauma, often associated with insecure attachments, can lead to prolonged glucocorticoid exposure, which might predispose individuals to addiction.

Neuroplasticity and Recovery

The brain's ability to change and adapt, known as neuroplasticity, is central to trauma treatment. Through therapeutic interventions, individuals can rewire their brain’s response to trauma and develop healthier attachment styles. This neuroplasticity offers hope for recovery, emphasizing the brain's potential to heal from the impacts of trauma and addiction.

In the next section, we will explore practical steps individuals can take to develop a healthier attachment style, in light of the neurobiology of attachment.

Adult Attachment Styles and Recovery from Addiction

Navigating Towards Healthier Attachment Styles

Understanding and developing healthier attachment styles is crucial for individuals recovering from addiction. It involves self-awareness, therapy, and sometimes, a complete transformation in how one relates to others and themselves.

Practical Steps for Developing Healthier Attachment Styles

  1. Self-Awareness: The first step is recognizing your attachment style. This involves introspection and possibly revisiting past relationships and early childhood experiences. Understanding your patterns in relationships can be eye-opening and is key to making changes.

  2. Therapy and Counseling: Professional help can provide guidance in understanding and changing attachment styles. Therapists trained in attachment theory can help individuals explore their past, understand their emotional responses, and develop healthier ways of relating to others.

  3. Building Secure Relationships: Forming secure relationships as an adult can be challenging but rewarding. It involves learning to trust, express needs effectively, and be emotionally available. This often means stepping out of comfort zones and being open to new ways of connecting.

  4. Mindfulness and Emotional Regulation: Practices like mindfulness can help manage the anxiety or avoidance typical of insecure attachment styles. They encourage a present-focused, non-judgmental awareness of thoughts and feelings, fostering emotional regulation.

  5. Support Groups: Joining groups where experiences can be shared with others who understand can be incredibly healing. It provides a sense of belonging and an opportunity to practice new relationship skills in a safe environment.

By taking these steps, individuals can move towards forming more secure attachments, which can be transformative in their recovery journey.

Therapy’s Role in Healing from Trauma and Addiction

In the next section, we'll discuss the significant role therapy plays in addressing attachment issues and aiding recovery from trauma and addiction.

Therapy’s Role in Healing from Trauma and Addiction

The Transformative Power of Therapeutic Intervention

Therapy plays a crucial role in addressing attachment issues and aiding in the recovery from trauma and addiction. It offers a safe space to understand deep-seated patterns and fosters healing and transformation.

How Therapy Contributes to Recovery

  1. Understanding Attachment Styles: Therapists can help individuals understand how their attachment style influences their behaviors, especially in the context of addiction. This understanding is vital for breaking cycles of behavior that lead to substance abuse.

  2. Addressing Trauma: Therapy provides a means to process and heal from trauma, which is often at the root of addictive behaviors. Trauma-focused therapies can help individuals develop coping strategies and resilience.

  3. Improving Relationship Skills: Therapy can offer tools to improve communication, trust, and emotional intimacy, which are often challenging for those with insecure attachment styles.

  4. Integrating Mind-Body Approaches: Some therapeutic approaches integrate mind-body techniques, helping individuals to reconnect with their physical selves and manage stress and anxiety more effectively.

  5. Supporting Long-Term Recovery: Ongoing therapy can support long-term recovery, offering a consistent space to navigate challenges and setbacks in the journey toward healing.

Seeking Support and Embracing Change

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or the effects of trauma, know that help is available. Seeking therapy can be a powerful first step in your journey towards healing and recovery. Remember, change is possible, and with the right support, you can develop healthier attachment styles and build a fulfilling life.


In this exploration of addiction, attachment theory, and their interplay, we've seen how deeply intertwined these aspects are. Understanding and addressing these connections through therapy and personal development can lead to profound healing and transformation. By embracing change and seeking support, individuals can embark on a path toward recovery and resilience.

Thank you for joining me on this journey of understanding and healing. I hope this article has provided valuable insights and encourages those in need to seek the support they deserve.

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