Attachment Behaviors and Health
As the medical community tries to find ways to help patients become more independent in managing their health issues, researchers have discover how emotional development as children may affect how one copes with adverse events, like illness, as an adult.
This article reviews research that investigated the relationship between attachment styles and how this may affect how people react to stressors such as illness or pain. Attachment behaviors are developed during infancy, as babies depend on those around them. A child may become very attached or clingy, or distance himself from his caregiver if, for example, his needs aren't being met when he is hungry or hurt. The attachment behaviors developed during early childhood generally follow through adulthood.
Two negative attachment styles are attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. Both of these are seen as extremes, with attachment anxiety causing excess worry and dependence on others, and attachment avoidance causing a uneasiness with being close to others or being dependant on others.
Among the several studies done, some researchers found that subjects who fell in the two negative attachment styles were not as effective in dealing with threats (ie. pain) than were those who had more positive attachment styles.
The researchers found that those who fell into the attachment anxiety group had a harder time handling threatening issues and showed poorer coping mechanisms. Those who fell in the attachment avoidance group also didn't cope well, but by avoiding the situation, minimizing the threat, and not seeking help when it would have been appropriate.
Yet other studies have been done to analyze the relationship between attachment style and chronic pain. Not only did the researchers find that the patients had poor coping skills, but there were also higher levels of depression in both the attachment anxiety and the attachment avoidance groups.
Interestingly, there have been some similar findings among the caregivers of children or spouses who were ill or in pain. The researchers found that caregivers of children who fell into either of the two groups had higher levels of depression as did the children. For spouses, a caregiver who fell into the anxiety group tended to have a lower level of marital quality.
The researchers of this review pointed out that there remains a lot to be studied before being able to draw direct connections between attachment styles and coping with illness or pain. However, the preliminary evidence is convincing enough to warrant further studies that examine direct association between attachment and pain intensity, how this affects health care and its cost, and how this all comes together in treatment for the long-term.
Laura S. Porter, MD, et al. Attachment and Pain: Recent Findings and Future Directions. In Pain. 2007. Vol. 128. Issue 3. Pp 195-198.