Understanding Attachment Theory and Addiction: Is There a Link?

As we explored in Attachment Theory Part One, the attachments formed in childhood may affect a person physically, mentally, and emotionally throughout a lifetime.

If a child develops a healthy attachment to a caregiver, he or she will more likely develop a secure attachment throughout life and consider relationships to be safe, reliable, and fulfilling. 

However, those with dysfunctional attachment patterns may have trouble connecting with others and be susceptible to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance abuse

To recap, here are the four attachment styles and what they mean: 

1. Secure Attachment 

A secure attachment occurs when a child has a healthy, beneficial relationship with his or her parents.

The child’s physical and emotional needs are met, and the feeling of security transfers into other areas of the child’s life as he or she grows. As an adult, someone with a secure attachment will generally have trusting and lasting relationships.

They will exhibit good self-esteem and are comfortable with sharing their feelings. 

2. Anxious-resistant Attachment 

An anxious-resistant attachment develops when a child does not have a healthy, secure relationship with his or her parents.

Children with this attachment pattern may be distressed when separated from their parents, but they are not reassured or comforted when their parents return. In fact, some may become angry.

They generally seem suspicious of strangers. As adults in relationships, these people may be reluctant to become close to others, consistently worry that they are not “enough” for their partner, and become very upset if the relationship ends. 

3. Avoidant Attachment

Children with avoidant attachment patterns typically have parents who are emotionally unavailable.

Parents may have little to no response when a child is hurting, and this pattern generally leads to adults with avoidant attachment.

Those with an avoidant attachment pattern will often pull away from “needing anything,” and they may feel uncomfortable in being close to others. 

4. Disorganized Attachment 

Children with a disorganized attachment often show inconsistent attachment behaviour. Their actions and behaviours are often mixed and unpredictable, and they may include avoidance, anxiety, or resistance.

As adults, those with a disorganized attachment may act in ways that don’t make sense, demonstrating poor social or emotional regulation skills. They may have difficulty managing stress or exhibit aggressive behaviours. 

Insecure Attachment and Addiction 

Research shows that there is a link between an insecure attachment and substance abuse in forms of alcohol abuse, illicit drugs, prescription medication, or other addictions such as sex or food (Borhani, 2013).

While the reasons for this link are multifaceted, here’s what some of the research says: 

According to the study of Kassle and colleagues in 2006, individuals with insecure attachments lack the skills to form secure relationships, which will more than likely lead to anxiety and stress. They then may resort to abusing substances to cope with their lack of connection. 

In the book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (2018) by Gabor Maté, he discusses how insecure attachments can lead to “inadequate neurological development.” These individuals find ways to release endorphins and dopamine, the “feel-good” chemicals in the brain that produce relaxation.

Maté suggests that the substances are used as a replacement for these chemicals, in hopes to alleviate emotional pain. 

Thorberg and Lyvers (2006) discuss that “clients who were undergoing treatment for alcoholism, heroin addiction, or cannabis abuse” are having higher levels of insecure attachment, which leads them to fear of intimacy.

They abuse substances in order to cope with the stress of developing intimacy and relationships. 

The correlation between attachment theories and substance abuse is complex and still being explored, but there is one point for sure: there is a correlation. 

What if I Have an Insecure Attachment? 

The good news is, it’s never too late to develop a secure attachment!

While it will be a process and take some work, it can be done.  One essential way to begin the healing process is to understand your attachment pattern and how your past experiences may have led to it. 

Treatment for attachment issues often involves working with a therapist in a group, one-on-one sessions, or a combination of both. A therapist can use various techniques to help the person: 

  • Resolve grief and trauma 
  • Identify and revamp distorted thinking patterns 
  • Develop a healthy view of oneself 
  • Learn effective communication skills 
  • Practice new skills and behaviours 

Here at Camino Recovery, we believe that recovery goes far beyond treating the addiction. Instead, we “encourage our clients to dig deep, addressing the underlying issues and traumas, the root causes, and not just treating the symptoms.” 

Pain is the root of addiction, and when you heal the pain, you can and will recover. 


Borhani, Y. (2013). Substance Abuse and Insecure Attachment Styles: A Relational Study. LUX, 2(1), 1-13. doi:10.5642/lux.201301.04

Hazarika, M., & Bhagabati, D. (2018). Father and son attachment styles in alcoholic and non-alcoholic families. Open journal of psychiatry & allied sciences, 9(1), 15–19. https://doi.org/10.5958/2394-2061.2018.00003.4

Kassel, J. D., Wardle, M., & Roberts, J. E. (2007). Adult attachment security and college student substance use. Addictive Behaviors, 32(6), 1164–1176. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2006.08.005 

Maté, G. (2018). In the realm of hungry ghosts: close encounters with addiction. Toronto: Vintage Canada. 

Thorberg, F. A., & Lyvers, M. (2006). Attachment, fear of intimacy and differentiation of self among clients in substance disorder treatment facilities. Addictive Behaviors, 31(4), 732–737. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2005.05.050 


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