Attachment Styles & Chronic Illness or a New Medical Diagnosis

We’re all social creatures who seek connection and relationships from day one. These relationships are shaped by various psychological and emotional factors, one of which is our attachment style. We talked about Attachment Styles and How They Affect Our Parenting earlier on the blog. If you missed that, a quick recap is that attachment styles are patterns of emotional and behavioral responses that develop in early childhood and continue to influence our interactions and relationships into adulthood. Today we want to talk about how understanding these attachment styles can help us gain insight into our own behaviors and coping mechanisms when it comes to chronic illness and/or a new medical diagnosis.


Receiving a new medical diagnosis or living with a chronic illness can be overwhelming and leave you feeling powerless. There are so many different feelings that quickly come, not just when you hear the news, but when you’re in the throes of physically suffering the symptoms of your condition. These feelings of guilt, sadness, shock, and even relief that you finally have answers are all perfectly normal. It’s natural to feel this range of emotions after receiving such news.


How Does My Attachment Style Apply to My Medical Diagnosis?

Understanding your attachment style, as well as having an idea of the style of those around you, offers insight into how you’ll process emotions and interact in your closest relationships. Heading into dealing with a serious medical condition, you’ll quickly realize that this knowledge will become invaluable in navigating relationships. For example, one attachment style may naturally find that accepting help comes more easily than another. Have you ever tried offering help to someone who’s fiercely independent and insists on doing everything on their own? Spoiler alert, they likely have an avoidant attachment style. Let’s dive into the different attachment styles and how each one may find cues from another to better cope with a new medical diagnosis or chronic illness.


Secure Attachment Style

We’ll start with the secure attachment style. It’s considered by most to be the ideal attachment style. And for the purposes of our topic today in dealing with a medical diagnosis or chronic illness, the secure attachment style is the style for which most therapists will try to help you identify, even if your past dictates something different. It’s important to remember that the attachment style of your childhood isn’t permanent and can change into adulthood.


Those with a secure attachment style typically experienced a childhood where they felt safe, understood, comfortable, and valued by their parents. They tend to navigate most relationships in adulthood quite well and are trusting of partners and more confident. They don’t have trouble accepting help and are gracious when it’s offered. On the flip side, because they feel secure and confident in their relationships and environment, they are also great self-soothers.

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Example of Secure Attachment Style with New Medical Diagnosis

When diagnosed with a new medical condition or coping with a chronic illness, those with a secure attachment style are likely to be more easygoing and positive than their counterparts. Take Ashley for example, when diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at the age of 32, she immediately joined a gym, made an appointment with a nutritionist, and began her health journey both physically and mentally. A year later, she’d lost nearly 100 lbs, her MS is now in remission, and she is the healthiest she’s ever been. Both of her parents are nurses and were right there by her side the whole time. She posted regular updates on social media so that she was kept accountable. She saw a therapist regularly and her trainer and nutritionist helped along the way as well. Ashley knew that she had the option to wallow in self-pity with her life-altering health diagnosis or do something about it. She chose to take all the help she could get and changed her life for the better.


Avoidant Attachment Style

Also referred to as the dismissive attachment style, this one is characterized by a fear of intimacy and a tendency to maintain emotional distance. Those with an avoidant attachment style love their independence. They’re self-reliant because they learned at a young age that they had to be to survive. They keep their emotions and vulnerabilities hidden because these things are precious and must be protected. Those with an avoidant attachment style prioritize personal space and freedom and likely find it a challenge to express their feelings. It’s likely that as kids, these individuals had distant or dismissive parents. Emotions may have been viewed as unnecessary or dramatic.

Example of Avoidant Attachment Style Coping with Chronic Pain

The positive side of the avoidant attachment style is that these individuals are usually pretty confident in their own abilities to handle whatever life throws at them. The negative side is that they don’t like asking for help. Take Rebecca for example, her parents were always around and provided a great home for her. But they were super busy with their jobs, so Rebecca was left to fend for herself with most things. Boy problems? You’ll get over it, sweetie. Deal with it. Trouble with a teacher? Suck it up. A fight with your best friend? Stop being dramatic. There are plenty of people who want to be your friend. She quickly learned that if she needed real advice, she would have to figure it out for herself.

So now, at the age of 53 dealing with chronic pain from fibromyalgia and migraines for years, Rebecca stubbornly took this long to even admit she was in this much pain. Her husband tried to get her to go see a doctor for years, but she insisted she didn’t need to. When she finally did, she was frustrated with all of the tests and doctors’ visits. She didn’t like all of the attention being paid to her. She felt guilty for the money being spent on her, but she also felt guilty for the things she wasn’t able to do because of her pain. Her usual, “I can do it all.” attitude was a constant internal conflict. Once she received her diagnosis, she still believed her pain was just something she should deal with, rather than something a medical professional could help with. It took some convincing from both a loving support system and a trained therapist, but she was finally able to adopt some of those secure attachment style traits and begin accepting help.

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Anxious Attachment Style

Sometimes called the pre-occupied attachment style, this one manifests itself as fear of abandonment and excessive need for closeness or reassurance. Those with an anxious attachment style typically have low self-esteem and rely on others for validation and emotional stability. They may display clingy behavior or constantly seek reassurance. They usually have a hard time trusting others and are afraid of rejection.

Their childhood usually consisted of caregivers who were inconsistent. Sometimes they were attentive and did all the right things that parents or caregivers are supposed to do. Other times, they were detached, overwhelmed, or indifferent. This inconsistency leaves a person confused and insecure, not knowing what to expect from love or relationships.

Example of Anxious Attachment Style with New Medical Diagnosis

For example, when Todd was young, his single mom did her best. At times she showed up and was there day in and day out, mostly depending on her own love life. When she was dating, she was less attentive. When she wasn’t involved with a man, she was a picture-perfect mother. This on-again, off-again mom sent mixed signals to Todd’s developing brain.

Fast forward to his mid-20s, having recently been diagnosed with POTS Disease, Todd’s doctor suggested that he not drive long distances until they have his medication under control. As someone with an anxious attachment style, what Todd heard is that he could never drive again. He began developing a plan in his head for how his mom and girlfriend would need to provide his transportation to and from work for the foreseeable future. If the avoidant attachment style has trouble asking for help, the anxious attachment style is the opposite. After a bit of cajoling, his doctor was able to convince him that although his diagnosis is serious, it isn’t the end of life as he knows it, or as his girlfriend and mom know it.


Disordered Attachment Style

Known also as the fearful-avoidant attachment style, the disordered attachment style is perhaps the most difficult to combat when it comes to coping with life’s difficulties. Constantly at odds with oneself, a person with a disordered attachment style experiences conflicting desires for both closeness and distance. They may exhibit opposite behaviors, oscillating between a fear of abandonment and a fear of intimacy. A disordered attachment style is typically developed when a child’s caregiver is physically, verbally, or sexually abusive. It’s usually associated with past trauma or inconsistent childhood experiences, leading to difficulties in formatting and maintaining stable relationships.


Holding, Containment, and Space

When coping with a chronic illness or being diagnosed with a new medical condition, those with a disordered attachment style may have trouble adjusting. This is where a great therapist comes in. Therapy can provide what’s referred to as holding, containment, and providing space. This applies to all three of the insecure attachment styles, but especially to the disordered attachment style.

Holding – As a child, when we hurt ourselves, our caregiver holds us and tells us it’ll be ok. As an adult, when something is wrong, we tell our friends, and they offer empathic words.

Containment – When a child is afraid, as caregivers we listen to them and soothe their fears. As adults, if a friend is anxious about something, we do the same. We offer to listen and provide solutions if that’s what they need.

Providing Space – This means we don’t judge others, child or adult, for feeling their feelings. We allow them a safe place to experience their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Therapy Can Help

These holding, containment, and providing space methods are offered by therapists and are a great way to find your way into those traits of a secure attachment style, no matter where you started or what your childhood may have looked like. It’s within the traits of a secure attachment style that you’ll find coping with your new medical diagnosis or chronic illness is just a little easier than it was before. If you’re looking for someone to help you with this in Scottsdale, we’re here.


Selena Soni, LCSW Scottsdale therapist for anxiety, depression, stress and life transitions.
Selena Soni, LCSW is the founder and lead therapist at MUV Counseling. She specializes in helping clients overcome loss of self, anxiety, depression, and life transitions.

Selena has 15+ years experience in the mental health field. She received her Bachelors Degree from Portland State University (1999) and a Masters Degree in Social Work from Arizona State University (2005). Learn more about Selena here.

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