Research is now showing that something called “attachment styles” may also explain why people with a history of toxic stress related to childhood trauma or to other specific childhood issues (abandonment, neglect, abrupt separation from a parent, frequent changes in caregivers, or lack of caregiver responsiveness) may have food and body image issues. Individuals who were raised in a family where their parents invalidated their views or feelings are more likely to binge and purge or have other disordered eating behaviors.

In this episode, you will learn:

1. What are the 4 attachment styles?
2. How many people with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder have insecure attachment styles.
3. How is perfectionism related to attachment style and to eating disorders.
4. How can insecure attachment make you more vulnerable to the social media message about dieting and the thin ideal?


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Let’s talk about emotions, negative self-beliefs and perfectionism, and it’s all about attachment. So today I wanna talk about what it means, what attachments, security and insecurity means.

Now most of you listening know that attachment bonds are those bonds that we form really early on in our lives. It’s, you know, the thing where they call mirroring neurons where a, a baby laughs and then the mother is holding the baby and, and the mother laughs back with the baby. So anytime you interact with the child and help them to feel safe and secure, you’re bonding with them. So babies attached to people who are sensitive and responsive in their social interactions with them and who are consistently in their lives between ages six and about age two. As an infant, learns to crawl or walk and kind of as leaving the mom’s arms or grandma or dad’s arm he uses his parents and other familiar people in his life as a secure base from which to explore the environment. So off the toddler goes, walking falls down the first thing they do is look back at the mother or father and see their expression. And if you’re smiling, then the baby just picks themselves up or maybe cries a little bit, you pick them up and again, their safety and security is restored. So that gives a child a sense that if he runs into problems, he can return to that secure base for comfort and safety.

Now, I’m sure very few of you listening want to spend the two to three hours I’ve spent this week researching attachment issues and how they impact eating disorders. But maybe you have someone in your family who’s a great person, but just can never sustain a relationship for very long, and it’s kind of become a family joke. Well, that’s an example of a person who has insecure attachment or you know, someone who rages whenever they get angry or just can’t control their emotions, they’re all over the place. That’s an expression we use for those kinds of people. That’s another example of someone with insecure attachment, or maybe you are married to someone who’s very needy in relationships, but struggles to trust you and that’s caused problems in your relationships. They may accuse you of cheating or accuse you of wanting to leave them. And that’s because they have insecure attachment issues or you may have grown up with a parent who is emotionally unavailable or your partner is a serial cheater or avoids talking about his feelings by being at work all the time. Those are all examples of people, for whatever reason, who have insecure attachment.

Research is now showing that something called insecure attachment may also explain why people with a history of toxic stress in childhood, you know, and toxic stress is related to childhood trauma or adverse childhood experiences like abandonment, neglect, abrupt separation from a parent, frequent changes in caregivers, lack of caregiver responsiveness, or death of a loved one or other losses. So the research is showing how people who’ve had this kind of toxic stress as children have difficulty in their adult relationships.

Let’s talk about the opposite of insecure attachment, and that is obviously secure attachment, and that doesn’t come from the amount of love that you feel for a child or the quality of care that an infant experiences. It’s not about that. You can love your child, or you may be providing them adequate nutrition, all of the stimulation you’re supposed to, and so on. But secure attachment is really related to the nonverbal emotional connection between a parent and or a caregiver. So, you know, could be a stay at, stay-at-home dad, or it could be a grandmother who’s raising her grandchild. For example, an infant can’t talk obviously, but they express their emotions by crying or cooling or laughing, et cetera. If their caregiver responds in kind and satisfies the infant’s need for attention or food, or even a diaper change in a responsive, irregular manner the child comes to feel that they’re safe and secure and that they can depend on getting their needs met. This is secure attachment, and then when the child grows up, they will be more resilient in the face of disappointments and setbacks. They will be more likely to be able to be vulnerable in their relationships and will feel comfortable expressing their needs to their partner. They’ll also be more able to manage their emotions and manage conflict when it comes up.

Now people who have insecure attachment, it doesn’t mean that they have uncaring parents. No. Let’s talk about some of the causes of insecure attachment. Cause there are so many reasons why a loving, conscientious parent may not be successful at creating a secure attachment bond with an infant. So here are some of the causes I can say for myself, divorce has certainly been a source that could cause insecure attachment with my sons. Also, losses we can’t control who in our family will pass away and how close they might be to your child. Have being a young or inexperienced mother lacking in the necessary parenting skills can lead to insecure attachment or your caregiver may have experienced severe depression or other mental illness or substance use disorders, etc. And that can lead to, can be caused by isolation, lack of social support, hormone problems like postpartum depression, which I certainly experienced with my last son, and that may then force them to withdraw from the caregiving world.

Your caregiver may have themselves experienced trauma growing up, and this then could have affected their ability to bond with you, or they may have had a serious illness or accident which interrupted the attachment process.

Physical neglect such as poor nutrition, not enough exercise or neglective medical issues can lead to problems with bonding. And then emotional neglect or abuse. So if your caregiver paid little attention to you as a child, made no effort to try to understand your feelings or engage in verbal abuse. That’s an example of emotional neglect or abuse. Separation from your primary caregiver due to illness, death, divorce, or adoption, inconsistency in a primary caregiver. So you may have experienced, maybe you were in the foster care system and you had a succession of caregivers over a short period of time, or maybe your family just moved a lot, constantly changing environment, or you were in an orphanage, et cetera.

So I hope you’re starting to see how the issue of attachment really is an important topic. If you do not have secure attachment, you may have one of the three types of insecure attachment styles.

The first one is anxious attachment. If you have anxious attachment insecurity, you may be needy, you crave intimacy. You want to be in a relationship, but you’re afraid that you can’t really trust your partner or rely on them, or you can’t trust your friends or rely on them. Your intimate relationships tend to just take over your life and your sense of self is very dependent on how you feel you’re being treated in a relationship. Anxious attachment comes from parents or caregivers being inconsistent. Sometimes they’re there for you. Other times unavailable or distracted for any of the number of reasons that I just mentioned, or your parent may have been neglectful, abusive, or emotionally unavailable.

Now, the key word for anxious attachers is emotional hunger, and that may put you at risk for binging and purging. So that’s where, and we’ll talk more about the connection with eating disorders in just a moment.

The second type of insecure attachment is avoidant attachment. With avoidant attachment, you find it hard to tolerate intimacy. You may use activities like work is a popular one to use to avoid being with your partner. You value your freedom and your independence above everything. You have a hard time being in a relationship at all and you may be a serial cheater. You tend to withdraw when someone gets close to you. Avoid attachment comes from having a parent who is unavailable or rejecting during your infancy since your needs were never met, you learned to self-sooth and to distance yourself emotionally thinking you have to depend on yourself cause nobody else is gonna be there to help you. So the key word here is perfectionism, which is highly associated with avoidant attachment, and can also be associated with strict dietary habits like restricting and frequent dieting.

And then finally, the most severe insecure attachment style is disorganized attachment style. With this one, you never learned to self soothe as a child. And if you were abused or neglected, you may replicate the same abusive patterns in your adult life relationships. You may find intimate relationships very confusing, and you can swing between love and hate for a partner. Other people get upset that you don’t take responsibility for your actions. You crave intimacy, but you’re terrified of getting hurt and you feel like you just aren’t worthy of love. Disorganized attachment can come from having a parent who may have had chaotic or toxic and frightening behaviors. In fact, the parent may have themselves be an abuser. And how this relates to eating styles is that you, in disorganized attachment, you can be either anxious or avoidant. And so the style for anxious would be emotional hunger, as I mentioned and then for avoidant would be perfectionism.

Now, you may not know this, but over 70% of those with binge eating, food addiction and emotional eating have an insecure attachment style over 70%. So if you grew up in a family that didn’t validate or respect or allow you to express your emotions, you may have learned to think that your views and experience of emotions are bad or wrong. This then may have caused problems with your ability to regulate your emotions, or you may just never have learned how to regulate them. This is very pertinent to later problems with food and body image. That includes binge eating disorder, food addiction, and emotional eating. So people who have problems like this, say that they have difficulty tolerating strong emotions and use food to avoid feeling or triggering strong emotions or will use impulsive behaviors to manage them.

If you grew up in a home where you learned that it’s not acceptable or safe to express emotions, especially negative one. This could have an effect on eating behaviors in several ways.

Number one, you may have learned to block out your awareness of these negative emotions through binge eating, encouraging or self-harming behaviors.

Number two, you may have learned to block emotions by compulsive overeating or compulsive exercise or restricting your food intake.

Individuals who were raised in a family where their parents invalidated their views or feelings. You know the saying that parents use, well, you don’t really feel that way. That’s an example of an invalidating statement. Now I’m doing it in a joking way, but if you brought up in a family where people constantly invalidated your emotion, If you’re more likely to binge courage or have other eating disorder behaviors, if your family put a lot of emphasis on achievement and success and the need to stay in control of your emotions, you may have used, for example, compulsive exercise to regulate your emotions when you grow up in an invalidating environment could also be due to that toxic stress from trauma.

As you can imagine, insecure attachment can go hand in hand with childhood trauma or childhood adversity. Adverse childhood experiences such as divorce, domestic violence, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect along with poverty, mental illness or substance use in a parent may be a reason why your parent or caregiver was not responsive to you as a child.

Why is this so important? Well, children who freely express a range of emotions and can regulate their emotions will tend to have better relationships with their friends growing up stronger social connections and better educational outcomes. Children who have these skills of emotional regulation also tend to have better relationships, more satisfying employment and better mental health throughout their adult life.

Children who are able to recognize and respond well to their feelings and the feelings of others and express their emotions in healthy and socially acceptable ways are better able to make and keep friends. Good emotional IQ is associated with better life satisfaction and better educational and vocational outcomes.

When you’re not allowed to express your emotions as a child or when you were told you shouldn’t feel what you’re feeling or your emotional needs were ignored or rejected, you may have learned that adults around you get angry if you express your emotions, ignore you or chastises or shame you like saying, boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry, little girls don’t get angry. Your response may be to either act out or to push down your emotions sometimes with food.

Now we would want our children and our families to have secure attachments, but that’s not always possible. And the more we know about intergenerational trauma, the more you can see how insecure attachment, especially related to trauma, can then affect parenting, which can then affect the next generation and the next.

So if you have insecure attachment, as I mentioned, you may also be struggling with binge eating, food addiction or emotional eating. Well, how does that work? Well, if you have adverse childhood experiences in your past, you may have insecure attachment. And both of those are related to emotional dysregulation, which I just mentioned. And again, if you have trouble regulating your emotions, your emotions may feel like they’re flooding you and they may feel like there’s so much stronger than the emotions of your friends or family members. You just can’t cope with that and so sometimes you use food to push it down.

Number two, when your needs have not been met as a child, you can also develop ways to explain this to yourself. Like children tend to think that everything is their fault, right? So you may develop an inaccurate core belief about yourself cause of this insecure attachment. So for example, you may said to yourself as a child, and you’re not even aware of it, now I must not be worth enough for my mother to pay attention to me or I was must have been abused because I’m weak, or I’m not lovable unless I hide my feelings. Now, these inaccurate core beliefs become pretty pervasive and they tend to be unconscious. They’re like your operating system that it operates in the background, but it’s like wearing colored dark glasses and everywhere you look things look dark. But when you take your glasses off, suddenly you can see more clearly.

The third thing associated with why eating disorders and insecure attachment work together is perfectionism because people who have insecure attachment are especially prone to perfectionism, and this can lead to them being overly critical about their body or to strive for perfection in terms of their bodies striving for the thin ideal, it can also lead to excessive dieting or excessive exercise. When you’re not able to whip your body into shape, you may turn to binging and other disordered eating behaviors. So the way it works is something happened to you. That’s the adverse childhood experiences. What something happened to you? And this created what we call toxic stress, which is severe prolonged stress. And that severe, prolonged stress in your childhood due to trauma then created changes in your brain. Those changes in your brain made you more sensitive to stress and more sensitive to emotions and made it more difficult for you to regulate your emotion.

When you have difficulty regulating your emotions, you may use food to help you with that. Besides making it more difficult to regulate your emotions, it also, this emotional regulation and all of this stuff that’s happened also leads to erroneous core beliefs about I’m not lovable, I’m not worthy, etc. And it can also be associated with perfectionism. So everyone is capable of growing and changing throughout life, and regardless of your age or your stage in life, it’s never too late to form a more secure attachment style. Sometimes you can do that with a therapist, for example, where the therapist, if they’re very reliable, have good boundaries, have secure attachment themselves can be a model for secure attachment for you. And this can help you change deep seated ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. But it does require effort, patience, practice, and support.

Now, just remember that avoid an attachment style is not a character flaw. That’s not something that’s wrong with you. It’s something that happened to you. It’s a self-protection response to difficulty or adversity or trauma that served a positive purpose for you early in your life because your communications and emotions may have been rejected when you were young. You might have developed a harsh inner critique that still tries to protect you by causing you to deny your emotions and avoid close relationships to keep you from getting hurt. Therefore, it’s really important to examine and work with process and heal these underlying beliefs in adulthood. Whether you have a history of a specific trauma, abuse, or neglect, or you’re just wired differently in terms of how strongly you feel your emotions and your ability to regulate your emotions. It’s important to understand that emotions are often the driving forces behind your behaviors if you focus on one without addressing the other. So if you focus on emotions without addressing behaviors, or if you focus on behaviors without addressing emotion, any changes you make will be temporary at best.

So just remember that food addiction, emotional eating, binge eating are not about food. They are about how you use food. When you start to accept and honor your emotions and learn to regulate them without food, you will be able to address something even deeper. Your souls hunger, which by the way, is not for food, it’s not for chocolate. No, our souls don’t long or crave chocolate, believe it or not. What our souls crave is self-expression and healing.