As we’ve moved through the pandemic, have you generally adopted the advice of health officials, followed rules for sheltering in place, and stayed calm? Or maybe you’ve balked at the rules, refused to socially distance, and seen the whole thing as a bid by the government to control your life? Or have you panicked, fearful that with each sniffle you’ve got COVID-19?
The way each of us reacts to the current pandemic reflects, in part, what researchers call our attachment style—a way of responding to stress, threats to health, and separation from loved ones, that is fixed from earliest childhood.
To understand attachment theory for a book I wanted to write, I spent six years talking with experts around the globe who study human development and social psychology.
Attachment theory, developed in the decades after World War II by British psychologist John Bowlby—and later advanced by Canadian-born researcher Mary Ainsworth—continues to inspire hundreds, if not thousands, of research studies each year.
The “vigor and generative force of attachment theory research continues unabated,” notes Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
Here’s the core idea: Human beings are born helpless, so we are hardwired at birth to search for and attach to a reliable caregiver for protection. Usually this is the mother, but it can also be the father, grandparent, or other adult. The quality of that first bond—loving and stable or inconsistent or even absent—shapes the developing brain, influencing us throughout life in how we behave in relationships, deal with loss, and cope with threats to our well-being. And this effect continues throughout life.
There are three main styles of attachment that can be created in infancy and that typically continue into adulthood: secure, avoidant, and anxious.
Secure: When infants receive care that is reliable and responsive, they are likely to develop a secure attachment.Adults with secure attachment will generally trust their doctors and health officials, stay calm and follow the rules, and cope well with the stress of quarantine. About 55 percent of the population has secure attachment.
But then there are two types of insecure attachment.
Avoidant: People with avoidant attachment—who as infants consistently failed to receive responsive care—prize self-reliance and often will resist efforts to control their behavior, such as rules for social distancing or sheltering in place. They tend to minimize danger; they’re the kids who went on spring break instead of quarantining. On the other hand, they are resourceful: in an Israeli experiment, when subjects were put in a room with a computer rigged to begin smoking as if about to burst into flame, people with avoidant attachment were the first to discover an escape route.
Avoidants favor independence over close relationships so if they do quarantine, they probably handle it well. About 25 percent of adults have avoidant attachment.
Anxious: When the care an infant receives is unreliable—sometimes available, sometimes not—it can produce an anxious attachment. People with anxious attachment are highly attuned to threats—in the Israeli experiment I mentioned above they were the first to detect the smoke. When faced with injury or illness, however, they tend to “catastrophize” —to project the worst possible outcome. Anxious adults crave close relationships and feel bereft when alone, so in quarantine they are the ones most likely to turn to alcohol, drugs, or to become depressed. About 15 percent of adults have anxious attachment.
Most of us go through life with the same attachment style we developed in early childhood. Some change, though, often through therapy or through the luck of a healthy, long-term relationship with a secure person, such as a teacher, mentor, or romantic partner.
To gauge your own attachment style, try this online Attachment Quiz developed by R. Chris Fraley, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, and others. Choose survey B.
The secure among us should be handling this crisis fairly well. I’d expect they’re doing the social distancing, sheltering in place and helping keep the spirits up of loved ones at home. They’re probably over-represented among those bringing groceries to ill or elderly neighbors.
But to those with insecure attachment, let me offer some advice.
If you’re anxious, try to remind yourself that the panic you feel is likely just your attachment style speaking. Ask yourself if the facts justify that reaction: Sometimes a sniffle is just a cold; even among people with significant symptoms, testing shows the majority do not have COVID-19. Watch less TV. You are not cut out for news shows that display a running tally of illness and deaths. Instead, take a walk or call a friend. This too shall pass.
If you’re avoidant, try to keep in mind that when you minimize the health risks and chafe against the rules, it’s likely your attachment system kicking in. But follow the rules anyway. Social distancing has long been your preferred way of life, so maybe just pretend that no one has ordered you to do it and it’s your own idea. At any rate, keep in mind that the sooner we get through this, the sooner you can regain your independence.
As human beings, we’re all attached through our vulnerability to this virus, so let’s at least use an understanding of attachment theory to help us get through it.
Peter Lovenheim, a journalist and author, is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. His most recent book, “The Attachment Effect,” was published in 2018. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.