Ayesha Azeem ‘23
Anxiety is one of the most prevalent diagnosed mental illnesses in the world as well as one of the leading causes of poor health and increased mortality across all mental disorders. Thus, researching and learning about the contributing factors and etiology of anxiety is very important for many clinical psychologists like Dr. Kristen Bernard at Stony Brook University, who seeks to study how early life stress can influence the development of anxiety in adolescents and adults. Dr. Bernard focuses specifically on attachment representations, or the mental representations of attachment that young children have after repeated early experiences with caregivers at times of need.
To study this, Dr. Bernard and her colleagues compared anxiety symptoms between 5 attachment groups: insecure and secure individuals, dismissing and secure individuals, preoccupied and secure individuals, preoccupied and dismissing individuals, and unresolved and organized individuals. The team hypothesized that there would be higher rates of anxiety among insecure, preoccupied and unresolved individuals. The researchers also determined whether demographic factors like age, ethnicity and education moderated the relationship between attachment and anxiety. The study was a meta-analysis that consisted of studying previous studies focusing on trait anxiety and refrained from assessing comorbidity, which can work as a confounder and affect the relationship between attachment and anxiety symptoms.
While the researchers found that individuals who classified as insecure in their attachment representation were not more likely to experience anxiety in comparison to secure individuals, they concluded that preoccupied individuals, but not dismissing individuals (both subtypes of the insecure attachment group), reported higher anxiety levels than secure individuals. Preoccupied individuals also experienced more anxiety in comparison to dismissive individuals. Additionally, unresolved individuals were more anxiety prone than organized individuals. These conclusions indicate that individuals with secure attachment representations look back at their past experiences with responsive caregivers and are more confident when asking for support from others, in comparison to insecurely attached individuals. Thus, securely attached individuals are probably less likely to exhibit prolonged distress due to threatened stimuli and lack of interpersonal communication than anxious individuals. It can also be assumed that dismissive individuals underreported their anxiety levels as an avoidance strategy.
Future research can focus on how therapists and psychologists can use this information about attachment representations to implement a safe environment for their patients, who are likely to experience high anxiety levels when seeking treatment, in order to provide effective support to individuals who need it.
 O. Dagan, et. al., Preoccupied and dismissing attachment representations are differentially associated with anxiety in adolescence and adulthood: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychological Science 8(4) (2018). doi: 10.1177/2167702620917455.
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