Separation anxiety is often associated with young children. It’s a regular occurrence for children and usually passes once they reach around three years of age. However, some children experience this type of anxiety after they pass that age. Separation anxiety doesn’t pass for some children but remains with them through their adolescent years and persists into adulthood.
Life can be challenging if you’re an adult with separation anxiety (adult separation anxiety disorder). You might wonder why your relationships are so stressful and why you seem to over-react and experience significant distress in situations that don’t seem to bother others.
In this article, we’ll shed some light on separation anxiety in adults. We’ll explore what it is and why it happens, signs that you experience it, and how it’s usually treated.
Understand that if you experience a separation anxiety disorder, there is nothing wrong with you. Anxiety disorders of any kind are not the individual’s fault. Still, great strides have been made regarding anxiety treatment, and it’s possible to seek help and overcome the condition.
Professional help is widely available and works best in conjunction with self-help techniques and the application of tools for self-management. So, later in the article, we’ll offer some practical, expert-led advice on how to help yourself if you have this type of anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
As mentioned, separation anxiety usually occurs in young children. The child experiences distress and worry when separated from their primary caregiver. When they are reunited with the caregiver, the distress typically passes. The child’s nervous system returns to normal (base state, homeostasis), and the distress and worry dissipate.
When separation anxiety doesn’t pass but remains with the person into adulthood, it can cause excessive fear, significant distress, isolation, and depression. Separation anxiety disorder in adults impacts one’s ability to have healthy, mature adult relationships. It jeopardizes one’s ability to perform well at work when symptoms arise because they create a lack of focus and concentration and make it incredibly challenging to regulate one’s emotions.
Signs of separation anxiety
You might be struggling with ASAD if you experience:
- Distress, worry, rumination, or catastrophic thinking when separated from your romantic partner
- Fear that the object of your attachment (your partner) will face danger or be harmed when you’re not with them
- Obsession, a need to know what your partner is doing, who they’re with, and where they are to achieve peace of mind
- Fear of being alone
It’s normal to be concerned for a loved one’s well-being when you’re not with them. It’s normal to prefer your partner’s company and miss them when you’re alone, and it’s normal to want to check in with your partner when there is the distance between you. Having these feelings does indicate that you are struggling with separation anxiety disorder.
However, what does indicate the disorder is when these feelings turn into the separation anxiety symptoms described above and become disruptive to your life. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), an individual would experience the above symptom for six months or longer to receive an official diagnosis of ASAD.
Catastrophic thinking is one of the most common symptoms among all anxiety disorders. When you think this way, you jump to the worst-case scenario when things become stressful. In the context of ASAD, you catastrophize when separated from your partner, such as when there is physical distance between yourselves or when you can’t reach them.
What causes separation anxiety in adults?
The signs and symptoms above are common to other anxiety disorders, particularly excessive worry, rumination, and catastrophic thinking. Separation anxiety is one of several anxiety disorders that impact our well-being, impair our functioning, and reduce our quality of life. Others include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Panic disorder (panic attacks)
- Social anxiety disorder
- Phobias (e.g. agoraphobia)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Most anxiety disorders stem from childhood experiences. Though most children experience separation anxiety until around three years of age, it can persist when the quality of the child-caregiver dynamic is unhealthy.
A parent might inconsistently meet their child’s needs or evoke feelings of fear and confusion through abusive or neglectful behavior.
Understand that neglect and abuse are not exclusive to instances of physical or verbal abuse. It can also manifest due to an emotionally absent parent, emotional smothering, or growing up in a household where the caregiver or other family members struggled with mental health conditions or substance misuse. It can also happen when a child experiences a significant loss, such as the death or incarceration of their caregiver during early psychological development.
How to overcome separation anxiety
Research on anxiety has led to advancements in treatment approaches and modalities. While severe anxiety is often treated with medication (anxiolytic medication), mild to moderate anxiety can often be treated through a combination of psychotherapy, self-help, and lifestyle changes. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy are popular and effective treatment modalities for anxiety disorders.
It’s wise to seek professional help to treat separation anxiety if it’s impacting your life. Such as it prevents you from forming and maintaining healthy relationships, affects your work life, and leads to unhealthy coping behaviors such as binge eating or substance misuse.
However, it’s important to remember that effective treatment for anxiety disorders, including separation anxiety, involves a multi-pronged approach. In addition to therapy, you can help yourself overcome your condition through self-help techniques, including self-exploration, positive self-talk, mindfulness, and grounding techniques.
Grounding techniques are a helpful tool to keep in your arsenal and help reduce the severity of symptoms of many mental disorders. In many mental health issues, but particularly anxiety disorders, those who suffer typically feel unsafe when the condition is exacerbated. As such, restoring a sense of safety (grounding) can help reduce the symptom severity.
We can restore a sense of safety and groundedness in our bodies through deep, diaphragmatic breathing. We’re breathing all the time but rarely do we pay close attention to the movement and quality of the breath. Yet doing so can be life-changing.
The excessive fear associated with anxiety disorders, which arises when a person with ASAD experiences the related symptoms, stems from heightened activation in the amygdala and the sympathetic nervous system.
When you consciously breathe deep into your diaphragm and slow down your breathing rhythm and heart rate, and relax your body, you signal to the body that you are safe. The brain notices your breath and figures that because your breath is slow and controlled, not hurried and shallow, you must be safe.
Mindfulness is a practice you can add to your daily routine and is also highly recommended by therapists and counselors to clients struggling with all types of anxiety. Popularized as a therapeutic tool by Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), this practice involves becoming a witness to our lived experience.
Mindfulness is a powerful antidote to anxiety because it takes us out of resistance. We learn to accept our feelings without judging them. We bring our attention to the present rather than ruminating about the past or anticipating the future. It’s about learning to live on the crest of the wave, rather than in front or behind.
Separation anxiety can be overwhelming and confusing, so learning to recognize and address it is crucial for your health and well-being. The above grounding techniques should help you deal with the symptoms and achieve immediate, albeit short-term, relief from feelings of panic and fear when your anxiety surfaces.
Still, it’s important to seek professional support for your anxiety issues sooner rather than later. Don’t hesitate to ask for help – it’s not a sign of weakness and maybe just the thing that turns your life around and frees you from your fears and anxiety.