Separation anxiety is when someone is afraid of being separated from a particular person, persons, or even a pet. While many people associate separation anxiety with children, adults can experience the condition as well.
A person develops extreme anxiety as a result of the separation. A person may also manifest physical symptoms related to separation anxiety. These can include:
• sore throat
Separation anxiety often occurs in children, especially those younger than 2 years old. A child does not yet understand, at this time, that when a parent goes away, they are still nearby and coming back.
Sometimes, a person with separation anxiety as an adult may have had the condition as a child. Others may experience it only in adulthood.
What are the symptoms?
Separation anxiety is an anxiety disorder. Other examples of anxiety disorders include agoraphobia and panic disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual for mental health conditions, the DSM-5, defines separation anxiety as when a person has several of the following symptoms:
• unusual distress about being separated from a person or pet
• excessive worry that another person will be harmed if they leave them alone
• heightened fear of being alone
• physical symptoms when they know they will be separated from another person soon
• excessive worry surrounding being alone
• needing to know where a spouse or loved one is at all times
These symptoms can last for 6 months or more in adults. Their symptoms can cause them significant distress that affects their social, occupational, or academic functioning.
What causes separation anxiety in adults?
An adult’s separation anxiety can stem from a parent, partner, or a child who moves away. Their anxiety may also be related to another underlying mental health condition. These may include delusions from psychotic disorders or fear of change relating to an autism spectrum disorder.
On occasion people may categorize an adult with separation anxiety disorder as being controlling or overprotective. However, their actions are often an adult’s way of expressing their fears in regard to separation.
Those with obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD are more likely to experience separation anxiety as an adult, according to an article in the journal Personality and Mental Health.
Those with separation anxiety often have other co-existing conditions, such as social phobias, panic disorders, or agoraphobia (fear of going outdoors).
Other risk factors for separation anxiety, in addition to pre-existing mental health conditions, include:
• being female
• childhood adversity, such as the death of a family member
• history of childhood traumatic events, such as abuse
Sometimes a significant life change, such as a divorce or a child leaving home and going to college, can cause a person to develop adult separation anxiety.
According to The American Journal of Psychiatry, an estimated 43.1 percent of people who experience separation disorder other than as children, develop the condition after 18 years of age.
How is it diagnosed?
In the past, the DSM-5 only considered separation anxiety to be a condition that lasted until a person was 18 years old. In more recent versions, however, the definition has expanded to include adults.
A doctor will diagnose separation anxiety by asking about the symptoms a person is experiencing. A mental health expert will use the criteria, including those used in the latest DSM-5 to make a diagnosis of separation anxiety in adults.
Treatment and management options
Doctors treat separation anxiety primarily through psychotherapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
This therapy aims to help a person identify their thoughts and behaviors that are making their separation anxiety worse.
Parents may also learn additional parenting techniques that can reduce their separation anxiety.
Sometimes an individual can benefit from group therapy and family therapy.
Doctors may also temporarily prescribe anti-anxiety medications to help a person through their most acute symptoms of separation anxiety. These drugs, however, are not always long-term solutions to the underlying disorder, and some types of anti-anxiety medications can be addictive.
A person should engage in therapy so they can begin to change their ways of thinking to reduce the incidence of separation anxiety.
A person may also wish to seek out a support group for those with anxiety and separation anxiety. People who join these groups can gain help with learning techniques for reducing separation-related anxiety.
While adult separation anxiety is not as common as when a child experiences this condition, it is still possible that a person can have separation anxiety as an adult. The anxiety can be so intense that it is hard for someone to function in daily life due to fears and worries about separating from another person.
People should see a mental health professional if they are not sure if their fears are related to separation.
Through therapy and, in some instances, medications, people can reduce their separation anxiety symptoms.
Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN