You probably know or heard about separation anxiety in children. When away from their parent or guardian, a child can have this form of anxiety. He or she will fear being lost from his or her family, or that something bad can happen to a member. However, children aren’t the only ones who can experience separation anxiety. Adults can develop it, even as a disorder that prevents them from living well.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
In DSM-IV-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual For Mental Disorders), separation anxiety is defined as an anxiety disorder. The disorder, usually occurring in childhood or adolescence, involves excessive anxiety about separation from home or a major attachment figure. It’s persistent and developmentally inappropriate (going beyond the usual age children or adolescent experience it).
Other features may include marked “anticipatory anxiety” over upcoming separation, and persistent and excessive worry about harm coming to a guardian. It may also be about major events that might lead to separation from them (e.g., getting lost). School refusal, fear of being alone or going to sleep without major attachment figure present, separation-related nightmares, and repeated complaints of physical symptoms (vomiting, nausea, headaches, stomachaches, etc.) associated with anticipated separation are also common.
Separation Anxiety In Children Vs. In Adults
Children, young adults, and adults all experience separation anxiety in the same yet still different way. They can have similar symptoms though their concerns are not. For children, separation anxiety is often associated with extreme fear or anxiety about being away from a caregiver. This can make them less willing to participate in events or social experiences, like sleeping over at a friend’s house or going to summer camp. For adults, the anxiety is around being away from a loved one (spouse, family, children, etc.). This affects how they function at work and any other social environment. They find it hard handling their responsibilities as an adult and a member of society.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Also known as SAD, separation anxiety disorder in adults involve extreme, debilitating anxiety. Sometimes, the condition comes from childhood–separation anxiety that a person hasn’t overcome. It may even have gotten worse as it continued on to his or her present age. Separation anxiety disorder keeps you from living a full, healthy adult life.
To be diagnosed with SAD, symptoms must impair functioning and continue for at least six months.
People with adult separation anxiety disorder experience high levels of anxiety, and sometimes even panic attacks, when away from loved ones. They may be socially withdrawn, show extreme sadness or have difficulty concentrating.
Other common symptoms include:
- Irrational fears about loved ones, or yourself, being abducted or fatally injured.
- Extreme and persistent hesitancy or refusal to leave a loved one (e.g. unusual distress about being separated from a person or pet).
- Having trouble sleeping away from a loved one for fear that something will happen to them. Excessive worry that another person will harm them if you leave them alone.
- Experiencing depression or anxiety attacks related to any specific feared situation (like the ones mentioned above).
- Physical aches and pains, headaches, or diarrhea associated with periods of anxiety; having these physical symptoms come out when you know you’re about to be separated from a loved one soon.
- Heightened fear of being alone; excessive worry surrounding being alone (living on your own for a few days).
- Needing to know where a spouse or loved one is at all times.
For parents, separation anxiety disorder can lead to strict, over-involved parenting. In relationships, it can create an overbearing partner.
Separation anxiety often develops after a significant or traumatic event. Loss of a loved one, a family member moving to another country, divorce, etc. You may be more likely to develop adult separation anxiety disorder if you were diagnosed with it as a child. Adults who grew up with overbearing parents may also be at an increased risk.
Adult separation anxiety disorder is often diagnosed in people who have also been diagnosed with any of the following mental health conditions:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Personality disorders
Separation anxiety disorder can be related to experienced delusions from psychological disorders.
Treatment & What To Do
There are various ways to manage and treat separation anxiety. A mental health professional can help you know which is right for you. Treatment for SAD is similar to treatments used for other anxiety disorders: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT); group therapy; family therapy; dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT); medications such as antidepressants, buspirone (BuSpar)or benzodiazepines.
You can manage your separation anxiety through practical actions like getting busy, curbing your need for reassurance, reframing your thoughts, and keeping a journal. Most importantly, understand that your emotional barometer can be overly sensitive and may pick up false positives.
Separation anxiety in adults is just as real as what children and teens experience. It can have a huge negative impact on a person’s life and well-being. It’s vital that the right support and medical assistance are received. Any mental health condition left unmanaged can lead to undesirable outcomes. If you’re dealing with separation anxiety, keep in mind that it’s okay. Other people go through it too. Trust yourself that you are capable of overcoming it just like those who already have. Don’t hesitate to seek professional advice if you can’t handle it. Things may take time, but know that you’ll be more than fine in the end.