This Is What It's Like to Be an Adult With Separation Anxiety

Once thought to mainly affect kids, experts are seeing cases of separation anxiety in adults, too.

You know when your little one cries and clings to your leg whenever you try to run an errand or leave for work? That's separation anxiety. And while it's more common in young children, adults can experience it, too.

What Exactly Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is just what it sounds like: fear or distress over being separated from those you're emotionally attached to.

"Between six months and three years old, some nervousness when you're apart from loved ones is natural, and it actually shows good emotional and social attachment of the child to caregivers and other important adult figures," Judy Ho, PhD, a clinical and forensic psychologist based in California, told Health. "But if those behaviors continue into late childhood and even adulthood, they can be classified as an anxiety disorder."

The key here is that those feelings are excessive and developmentally inappropriate.¹

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

There are many signs that someone is suffering from separation anxiety, said Elizabeth Zakarin, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York—many of which should not come as a surprise. First is the constant fear about the possibility of being separated from home or a loved one, even due to circumstances beyond a person's control, such as a house fire or natural disaster.

Adults with separation anxiety disorder struggle with any situation that takes them away from their loved ones. "They may develop extreme distress and anxiety anticipating overnight business trips that require being away from their child or spouse, may have recurrent thoughts related to being separated from their loved ones, or may be overprotective of their children," explained Allison Forti, PhD, associate director of online counseling programs at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Big life changes like going away to college, moving, or getting married can throw adults with separation anxiety for a loop.

People with separation anxiety may also obsess that something bad will happen to their loved ones when they are away, like getting sick or dying. They may be reluctant to spend time away from home, even to attend school or work. People with separation anxiety don't like being alone and can have nightmares themed around separation. They may also experience physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, or palpitations when anticipating or experiencing being apart from someone they're close to.¹

These feelings can make it difficult to maintain relationships or keep up with everyday life. "For adults, separation anxiety disorder can have monumental consequences in their social and work life and could lead to social isolation, loss of employment opportunities or the ability to prosper at work, relational difficulties, or the ability to live a satisfying and fulfilling life," said Forti.

Who Gets Separation Anxiety?

People used to think of separation anxiety disorder as a condition that begins in childhood. For an adult to receive that diagnosis, typically symptoms would have to occur before the age of 18 according to a 2013 review in the journal Clinical Psychology Review

The most recent revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes that separation anxiety disorder can occur in children and adults. Instead of lumping the diagnostic criteria under "Disorders Usually Diagnosed in Infancy, Childhood, and Adolescents," the DSM-5 classifies separation anxiety disorder as an "anxiety disorder."

Separation anxiety disorder in adults may go underdiagnosed for many years, per Clinical Psychology Review. Data from one nationally representative survey suggest the lifetime prevalence of adult separation anxiety disorder is 6.6 percent.²

"While historically believed to be prevalent only in childhood, it's now understood that separation anxiety causes significant difficulties for many adults," said Zakarin. Experts agree, though, that people who experienced childhood separation anxiety are definitely at an increased risk of developing adult separation anxiety. And if you have a family history of separation anxiety disorder or any other mental health disorder, you could be at greater risk as well, Zakarin added.

Still, it's possible to develop this type of anxiety as an adult without a prior history. "Significant life transitions such as moving away to college or having a child can trigger adult separation anxiety, particularly for those who have an underlying anxiety disorder," said Forti, "as can experiencing a life stress or loss (say a recent loss of a loved one)."

Treating Separation Anxiety

Like any form of anxiety, separation anxiety can feel overwhelming. But it is treatable.

"Evidence-based treatment options include such therapies as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)," said Ho. "Couples or family counseling to help the individual interact more effectively with the persons they are having trouble separating from can also help, as can certain medications that decrease anxiety, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors," Ho noted.

Equally important is communicating with loved ones who may unintentionally be part of those anxious feelings. If you suspect you might have separation anxiety, aside from seeing a health care provider to help diagnose your condition.

"Talk openly with your loved ones so they understand where you're coming from, and so that they can support you while you are working on the symptoms," said Ho. "Once you resolve the underlying issues, you can definitely lead a productive and healthy life."

Sources:

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 Changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  2. Bögels SM, Knappe S, Clark LA. Adult separation anxiety disorder in DSM-5. Clinical Psychology Review 2013;33(5):663-674. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2013.03.006
  3. National Alliance on Mental Health. Psychotherapy.
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