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

You know when you get ready to leave for work and your dog flips out, whining and jumping on you like they just can’t bear to be away from you? That’s separation anxiety. And while it’s cute in a pet (who doesn’t want to be missed that much?), it’s not just something animals deal with—it’s a real human anxiety disorder, too. And for the people struggling with it, it can be downright debilitating.

What exactly is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is just what it sounds like: the fear of 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,” says Judy Ho, PhD, a clinical and forensic psychologist based in California. “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 developmentally inappropriate. By the time you reach 18, you should know how to emotionally handle brief periods of separation from the people you love the most.

Adults with separation anxiety disorder seriously 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,” explains Allison Forti, PhD, an assistant professor of counseling 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.

What are the symptoms?

There are many signs that someone is suffering from separation anxiety, says 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.

People with separation anxiety may also obsess that something bad will happen to their loved one 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. They don't like being alone, and they can have nightmares themed around separation. They may complain of physical symptoms (like headaches, nausea, or palpitations) when anticipating or experiencing being apart from someone they're close to.

Needless to say, these feelings can make it difficult to maintain relationships and a so-called regular life. Imagine if someone were to spend all their time constantly checking on the whereabouts of their loved ones, via calling, texting, social media, even turning on the news? That’s not exactly normal behavior.

“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,” says Forti.

Who gets separation anxiety?

“While historically believed to be prevalent only in childhood, it’s now understood that separation anxiety causes significant difficulties for many adults,” says 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 more at risk as well, adds Zakarin.

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,” says Forti, “as can experiencing a life stress or loss (say a recent loss of a loved one).”

How to treat 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)," which help you manage negative thinking patterns, says 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."

Professional resources are very helpful, but equally important is communicating with the loved ones who may unintentionally be a part of those anxious feelings. If you suspect you might have separation anxiety, aside from seeing a professional 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,” says Ho. “Once you resolve the underlying issues, you can definitely lead a productive and healthy life.”

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