How To Manage Separation Anxiety In Adults

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 12/29/2020

Although separation anxiety is more commonly diagnosed in children, this condition affects adults as well. More women are affected by the condition than men. Separation anxiety is just as it is – people with this condition are unfittingly afraid of separation from an emotional attachment figure, like loved ones or spouses. Such adults will usually find it hard to handle any situation that causes separation, and therefore develop extreme anxiety and stress that leads to behaviors that are disruptive to their normal lives. In this article, you will learn about separation anxiety in adults and how to manage the condition.

What Is Separation Anxiety In Adults?

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When people talk about separation anxiety, it is often in the context of children, or sometimes, pets. Separation anxiety is regarded as a major issue because when it is hard or impossible to separate children from their parents, they are at the risk of missing the opportunity for vital psychosocial developments and develop anxiety issues later in life.

Separation anxiety occurs in adults too, and can also be a major problem that has been considered for inclusion in the diagnostic manual. Many adults deal with separation anxiety issues and may not notice or may refuse to get help. Therefore, separation anxiety in adults is often underreported and way more prevalent than it was thought to be. The true cause of the disorder is unknown, but it often co-occurs with other conditions like agoraphobia, panic disorder, and anxiety disorder.

Adult separation anxiety may start during childhood or due to events that occurred throughout teenage years or early adulthood. Many adults dealing with anxiety (whether separation or other types) experienced a form of abuse or neglect in the past. An adult with separation anxiety may worry that factors beyond their control will separate them. They may worry that their loved ones will fall or die while they are separated from them. It is normal for you to worry about close relatives and friends. However, if you find yourself constantly worrying when they are not around, and your mind makes up the worst-case scenarios every time, so much it affects your health and normal life, you could be dealing with separation anxiety.

Parents dealing with a separation anxiety disorder may be seen as overprotective or controlling and may have a strangely tough time at the beginning of every school year or day, dealing with excessive worry, fear, or unhappiness that their kids or loved ones may suffer harm when they leave their sight or care these feelings may sometimes trigger an overwhelming need to know the child’s location and trigger the parent’s fear of loneliness.

One major role of the brain is to keep us safe, and after having children, their safety becomes extremely vital. The mind is configured to watch out for danger and during times of crisis, sometimes ignoring rational thought to err on the side of caution. Unfortunately, the brain has not evolved to be able to differentiate between perceived threat and real-life threatening danger. Therefore, the brain may react to a routine school drop-off as if it were life-threatening.

The Manifestation Of Separation Anxiety In Adults

Severe separation anxiety is easy to notice. Adults with separation anxiety often have an unhealthy attachment to close or loved ones and suffer intense panic and anxiety when separation is necessary. Yet, in less severe forms of separation anxiety, the signs may not be so apparent. Some of the less noticeable indications of adult separation anxiety include:

Extreme Jealousy

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Adults with separation anxiety may be jealous in their relationships. The fear of abandonment is usually what triggers jealousy in those with separation anxiety. This is especially accurate if anxious thoughts accompany the jealousy, such as fear of loneliness or unreasonable worries about infidelity. Certainly, jealousy may not have anything to do with separation anxiety. For instance, control of others and trust issues are the reasons for jealousy, but some type of deep jealousy could be linked to separation anxiety.

Overly Strict Parenting

There is a basis behind the assumption that overly strict and demanding parents may be dealing with anxiety issues as well. Sometimes called reverse-separation anxiety, the parent may be so worried that their child will leave eventually that they attempt to control their child’s lives as much as they can.

Stuck In Relationships

Separation anxiety can also manifest itself in how the person handles their relationships. Whether with friends, family, or romance, people with separation anxiety try to maintain relationships even when it is toxic and unhealthy (physically and emotionally) due to a fear of being alone.

Lack Of Boundaries

Those that cohabitate with their parents long after reaching adulthood, or people that cannot get themselves to leave their friend’s place, may be dealing with a form of separation anxiety.

Unwillingness To Leave The Home

Coupled with the constant fear of something ominous happening, people with this condition may be reluctant to leave their home and their loved ones. This is usually the case, even if they have to go to school or work. Normally, this can result in remarkable disruption to someone’s day-to-day life. If you noticed you are constantly struggling to meet up with work commitments or do not want to be away from home due to the fear of leaving your loved ones, it is a sign that you need mental health assistance.

Fear Of Loneliness

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Aside from concerns about something terrible happening to someone you love or care about, the condition may also leave you afraid of being alone. The fear can be so severe that you suffer nightmares and a couple of physical symptoms such as nausea, palpitations, and headaches. The idea of being alone may leave you in trepidation and mess up your usual routine.

Trouble Maintaining Relationships

Another indication of separation anxiety is that the person may have trouble maintaining relationships with loved ones, especially in the romantic context. Relationships can be strained quickly if you are continuously texting or calling your loved ones to know where they are and if they are okay. You may even find yourself checking the news to see if anything happened to them. All these can make it hard (although not impossible) to maintain healthy relationships.

Troubles With Work And Social Life

For anyone dealing with separation anxiety, it may be difficult to have a normal life. Social isolation, poor output at work, low performance at school, loss of job opportunities, and constant stress can lead to difficulties in several aspects of life.

Managing Separation Anxiety In Adults

Due to the nature of the disorder, those experiencing it may have trouble reaching out for the necessary assistance. It may be hard to know when something is wrong, considering that there is nothing strange about worrying about close relatives and loved ones.

Since adult separation anxiety was only recently recognized as a major mental health issue, not much is known about the treatment approaches. Yet, certain treatments have proven to be potentially effective. If you think you or someone you know has separation anxiety, getting help is crucial. Once you are aware of the issue, you must get the right treatment.

Treating Other Anxiety Disorders

Managing the symptoms of anxiety can be beneficial. Many people with separation anxiety exhibit obsessive thoughts identical to OCD, and some may suffer anxiety attacks when left by themselves. Knowing the symptoms of other anxiety disorders can help. You can start by taking an assessment test for separation anxiety.

Support Groups

Getting support can be helpful. The support group provides the person with extra social support beyond the person they are emotionally attached to. Sometimes, the fear is losing that support, so a great support group may be incredibly helpful.

Self-Help Strategies

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Learn relaxation techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness, yoga, and meditation. These are proven ways of dealing with anxiety.

Try being separated – if possible, go for a walk alone, go grocery shopping alone, or stay at home alone when the person leaves the house. This is only for a short while, instead of a full day. This is a form of exposure therapy.

Plan your day – if you are at home when other people in the house are resuming work, then it might be helpful to make a plan. Start by creating a routine and a daily or weekly to-do list. Ensure the list is not just full of chores but contains fun or exciting tasks too. Having something to engage in and planning your day can give you a feeling of control and less “abandoned.”

Find healthy self-soothing methods – these are usually specific to the person, but examples could be baking, cooking, a relaxing bath, painting, listening to music, or journaling.

Clinical Treatments

These methods are helpful for children with separation anxiety and may help adults as well. Behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapies are often the most effective methods for separation anxiety treatment.

Two forms of exposure therapy, systemic desensitization, and flooding are behavioral techniques that can work for separation anxiety disorder. Exposure therapies follow the same basic concept, a derivation of the learning theory called habituation. The basis of the approach is that anxiety disorders do not disappear when people only stay away from their fears. Avoidance only reduces the unpleasant feelings associated with anxiety. In contrast, patients can recover when they do not avoid or escape their fears. That way, the new experiences teach them that the reason for their fears is not actually dangerous.

Exposure therapy is when people stay willingly in the presence of scary situations and is an incredibly effective and practical anxiety treatment. However, as expected, it is hard to get people’s consent for this method. Systemic desensitization is a technique that tries not to overwhelm the anxious patient. First, the therapist will help participants learn relaxation methods to help them stay calm in scary situations. When they have learned relaxation, they are systematically exposed to the things they fear, with gradually increasing intensity.

The therapist and the patient may together come up with a list of progressively intense conditions. For instance, parents with a separation anxiety disorder may first try separation from their children for an hour while still in familiar settings. After getting used to this, the intensity increases. With time, they may try more prolonged periods of separation from their children, from home to unfamiliar environments.

Another method is flooding or full exposure. This technique is not as mild as systemic desensitization. The advantage is that the results come more quickly. In this method, the adult experiences an abrupt, intense exposure to the feared situation, without buildup. The person they are emotionally attached to is visibly separated from them. They may get nervous at first but eventually habituate and get comfortable. When they are calm, they will notice that nothing bad has occurred to them, despite their worries. They also notice they can be calm, even in the face of scary situations. Although the technique seems cruel, it actually works.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is another form of therapy that works for separation anxiety disorder. This method is reserved for those who can express their thoughts and feelings. CBT focuses on the thought patterns that cause anxiety. The person may have an unrealistic and overblown idea about how harmful it is to be on their own. Also, they may have trouble distinguishing between past losses and present situations.

For instance, an anxious person may think that their new partner will die because they lost their partner a few years ago. A CBT professional helps people process these thoughts. Together, the therapist and their patient will evaluate the thoughts and beliefs to see if they make sense.

For instance, someone who is worried about their partner dying may be asked to set a logical link between death resulting from an illness like cancer and their partner’s lack of any health conditions. To establish the point, the therapist may have the person answer questions about their partner’s health, habits, or routines. The line of questioning can help the anxious person understand that the chances of their partner dying is lower than they initially thought.

Medications

Medications can also be effective for managing separation anxiety in adults. Both anxiolytic meds (meds for reducing anxiety, like Buspar®) and antidepressants (like Clomipramine or Imipramine) have been effective for the condition. Side effects may occur due to medication use, including dizziness, dry mouth, aggressive behaviors, seizures, and drowsiness.

Evidently, more research is required before making practical treatment recommendations. Yet, meeting with a medical or mental health professional is certainly a good place to begin the process.

In Summary

Separation anxiety can leave adults feeling sad, stressed, and always on edge. However, this does not have to be your case. It is important to manage your anxiety issues for the benefit of your loved ones. As a parent, learn positive ways to work through anxiety, so you do not let unrealistic fears inhibit what could be happy experiences with you and your kids.