The term “separation anxiety” is sometimes used colloquially, like when you haven’t seen a friend or loved one for a while as an expression of how much you miss them. Since it’s become such a common phrase, you may not even realize that separation anxiety is actually a clinical condition. A separation anxiety diagnosis indicates feelings that are much more than simply longing for a friend.
Separation anxiety is defined by the fear of being separated from a person, animal, or object. Most often associated with children, adults also experience the condition. Separation anxiety can present itself in a variety of ways and can be experienced at any age. “A child with separation anxiety will likely have difficulty leaving the home for any reason, experience nightmares or sleep issues, may become aggressive when forced to seperate, and have physical issues like stomach aches,” says Thomas McDonagh, Psy.D., founder of Good Therapy SF. He explains that children will often insist on having an exact timeline of when the person they’re attached to is going to be gone and where they’re going.
Similarly, “adults with the disorder often present as irrational, demanding or overly dependent,” continues McDonagh. “As a result, daily life activities like work and personal relationships typically suffer. It is not unusual for adults with separation anxiety to also have other anxiety or mood disorders.”
As one typically becomes stressed in anticipation of an uncomfortable situation, people with separation anxiety often begin experiencing negative symptoms prior to the separation occurring. According to Laura Rhodes-Levin, LMFT, Founder of The Missing Peace Center for Anxiety, symptoms include: accelerated heart rate, sweaty hands, and a feeling of doom and restlessness, which can occur before and during the event. “These symptoms persist until the person becomes distracted, but most often they do not subside completely until the individual who left returns,” she says.
While the term may be overused, the American Psychiatric Association reports diagnosable separation anxiety occurs after symptoms persist for four weeks in children and six months in adults. An estimated 3.2% to 4.1% of children will experience separation anxiety.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
According to McDonagh, genetics and environment are both believed to play a part in the chances of someone developing separation anxiety, with many reporting that family members were also diagnosed.
Historically, separation anxiety was considered a disorder from which only people under the age of 18 suffered, but now it is known to exist in adults as well. “In adults it most often occurs after an event such as a death, divorce, or a child moving out of the home. As a result, most adults with separation anxiety did not have these symptoms as children,” says McDonagh.
As Rhodes-Levin further explains, “Separation anxiety can be caused by many things. Often it is associated with young childhood abandonment, but it can be triggered by trauma as well. If a person goes through an experience that causes them to feel unsafe in the world, it is not uncommon to be afraid to be alone and dependent on the person you spend the most intimate time with.”
Mitigating Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
As with any mental health disorder, seeking professional help from a licensed therapist to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment plan is critical. “The research shows that a combination of medication and psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and/or exposure therapy, are the most effective. Adding parent training has also been found to be highly effective,” says McDonagh. He also recommends gradually increasing the time between seeing your attachment person to enable you to become increasingly comfortable with the associated anxiety — this exposure should help you to be better able to tolerate the symptoms.
If you’re unable to immediately see a mental health expert there are techniques that you can employ at home to cope with separation anxiety. “This is the time to be gentle with yourself as you would with any child that is frightened,” says Rhodes-Levin. “Do not judge yourself. Distraction is always helpful. Engage your senses. Listen to music, go outside if you feel safe to do so, smell something soothing or look at something that distracts you like a movie or television show that brings you joy. If you have the opportunity, call someone else on the phone and ask them how they are doing. Focusing on someone else quiets the thoughts we have about our own problems. Engage in some sort of project, even something like a jigsaw puzzle that brings you joy when you find you are looking for. Write a gratitude list. This may sound corny, but it really helps.”
Instead of focusing on your current emotions Rhodes-Levin suggests looking back on all the times you’ve had separation anxiety and overcame it. The reassurance that you will be alright can make a big difference as you face this challenge.
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