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Separation Anxiety: It's Not Just for Kids

Separation anxiety - the term often conjures an image of a young child in distress, loudly crying and fiercely clinging to a parent. While that’s not inaccurate, it is incomplete. Separation anxiety disorder affects not just children, but adults; in fact, it actually affects more adults than kids (7% vs. 4%). And while adults typically don’t cling to a loved one, loudly wailing, people experiencing adult separation anxiety disorder (ASAD) do feel a very similar degree of distress at the thought of separation from a loved one.

Sometimes a desire to be with someone we love turns into fear of separation from them. This fear is known as separation anxiety, and it affects even adults.Humans are hardwired to love. We feel warmth and affection toward romantic partners, our children, friends, and others to whom we are close. We enjoy being with someone we love, and we miss him/her when we’re apart. This sense of missing, of longing, keeps us connected even when we’re not physically with someone, and that keeps the relationship strong.

The Anxious Effects of Adult Separation Anxiety

Sometimes, though, this sense of missing and longing works against us, skyrocketing out of control. When this happens, anxiety and fear choke out enjoyment and calm. The effects of this are miserable at best and destructive at worst.

The person living with ASAD, be they man or woman, old or young, rich or poor, feels extreme distress when away from a loved one. The anxiety felt upon separation can affect one’s entire being:

  • Feelings of physical illness plague him/her from head to toe, causing things like headaches, stomachaches, difficulty breathing, fatigue, and joint and muscle pain;
  • The mind ruminates with worry (Will I be okay? Will my loved one be okay?), making concentration difficult and negatively affecting memory;
  • Severe panic attacks can set in upon separation;
  • Avoidance can become a pattern; typically, someone with ASAD avoids being alone at all cost.

Indeed, separation anxiety feels terrible. Further, it is often very disruptive to one’s life. This strong anxiety propels the person to fixate on his/her loved one. After all, the awful anxiety causes dissonance within, so the person is compelled to relieve it. Consequently, he/she needs constant contact with and reassurance from the loved one. The constant checking, calling, texting, visiting, and asking about continued love can take its toll on the relationship. The anxiety can sometimes interfere with one’s ability to focus on a job. It can contribute to other difficulties such as depression and substance abuse. In general, anxiety and fear take over, making life difficult.

Separation Anxiety is Neither a Choice nor a Weakness

No one would choose to live with ASAD. No one feels this anxiety and acts on it on purpose. So where does it come from? Researchers are still trying to answer this question, actually. In less than half of all cases, ASAD is a continuation of childhood attachment patterns. That means in over half, ASAD develops in adulthood. The causes are complex and largely unknown. One thing that is known is that to be considered ASAD, the separation anxiety can’t be part of a different disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, or agoraphobia.

Another thing that is known is that someone who lives with ASAD isn't weak. He/she is experiencing a specific type of anxiety and is trying to reduce that anxiety. Like other forms of anxiety, ASAD can be reduced, and the approaches are similar. The ideal starting point is recognizing that love is still present but has been temporarily run over by anxiety. Separate yourself and your loved one from this anxiety disorder, and you’ll begin to take away its power.

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APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2014, July 2). Separation Anxiety: It's Not Just for Kids, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, March 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2014/07/separation-anxiety-its-not-just-for-kids



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson delivers online and in-person mental health education for youth, and she is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She's shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, online interviews and summits, and at speaking events. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Vanda
July, 9 2014 at 8:24 pm

I have abandonment issues from emotional disconnection as a child. When my husband disconnected from me I developed this and it is horrible and now I do not want any conection with anyone but being human I cannot help it and it fills me full of fear.

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