While separation anxiety is common in children, researchers now know that this psychological disorder is not only experienced during childhood. When adults have separation anxiety, they experience excessive fear or worry about leaving people they feel emotionally attached to. In children, this is most often targeted at parental figures, while in adults, the fear tends to be directed at children and/or spouses.
Like other psychological disorders, the level of distress people with separation anxiety experience interferes with the quality of their day-to-day life. Researchers estimate somewhere between 1 to 2 percent of adults struggle with this form of anxiety.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
People with adult separation anxiety disorder experience high levels of anxiety, and sometimes even panic attacks, at the prospect of being separated from their loved ones. Their fears may include that loved ones will be kidnapped, injured, get lost, become ill, or suddenly die. These fears make those with separation anxiety extremely reluctant — or may cause them to even refuse — to leave loved ones. They find it difficult to sleep away from a loved one for fear that something bad will happen to them in their absence.
Depression may set in as a result of any of these feelings. To be diagnosed with separation anxiety, symptoms must interfere with normal functioning and last for more than six months.
Causes and Risk Factors of Separation Anxiety
For children, separation anxiety is an emotionally appropriate and healthy part of psychological development, Judy Ho, PhD, a clinical and forensic psychologist based in California, told Health.
“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,” she explained. “But if those behaviors continue into late childhood and even adulthood, they can be classified as an anxiety disorder.”
By age eighteen, however, being able to handle periods of separation from loved ones is part of healthy, normal development. This is the period when people should feel free to go off and create their life — not be afraid to leave home.
Adults are more likely to develop separation anxiety if they were diagnosed with separation anxiety as a child, and those who were raised by overbearing parents may also be at an increased risk. Adult separation anxiety disorder is often diagnosed in people who’ve also been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and personality disorders.
Having a family history of anxiety or another mental health condition, being female, losing a loved one, a major change in life (such as a divorce), and committing to a codependent, romantic relationship are additional risk factors to be aware of.
Effects of Separation Anxiety
Someone living with untreated separation anxiety disorder may experience any number of negative consequences. Remember, extreme separation anxiety can make a person unable to leave their house to attend work, school, or social functions. Thus, separation anxiety can lead to profound social isolation; an inability to keep a job, financial problems, and increased conflict in interpersonal relationships.
Parents with separation anxiety disorder can become highly controlling of their children and overbearing.
“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,” Allison Forti, PhD, an assistant professor of counseling at Wake Forest University, told Health.
Treatment of Separation Anxiety
Treatment for adult separation anxiety disorder is similar to treatment used for other anxiety disorders. Some possible treatments your medical provider may recommend include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), group therapy, family therapy, or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) — all forms of therapy that offers clients new skills to manage painful emotions and minimize conflict in relationships. They may also suggest medications such as antidepressants, including SSRIs or SNRIs, buspirone (BuSpar),or benzodiazepines.