What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder in Adults?

Overview

By Timothy Legg

Separation anxiety isn’t only seen in children. It can also be seen in adults. Adults with separation anxiety have extreme fear that bad things will happen to important people in their lives, such as family members.

Researchers don’t know what causes this disorder. It’s often seen alongside other anxiety-related conditions, such as panic disorderagoraphobia, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Read on to learn more about this condition.

Separation anxiety in adults vs. children

Separation anxiety is a regular part of development for children between the age of six months to three years. When symptoms continue into late childhood, your child may be diagnosed as having child separation anxiety disorder.

If separation anxiety continues into adulthood, you’ll be diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder. Symptoms of anxiety disorder in children and adults are similar. For children, separation anxiety is often associated with extreme fear or anxiety about being away from parents or caregivers. That can make a child less willing to participate in events or social experiences, like spending the night at a friend’s house or going to summer sleepaway camp. For adults, the anxiety is around being away from children or spouses. Instead of school, work function or other responsibilities can become impaired.

Symptoms

It’s normal to be concerned about the well-being of loved ones. People with adult separation anxiety disorder experience high levels of anxiety, and sometimes even panic attacks, when loved ones are out of reach.

People with this disorder may be socially withdrawn, or show extreme sadness or difficulty concentrating when away from loved ones. In parents, the disorder can lead to strict, over-involved parenting. In relationships, you may be more likely to be an overbearing partner.

Other common symptoms include:

  • unfounded fears that loved ones, or yourself, will be abducted or fatally injured
  • extreme and persistent hesitancy or refusal to leave the proximity of loved ones
  • difficulty sleeping away from a loved one for fear that something will happen to them
  • depression or anxiety attacks related to any of the above topics

You may also have physical aches and pains, headaches, and diarrhea associated with periods of anxiety.

To be diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder, symptoms must impair functioning and continue for at least six months.

Risk factors

Separation anxiety often develops after a loss of a loved one, or following a significant event such as moving to college. You may be more likely to develop adult separation anxiety disorder if you were diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder as a child. Adults who grew up with overbearing parents may also be at an increased risk.

Adult separation anxiety disorder is often diagnosed in people who’ve also been diagnosed with any of the following conditions:

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Diagnosis

To diagnose this condition, your doctor will conduct a comprehensive examination and use the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-V). According to the DSM-V, one of the first signs is excessive fear or anxiety about being separated from people you’re close to. The anxiety and fear has to be developmentally inappropriate. Additionally:

  • symptoms in adults must be present for a minimum of six months
  • symptoms are so severe that they affect social functioning and responsibilities
  • symptoms cannot be better explained by a different disorder

Your medical provider will ask you many questions to determine if you fit the criteria for this diagnosis. You may need several sessions with a therapist before receiving a diagnosis.

Your health provider may also talk to close family members or friends to help them better understand how your symptoms affect your daily life. They won’t disclose anything you’ve shared, and they’ll only talk with them if they’ve received your consent.

Treatment

Treatment for adult separation anxiety disorder is similar to treatments used to treat other anxiety disorders. Your medical provider may recommend a variety of treatments, or you may have to try several treatments before finding one that works for you. Possible treatments include:

Outlook

Adult separation anxiety can have an onset in childhood or adulthood. Similar to other anxiety disorders, adult separation anxiety can affect your quality of life, but the condition can be managed with treatment. Talk to a medical professional if you suspect you or someone you love is living with this disorder.

From Erin Fado

Always at this time of the year I experience Separation Anxiety as my psychotherapist goes to India for a holiday to see her parents. I am always terrified that she will not come back or that something will happen to her. I have a very strong therapeutic alliance with her and see her twice a week and have done so for six years. We talk about the fact that I go through Separation Anxiety when she goes away and she also assures me that she is coming back and sends me a text every few days saying she is okay, having a good time but that she does not want to live in India and is coming back. That does something to alleviate my concerns but I still feel the fears acutely. It’s going to be doubled this year as my psychiatrist is also going away. I cannot control my fears even though I know they are irrational. They stem from my Abandonment Anxiety from my childhood and the way I was treated.

If you need support join our Private and Closed online Facebook Group for Child Abuse Survivors and those with CPTSD. Click here to join

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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