Disorders

How to Manage Adult Separation Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

How to Manage Adult Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is often discussed in terms of children, or in some cases, pets. Separation anxiety in children is considered a serious issue as when a child is unable to be separated from parents, the likelihood he or she will miss out on crucial psychosocial development opportunities, and develop further anxiety problems later in life, increases significantly.

Separation anxiety occurs in adults as well, and can be an equally serious problem, so much so that psychologists have considered adding it to the diagnostic manual. Many adults suffer from separation anxiety issues and either may not be aware, or fail to seek treatment. Thus, separation anxiety in adults is likely underreported, and a much more widespread problem than originally believed to be.

From Childhood to Adulthood

Adult separation anxiety (ASA) may develop during childhood, or as a result of things experienced throughout adolescence and/or early adulthood. Many adults suffering from anxiety (separation and other kinds) suffered some sort abuse or neglect in their past.

How Separation Anxiety Manifests in Adults

Separation anxiety, when extreme, is usually pretty easy to identify. Adults who have serious separation anxiety tend to have an unhealthy attachment to a person with whom they are close to, and experience intense anxiety and panic when having to separate from that person. Yet, in less severe cases of separation anxiety, the signs may not be as obvious. Some less apparent signs of ASA are:

  • Extreme Jealousy - adults with separation anxiety may demonstrate signs of jealousy in relationships. A fear of abandonment is often what drives those with ASA to experience jealousy. This is especially true if the jealousy is accompanied by anxious thoughts, such as a fear of being alone or irrational concerns about infidelity. Of course, jealousy may be completely unrelated to ASA - for example, control of others is the cause of jealousy, as are trust issues - but some forms of deep jealousy may also be due to separation anxiety.
  • Over Strict Parenting - there is some evidence that extremely strict and demanding parents may have separation anxiety issues as well. Sometimes referred to as reverse-separation anxiety, the parents may be so concerned that their child will leave them someday that they try to control the child's life as much as possible.
  • Stuck in Relationships - another way separation anxiety may manifest itself is in the way adults treat their relationships. Whether romantic, familial, or friend relationships, but also friendships and occasionally familial relationships, many with ASA work to maintain the relationship even when extremely unhealthy (emotionally, physically), out of fear of being alone.
  • Mooching - those that "mooch" off their parents well into adulthood, or those that never seem to leave their friends' homes may be experiencing separation anxiety in some way.

Because there are currently no diagnostic criteria for ASA, the discussion of ways it manifests is purely speculative. Regardless, adult separation anxiety is a genuine problem, and affects the lives of countless adults.

Symptoms of Adult Separation Anxiety

In the discussion of adult separation anxiety, again, due to lack of concrete diagnostic criteria, many look to the symptoms of separation anxiety in children as a way to gain understanding. In children, symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • Distress when attached to a specific figure or figures.
  • Excessive worry about losing these figures.
  • Anxious, "worst case scenario" thinking about separation.
  • Trouble sleeping when away from a specific person.
  • Physical complaints when separation appears imminent.

One might also add the belief that the person cannot live without another person, or that their quality of life will suffer dramatically.

Because adult brains are far more developed than the brains of children, it is likely adult separation anxiety will reveal itself in different ways. Nevertheless, severe distress at the thought of being without someone is very probable to be a central sign of ASA, and some variation of the above list would likely fit into any diagnostic criteria.

How to Stop Adult Separation Anxiety

Because adult separation anxiety is only recently being recognized as a serious mental health problem, approaches to treatment are lacking. Yet there are some treatments that are thought to be potentially beneficial. If you believe you or someone you know has ASA, finding help is important. Once there is an awareness of the problem, identifying treatment is vital.

  • Countering Other Anxiety Treating your anxiety symptoms can be very helpful. Many people with ASA display obsessive thoughts very similar to OCD, and some experience anxiety attacks when left alone. Recognizing the symptoms of other anxiety disorders can be extremely advantageous. Click here to start my anxiety test and see what you can treat (no hyperlink included…..)
  • Childhood Separation Procedures The same treatments that help children with separation anxiety may help adults as well. ASA can benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as systematic desensitization - learning to be alone in a way that is calming and better for mental health. Some medications may also be recommended, and relaxation strategies can be implemented as well.
  • Support Groups Finding support can also be beneficial. Support groups for ASA may be a big help because it provides the person with additional social support beyond the person they're connected to. Often one of the fears is losing that support so that a solid support group may be of assistance.

Clearly, more research on ASA is needed before solid treatment recommendations can be made. Yet, talking to a medical or mental health professional is always a good place to start.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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