Adult Separation Anxiety

It feels good to be with the ones we love, and we feel sadder when they are away from us. That’s perfectly normal.

We might worry about their welfare and feel a little anxious without their company and support – that would be normal as well. But for some people that Separation Anxiety climbs right off the scale and it makes life an agony. A person with Separation Anxiety needs the constant reassurance of someone’s presence. It’s usually someone like their partner or child but the anxiety can also be related to a much-loved pet.

They intensely dread that that person will leave and will sometimes invest a lot of energy into preventing them from doing so. When the other person does leave, someone with Separation Anxiety can be distraught, wracked with fears about that person’s safety or their own safety, or with doubts about whether they will ever return.  Sometimes they need to know where someone is all the time that they are apart.  The anxiety can manifest itself in physical symptoms such as headaches, sore throats and nausea. It can be a truly tormenting and a genuine mental health problem.

As is true with many phobias, Separation Anxiety is resistant to logic: everyone around them can see the fear is irrational but, despite their reassurances, the emotions can still surge. Friends, family and others may not understand and may not be sympathetic. “This is silly!”  What seems silly to the onlooker is the sufferer’s reality. They will accuse them of being manipulative, clingy, mistrustful, controlling and overprotective. They will urge them to ‘cut the apron strings’ and not to be a ‘helicopter parent’. These people may be observing correctly but they are interpreting wrongly. They do not recognize that these behaviours stem from anxiety rather than from a need to control.

It was thought Separation Anxiety was just a childhood problem but it is now recognized as being a real issue for some adults as well.  Like many mental health issues, Separation Anxiety often arrives as part of a package: very frequently sufferers have other anxiety issues, OCD, phobias and other mental health challenges. It affects women more frequently than men, and commonly they have experienced trauma or abandonment in their childhood.    

Adult Separation Anxiety can be triggered by a divorce or a child leaving home, and typically lasts six months or longer.

Anti-anxiety medication does provide relief from the symptoms but, as is nearly always the case with this type of medication, it is best used only for a short period of time. That time though, can be a useful window of opportunity to start therapy to deal with the cause.   A person’s Separation Anxiety probably does not have much to do with the person or animal their anxiety has focused on. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been shown to be very effective in treating anxiety.

As well as being awful for the person with the anxiety, this problem can be very hard on the person being fixated on. Both of them need lots of sympathetic support.