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Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is a form of anxiety that occurs when a person is separated from someone else, such as a family member or other loved one. It’s common in children, who often feel anxious when they’re separated from a parent.
Although separation anxiety is typically associated with children, it can also affect adults. If you have separation anxiety, you might feel uncomfortable, fearful or even sad whenever you spend time away from a certain person.
Like other forms of anxiety, separation anxiety is treatable, usually with medication, therapy or a combination of different approaches.
Below, we’ve explained what separation anxiety is, as well as the symptoms you might notice if you have this form of anxiety.
We’ve also discussed what you can do to get professional help for separation anxiety and other common anxiety disorders.
Separation anxiety is a term that’s used to refer to severe or exaggerated anxiety that develops when you’re separated from a specific person, called an attachment figure.
If you have separation anxiety disorder, you might feel distressed or anxious when the person to whom you're attached leaves. Things that are normally relatively easy, such as concentrating on work or socializing with other people, might feel more difficult than normal.
Separation anxiety disorder often occurs in children. In fact, it’s one of the most common anxiety disorders during childhood. Most of the time, it peaks at around three years of age, then slowly becomes less severe as children grow older and more autonomous.
When separation anxiety disorder happens in adults, it’s called adult separation anxiety disorder (ASAD). Adult separation anxiety disorder is common, with a lifetime prevalence of 6.6 percent in the United States.
Like other anxiety disorders, separation anxiety can develop at any age. In adults, the average age of onset for separation anxiety disorder is approximately 23 years.
While it’s normal to experience some anxiety or sadness when you’re away from a person you care about, people with separation anxiety may have severe, overwhelming anxiety when their loved ones aren’t around.
Symptoms of separation anxiety include:
Anxiety about losing an attachment figure, such as a partner or loved one
Excessive worry about an attachment figure being harmed
Persistent worry about an unfortunate event causing separation
Poor concentration and work/academic performance
Fear of kidnapping, being left alone or becoming lost
Nightmares that involve themes of separation
Refusing to leave the attachment figure to go to other places
Social isolation and/or a reduced level of interest in socializing with others
Poor concentration and workplace or academic performance
Some people affected by separation anxiety disorder also experience somatic symptoms, such as asthma, nausea, headaches, stomach discomfort, vomiting, rapid heart rate, chest pain and shortness of breath.
The precise symptoms of separation anxiety disorder can vary from person to person. You may have some of the symptoms above that occur every time you’re separated from an attachment figure, or a mix of symptoms that occur inconsistently.
In children, these symptoms usually develop around a parent. In adults, separation anxiety can often develop when a person is separated from their child or partner.
In order to be diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder, you’ll generally need to have at least three symptoms that occur for four weeks or longer and significantly impair your academic, workplace and social functioning.
These symptoms also need to be best explained by separation from a certain person or people, rather than by another potential cause.
Research suggests that a mix of genetic and environmental factors all play a role in separation anxiety disorder.
When separation anxiety develops during childhood, it may be caused by the loss of a parent, long-term parental absence, parental conflict, parental alcoholism or parenting styles that stop children from developing autonomy.
Factors such as being raised in foster care, adopted or constantly relocating due to a parent’s career may also contribute to separation anxiety.
Some risk factors for other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder, may also play a role in separation anxiety.
Common risk factors for anxiety include:
Early exposure to stressful, traumatic or negative life events
A family history of anxiety or other mental disorders
Certain childhood traits, such as shyness and/or behavioral inhibition
Physical conditions, such as heart arrhythmias or thyroid disorders
Use of certain medications and stimulants, including caffeine
Our guide to the causes of anxiety provides more information about these risk factors and their impact on common anxiety disorders.
Interestingly, adult separation anxiety disorder may itself be a risk factor for other mental health conditions. People with separation anxiety disorder may be more likely to develop:
Other anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, social anxiety disorder (social phobia) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Depressive disorders, such as major depressive disorder, and related conditions, such as bipolar disorder.
Alcohol use disorder.
It’s also common for people with separation anxiety disorder to suffer from more than one mood or anxiety disorder.
Separation anxiety can take a serious toll on your personal wellbeing. Luckily, like other anxiety disorders, it’s often treatable using behavioral therapy, lifestyle changes and anxiety medication to control your symptoms.
If you think you may have adult separation anxiety disorder, it’s best to talk to a licensed mental health professional.
You can do this by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, reaching out to a local psychiatrist or psychologist, or from home using our online psychiatry services.
Your mental health provider may ask you a series of questions to learn more about your anxiety symptoms. They may use a diagnostic tool such as the Separation Anxiety Avoidance Inventory (SAAI) to achieve a more accurate diagnosis.
When separation anxiety occurs in children and adults, it often improves with talk therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Cognitive behavioral therapy involves identifying the faulty patterns of thinking that cause you to feel anxious, then developing new techniques to prevent these thought patterns from interfering with your emotions and behavior.
Our guide to therapy for anxiety explains how these therapy techniques work and provides more information on what to expect from the therapeutic process.
Many anxiety disorders are treated using medication, including antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Your mental health provider may prescribe medication if therapy alone isn’t fully effective at improving your symptoms.
Research shows that a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most effective treatment for anxiety.
SSRIs can take several weeks to start working, meaning it’s important to give them time to work before assessing their effects. You may need to try several SSRIs before finding a medication that works well for you.
Other medications for anxiety, such as benzodiazepines, may also be used to treat separation anxiety disorder in certain circumstances.
Although there’s limited scientific research on the effects of your lifestyle on separation anxiety, most types of anxiety improve with certain habits. Try the following habits and lifestyle changes to reduce the severity of your anxiety:
Exercise regularly. Exercise can reduce stress and make the symptoms of anxiety easier to manage. It can also distract you from the thoughts and feelings that cause you to feel anxious in the first place.Try to keep yourself active by exercising regularly. Even a short walk around your local area can help to clear your mind and reduce feelings of anxiety.
Take part in a support group. Meeting with a support group locally or taking part in an online support group can help you to learn relaxation strategies and techniques for dealing with your anxiety.
Try mindfulness meditation. Research shows that meditation can improve anxiety and depression symptoms. Try to set aside time to meditate each day, or use meditation as needed to calm your mind and deal with separation anxiety.
Our guide to coping with anxiety shares other techniques that you can use to control worry and prevent feelings of anxiety from affecting your daily life.
As an adult, separation anxiety can have a serious impact on your relationships, wellbeing and overall quality of life.
Whether your separation anxiety develops as a child or starts in adulthood, it’s important to get help when it begins to have a negative impact on your mental health. Our online mental health services allow you to connect with licensed providers from your home for therapy and care.
You can also learn more about dealing with excessive anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness using our free online mental health resources and content.
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