Do you remember feeling fearful when you had to say goodbye to your parent or caregiver for the first time? Separation anxiety is a common experience in childhood and is considered normal between the ages of six months and three years (Jegg, 2017). But what happens when fears of separation persist as we grow older?
Separation anxiety can also be a serious mental health concern in adulthood. While the signs and symptoms may look different, the basis for separation-related fears is similar in children and adults. As we know, childhood fears do not always disappear as we age. Our primary fears and attachments styles are established in childhood. When primary bonds prove to be insecure or unstable, people may develop anxiety disorders with separation fears at the center (Manicavasagar et al., 2000).
The relationship between childhood separation anxiety and other anxiety disorders is not well defined in current research. There is a lack of longitudinal research that follows participants throughout their lives. This type of research is necessary to better understand how separation anxiety and other anxiety disorders develop as we age (Bogels, Knappe & Clark, 2013). Nevertheless, separation anxiety is a diagnosable disorder that can be as debilitating for adults as it is for children.
Disclaimer: If you identify with most of these signs, we advise that you seek help from a mental health professional. This article is intended for educational purposes and not in the interest of self-diagnosis.
Here are 5 signs that an adult may be dealing with separation anxiety:
- You have unfounded fears about your loved one
In separation anxiety, we fear not only how we will cope without our primary attachment figure but also what will happen to them when you are apart. Just like any other form of anxiety, our thoughts might spiral into worst-case scenarios.
These worst-case scenarios could include fears that our loved one will get lost, be abducted, or become fatally injured. While these fears may not be based on any probable reality, they can feel real for those struggling from this disorder. These fears can lead to feelings of helplessness or panic when loved ones are out of reach (Jegg, 2017).
- You avoid going to new places without a loved one
The presence of a loved one often signifies a sense of security or safety. Without this safety net, feelings of anxiety and fear can prevent those with separation anxiety from trying new things or going to new places on their own (Anxiety Canada, 2019).
Separation anxiety might masquerade as social anxiety. For example, we may see social anxiety as the culprit when our friends or family withdraw to text someone else or avoid going to social events. Those with separation anxiety may not fear socializing or working itself, but the implications of separation from a loved one that is required.
- You are reluctant about applying for a new job or seeking a promotion
Getting a promotion might require us to work long hours away from a primary attachment figure. We might even need to travel without our primary attachment figure to a work conference or a new job. The fears associated with leaving a primary attachment figure can be enough to stop someone from advancing in their career.
Separation fears can be extremely debilitating and even embarrassing. We tend to label those who depend on their significant other as “clingy” or “needy.” This judgment can produce feelings of shame. You can imagine how embarrassing it might be to explain to your co-workers or boss the reality of your separation anxiety.
- You frequently miss work
Separation anxiety can cause a strain not only on your relationships but to your work life. You can be proficient at your job and still find it difficult to focus when preoccupied with separation-related fears or anxiety.
Work can require us to be apart from a loved one for long periods of time. This can be excruciating if your anxiety introduces fears about the whereabouts or well-being of a loved one while you are apart. You may even feel the need to spend more time away from work to control the fearful feelings or to ensure your loved one is safe.
- You struggle to gain a sense of independence
Imagine always being afraid of experiencing new things without a loved one. It can be difficult to establish an identity or sense of independence without these experiences. This is especially true for women.
Women tend to base their personalities on relationships more than men do. Traditional gender roles also task women with nurturing young children and providing emotional security to them. Women tend to bear the brunt of anxiety or guilt when it comes to being separated from their children. Unsurprisingly, women also consistently report higher levels of separation anxiety in childhood, and panic disorder or agoraphobia in early adulthood (Manicavasagar et al., 2000).
- You have trouble making friends beyond your primary attachment figure
The bond we have with a primary attachment figure is a defining one, even if it is unhealthy. Intense fears about being separated can prevent us from making other friends. You may have even lost friendships outside of a primary attachment figure in the past. Think back to the childhood example. If you never experienced being apart from a parent for the first time, you wouldn’t have been able to establish new bonds at school or other settings.
Trauma and loss are considered risk factors when it comes to developing separation anxiety. This makes sense as profound loss can cripple us from starting new relationships. Grief can also create persistent fears that those we grow close to will leave.
You may also find it hard to make new friends because you were never taught that separation is necessary and healthy for development. For example, if you grew up with overbearing parents, it was probably rare that you had opportunities to go out on your own. Parenting styles that involve overprotection or intrusiveness tend to also be related to anxiety disorders that pass on from generation to generation (Bogels, Knappe, & Clark, 2013).
While it is unclear whether adult separation anxiety always starts in childhood, there is a clear parallel between childhood fears and adult anxiety. Separation anxiety often co-exists with other anxiety disorders which can make it challenging to see separation anxiety as a distinct diagnosis with a unique blend of genetic and environmental features.
Being as this condition is emphasized in childhood, adults may face social stigma when they struggle with separation-related anxiety. However, just like other anxiety disorders, there are treatment options available to help us unpack our fears and manage our symptoms.
Anxiety Canada. (2019, Feb 19). Separation anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.anxietycanada.com/disorders/separation-anxiety/
Bogels, M. S., Knappe, S., & Clark, L. (2013). Adult separation anxiety disorder in DSM-5. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 663-674.
Jegg, L. T. (2017). What is separation anxiety disorders in adults? Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/separation-anxiety-in-adults#outlook
Manicavasagar, V., Silove, D., Curtis, J., & Wagner, R. (2000). Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 14 (1), 1-18.
Silove, D., Manicavasagar, V., O’Connell, D., & Morris-Yates, A. (1995) Genetic factors in early separation anxiety: Implications for the genesis of adult anxiety disorders. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 92,17-24.