Separation Anxiety: Can It Affect Adults?

As suggested by the name, separation anxiety is the fear of being separated from a loved one. It is normally experienced by infants and toddlers during instances when their parents are not near them. At this age, however, such feelings are completely normal.

“Between six months and three years old, some nervousness when you’re apart from loved ones is natural, and it actually shows good emotional and social attachment of the child to caregivers and other important adult figures,” said Judy Ho, Ph.D., a clinical and forensic psychologist in California.

But sometimes, this anxiety shows no signs of fading even as the child gets older. When short periods of separation are unbearable, affecting daily life and emotional well-being, the child may be suffering from an anxiety disorder — in this case, a condition known as separation anxiety disorder or SAD.

Often, the affected children are unable to function comfortably at school as a result of being separated from their loved ones back home. While this is often with regards to their parents, it could involve any significant “caretaker” figure in their lives such as a grandparent or nanny.

Among the various symptoms, patients typically report a prolonged and unwarranted worry about losing their loved one when separated. For example, he or she may constantly worry about their parent dying in an accident or being kidnapped though there is no real reason to suspect these scenarios happening.

The distress may be so intense that it could manifest into nightmares and physical symptoms including headaches, nausea, stomach aches, and insomnia. While SAD was believed to affect children in most cases, teenagers and adults may also be vulnerable to these symptoms. 

While childhood SAD is certainly a risk factor, stressful experiences (say, a natural disaster or an unexpected death of someone close) could be a trigger which is unrelated to genetics. 

“Significant life transitions such as moving away to college or having a child can trigger adult separation anxiety, particularly for those who have an underlying anxiety disorder,” said Allison Forti, Ph.D., of Wake Forest University, North Carolina.

Just as academic functioning may suffer in children, adults with SAD may experience significant problems at work. Their behavior can also have a negative effect on their attachment figure. A parent may exhibit an extreme version of “helicopter parenting” through excessive monitoring, causing the child to become stressed out as well.

If you suspect that you or your child may suffer from SAD, seek diagnosis and treatment from a professional as soon as possible. Cognitive behavioral therapy, according to Ho, is one of the evidence-based treatment options. In some cases, medication may also be prescribed to ease anxiety.

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