Signs & Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that involves intense and excessive anxiety and fear of being separated from a loved one or ones. The distress experienced by people who are struggling with this disorder often causes a great deal of disruption in their lives and an overall decline in daily functioning. Examples of fears that trigger this form of anxiety can include:

  • The possibility of being separated from a loved one
  • Ongoing worry that a loved one may suddenly die
  • Panic that a loved one will get lost
  • Concern that a loved one will be kidnapped
  • Trepidation that a loved one will get hurt
  • Anxiety that a loved one will become ill

Adults who are suffering from separation anxiety disorder often place their focus on the health, wellbeing, and safety of their children, significant other, or another person with whom there is a strong attachment. Cornerstone to this illness, however, is that the focus placed on another person or persons is distressing and leads to a number of adverse effects. Adults with separation anxiety disorder may constantly check on the whereabouts of loved ones, be overly protective of children (regardless of the child’s age), or refuse to be alone. Additionally, adults with this condition may report physical pain in the event separation from a loved one is imminent, develop another mental illness if symptoms of this disorder persist, and experience discord among loved ones if appropriate care is not sought. Fortunately, there are treatment options available that can alleviate symptoms, restore functioning, and help these individuals form healthy relationships with loved ones without the distressing symptoms of separation anxiety disorder.

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Statistics

Studies have determined that separation anxiety disorder is a disorder that typically begins during childhood, yet its symptoms can carry over into adulthood. Researchers estimate that nearly 1% to 2% of adults struggle with this form of anxiety. Experts also believe that this mental health condition affects more women than men.

Causes and Risk Factors for Separation Anxiety Disorder

Professionals in the field have yet to conclude a single identifiable cause for separation anxiety disorder. However, most in the field of mental health believe that the development of this disorder occurs when certain genetic, physiological, and environmental factors are working together. Additionally, research has concluded that there are some additional risk factors that can make a person more susceptible to developing this form of anxiety. Consider the following explanations:

Genetic: Research has found that 73% of individuals who meet diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety disorder have a family history of this mental health condition. Because of this link between family members who suffer from the same mental illness, it can be deduced that separation anxiety disorder can, in fact, be inherited. This case is especially true for individuals with a first-degree relative who have a history of this mental illness.

Physical: As with other anxiety disorders, those who are suffering from separation anxiety disorder have been found to have certain chemical imbalances in their brains. Specifically, neurotransmitters that are responsible for regulating mood and impulses are often not regulated in the brains of these individuals and can lead to the onset of anxiety symptoms. When these chemicals are not balanced, a person’s ability to respond to stress is hindered and can cause an exacerbated startle response to minor triggers or to perceived fear or danger.

Environmental: Experiencing an abrupt life stressor in which a person is separated from his or her child, significant other, or other loved one as a result can ultimately lead to the development of separation anxiety disorder. Examples of life stressors that can trigger this form of anxiety include the unexpected death of loved one, experiencing a disaster in which one is separated from loved ones, and having a personal history of forced separation from primary caregivers during childhood. Lastly, it has been found that those with a history of codependent relationships that are romantic in nature can lead to the onset of symptoms if an individual is not able to adjust when he or she is not around his or her partner.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Having a family history of separation anxiety disorder or other mental health condition
  • Personal history of another mental health condition
  • Experiencing the loss of a loved one
  • Experiencing an abrupt major life change in which one is separated from a loved one
  • Being in an unhealthy, codependent, romantic relationship

Signs and Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder

While the onset of separation anxiety disorder symptoms typically manifests during childhood, there are a number of signs that can infer that an adult is suffering from this mental health condition. Consider the following behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms when trying to deduce if you or a loved one is battling this distressing form of anxiety:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Frequently checking up on the whereabouts of children, significant other, or other loved one
  • Refusing to leave home
  • Missing work
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Refusing to sleep without or when away from children, significant other, or other loved one
  • Avoiding travel
  • Ritualistic or repetitive behaviors
  • Cyclical thinking
  • Pacing
  • Restlessness

Physical symptoms:

  • Labored breathing
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Stomachaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Frequent urination due to pervasive nervousness
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle tension
  • Disturbed sleep
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Appetite changes
  • Profuse sweating

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Nightmares
  • Impaired memory
  • Compulsions
  • Ritualistic thinking
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Lack of concentration
  • Inability to focus on tasks

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Guilty feelings
  • Shame
  • Irritability
  • Derealization
  • Ongoing feelings of nervousness
  • Agitation
  • Elevated levels of anxiety
  • Intense and excessive fear
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Separation Anxiety Disorder

Someone grappling with the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder should seek treatment immediately as there are a number of adverse effects that are likely to occur. Seeking effective and appropriate treatment can significantly reduce a person’s chances of experiencing the following outcomes:

  • Social isolation
  • Inability to maintain employment
  • Financial problems
  • Increased conflict in interpersonal relationships
  • Development of another mental health condition
  • Development of a substance abuse problem or addiction
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

When an adult is suffering from separation anxiety disorder, it is common for that individual to also suffer from another mental health condition. The following psychiatric disorders are known to occur alongside this form of anxiety:

  • Specific phobias
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
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