Separation Anxiety Disorder in Adults

April 6, 2019
Separation anxiety disorder affects both children and adults. Individuals with other anxiety disorders are at a higher risk of suffering from separation anxiety. The good news is that there are plenty of treatment options for this debilitating condition.

When you hear the term “separation anxiety,” you probably think about children. However, separation anxiety disorder (SAD) can also affect adults.

Separation anxiety is when an individual is afraid of separating from a person, animal, or even an object. As you might imagine, in all cases separation anxiety manifests itself after the separation. Possible symptoms range from nausea and headaches to even a sore throat.

Separation anxiety often occurs in children, especially during the first years of life. Children are still incapable of understanding that when their parents leave, they still exist and will still be in their lives.

It might seem strange that adults would suffer from this disorder, considering that they do understand that people can leave and come back. However, their anxiety comes from the uncertainty of when they will see that person, place, or object again. This uncertainty can be particularly intense in certain situations, like a soldier being deployed to a particularly violent place.

Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder (SAD) in adults

The number one characteristic of separation anxiety disorder in adults is excessive worrying about being alone. But where do you draw the line between the fairly normal concern about loneliness and an anxiety disorder?

A woman crying in someone's arms.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, an individual should be diagnosed with separation anxiety when they show the following symptoms:

  • Excessive anxiety about being separated from a person, animal, or object.
  • Fear of being alone.
  • The very intense need to know where another person is at all times.

In adults, these symptoms can last for six months or more. They can cause significant angst and affect the individual’s social and professional life.

Causes of separation anxiety in adults

Separation anxiety in adults tends to manifest after separating from a person who is near and dear to the individual. On the other hand, separation anxiety can also be related to other kinds of mental problems, such as delirious ideas (psychotic disorders) or fear of change (autism spectrum disorder).

Sometimes, adults with separation anxiety disorder seem controlling or overprotective. However, their actions are often an adult way to express their fear of separation.

Separation anxiety can stem from childhood. More specifically, it can be related to the individual’s first bonds of attachment. It can also stem from later experiences of unexpected and sudden loss. Trauma due to abuse and neglect can cause separation anxiety as well.

Risk factors

Separation anxiety in adults often develops after the loss of a loved one or a big life event. Leaving home to go to college and divorce are two common causes of separation anxiety.

The likelihood that you’ll develop separation anxiety disorder as an adult is much higher if you were diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder as a child. Adults who grew up with authoritarian parents also have a higher risk of developing this type of disorder. Another high-risk population is people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A woman biting her nails.

Psychologists often diagnose separation anxiety disorder (SAD) in adults who have one of the following disorders:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Panic disorder.
  • Social anxiety disorder.
  • Personality disorder.

Treatment options

Some possible treatment options for this disorder include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Group therapy.
  • Family therapy.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy.
  • Drugs such as antidepressants, anxiolytics, or psychotropics.

Qualified professionals are the only ones who can diagnose SAD and prescribe treatment for it. Thus, if you think you or someone you know may be suffering from this disorder, the first step is to make an appointment with a health professional.