Separation Anxiety In Adults (Causes, Diagnosis & How To Cope)

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Sad woman holding phone in bed (caption: separation anxiety in adults)Often heard is the term “separation anxiety” when used in reference to children and pets, but seldom do we ever hear about adults who suffer from this debilitating psychological condition.

Important Note: The data referenced throughout comes from the findings of research done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. They published a report in 2007 and this article was originally published shortly after. While most of the symptoms and treatments for anxiety in adults and children remain true to this day, some of the historical statistics in terms of demographics may be outdated.

Article Overview

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is most commonly recognized as a juvenile disorder in which children experience signs of anxiety when separated from their primary caregiver.

In more recent times however, adults have become increasingly diagnosed with adult separation anxiety. Adult separation anxiety is much the same as the disorder as that faced by children. However, the primary caregiver can be any major attachment figure in the adults’ life. Most often these attachment figures include spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, siblings and or friends.

Children who experience separation anxiety during their juvenile years very often go on to live their adult lives anxiety free. Conversely children who do not experience separation anxiety during their childhood still have the potential to develop this disorder during their adult years.

Statistics

According to the statistics, it is estimated that around 6.6 percent of the adult American population will experience adult separation anxiety during their lifetime – an amazing 20,207,408 adults. What seems strange when looking at these figures is comparing them to the rates of childhood separation anxiety. It is believed that only 4.1 percent of children within the American population will experience separation anxiety during their lifetime.

So in terms of the statistics, separation anxiety seems to be more common among American adults than it is among American children. It is believed that around 77 percent of adults suffering from adult separation anxiety experienced their first symptoms during adulthood.

What Are The Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety In Children?

Before taking a look at the symptoms of separation anxiety in adults, let us first look at the symptoms that appear in the more commonly studied manifestation of this disorder – children.

Children with separation anxiety may exhibit any of the following symptoms:

  • Extreme distress when separated from their primary caregiver
  • Reluctance to do anything that involves being apart from their primary caregiver
  • Nightmares
  • Constant worry that something will happen to their primary caregiver
  • Inability to go to sleep without the figure of attachment close by
  • Physical complaints that would result in the child not having to separate from their primary caregiver

What Are The Symptoms of Adult Separation Anxiety?

The symptoms listed above that are often studied extensively in children are also commonly seen in adults with separation anxiety. Many times adults may label these feelings as mere generalized anxiety rather than being able to pinpoint them as being related to separation anxiety.

Some of the symptoms common in adults with separation anxiety include:

  • Extreme fear or anxiety when asked to do things alone or be separated from their attachment figure
  • Avoidance of being alone in any circumstance
  • Fear that the one they are most attached to will leave them or be harmed in some way

How Does It Differ In Children And Adults?

Separation Anxiety In Children

Sad child on playgroundThe symptoms of separation anxiety in children and in adults may appear to be the same; however, there is quite a difference between the two. To begin with, these two manifestations of similar symptoms actually go by different names. Children who experience these symptoms are referred to as undergoing separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is seen as a normal stage in the development of a healthy child, almost all children will go through this phase at around eight months old. Separation anxiety in children appears to increase in severity until around fifteen months of age at which point the symptoms begin to dwindle.

This video from the Parent Channel explains more and shows some examples of children with separation anxiety.

Separation Anxiety Disorder In Adults

Sad Woman staring out windowAdults who experience the symptoms of separation anxiety are referred to as being affected by separation anxiety disorder; this is not a healthy phase in the development of the average human adult. Where for the child with separation anxiety, the disorder is something of a preserved behavior that enforces the bond between a child and its primary caregiver as is needed for survival; this is not the case in adults.

It is believed however, that the formation of adult separation anxiety disorder is growing in diagnosis as the importance of being in attached relationships during adulthood is increasingly emphasized.

Adult Demographics

When Does Separation Anxiety Disorder Begin To Show In Adults?

Current studies have found that specific age ranges seem to be more prevalent for the onset of adult separation anxiety disorder. Adults that experience this disorder are most often between the ages of thirty and forty-four. The second most common age group for diagnosis of adult separation anxiety disorder is adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine.

Adults aged forty-five to fifty-nine years old are less likely than their younger peers to experience this debilitating disorder. Finally, diagnosis of adult separation anxiety disorder in adults aged sixty and over is relatively uncommon in comparison to other adult age groups.

Men Versus Women

Research has found that significantly more women than men suffer from adult separation anxiety disorder. While more women than men suffer from this disorder, it has been found that more men are likely to have their first onset of separation anxiety during adulthood.

It has also been found that separation anxiety, whether juvenile or adult in nature tends to run in families. The majority of children who experienced the disorder in childhood had one parent who suffered from the adult variation of the same disorder.

Marital Status

A couple fightingInteresting research has also been conducted to analyze the marital status of those who suffer from separation anxiety. It has been found that those who suffer from any type of separation anxiety disorder are less likely to be married than those who have not experienced this disorder. Researchers believe that this indicates a correlation between childhood separation anxiety and bachelorhood or spinsterhood.

For those who have experienced some type of separation anxiety and still go on to marry, research suggests that their marriage will be an unstable one. According to the data discovered so far, individuals who are separated, widowed or divorced are most likely to suffer from adult separation anxiety disorder or ASAD.

The second most common relationship status among those who have ASAD IS to never have married. The least common relationship status found in those with ASAD is married or cohabiting with their partner.

Education

Researchers have been analyzing many factors when it comes to how they play into adult separation anxiety disorder. In addition to sex and marital status, education level has also been shown to play a significant role in the lack of diagnosis of this disorder.

Those with the least formal education (measured as 0 to 11 years of education) appear to be the most likely to have this separation disorder. Those with 12 years of education rank as the second most likely to have ASAD. Those with 13 to 15 years of education are significantly less likely to display with this disorder and those with 16+ years of formal education are least likely to have ASAD.

Employment

Because of the very nature of adult separation anxiety disorder, employment is another area of life that intrigues researchers of this disorder. Unfortunately, this research is often the case of the chicken before the egg or the egg before the chicken, it is not known whether employment status is caused by the ASAD or whether the ASAD was caused by the employment status.

In either case, the employment findings are as follows: the majority of individuals diagnosed with ASAD are unemployed or are working in non-traditional employment opportunities. The second most likely employment status for those with ASAD is being employed, the third is working as a homemaker and the least likely employment statuses are retired and working as a student.

Diagnosing Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder

Man looking in the mirrorA diagnosis of adult separation anxiety disorder can be difficult to make since it is a relatively new category of anxiety disorder. For the purpose of diagnosing this disorder in adults, mental health professionals turn to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) utilized by the mental health community does not currently have a specific set of criteria for the adult version of separation anxiety disorder and as a result they turn to the diagnosis criteria for separation anxiety disorder instead.

The diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety disorder as per the Diagnostic and Statistical manual IV TR is as follows:

A. Developmentally inappropriate and excessive anxiety concerning separation from home or from those to whom the individual is attached, as evidenced by three (or more) of the following:

  1. Recurrent excessive distress when separation from home or major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated
  2. Persistent and excessive worry about losing, or about possible harm befalling, major attachment figures
  3. Persistent and excessive worry that an untoward event will lead to separation from a major attachment figure (e.g., getting lost or being kidnapped)
  4. Persistent reluctance or refusal to go to school or elsewhere because of fear of separation
  5. Persistently and excessively fearful or reluctant to be alone or without major attachment figures at home or without significant adults in other settings
  6. Persistent reluctance or refusal to go to sleep without being near a major attachment figure or to sleep away from home
  7. Repeated nightmares involving the theme of separation
  8. Repeated complaints of physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomach aches, nausea, or vomiting) when separation from major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated

B. The duration of the disturbance is at least 4 weeks

C. The onset is before age 18 years

D. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, academic (occupational), or other important areas of functioning

E. The disturbance does not occur exclusively during the course of a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Schizophrenia, or other Psychotic Disorder and, in adolescents and adults, is not better accounted for by Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia

Referenced from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth Edition. Copyright 1994 American Psychiatric Association

What Is Life Like For An Adult With Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Sad person's legs black and whiteDescribing life as an adult with adult separation anxiety disorder can be particularly difficult because of the extent of emotion that these individuals undergo. Not only does this disorder devastate the lives of those who have been diagnosed, but it also tears apart their relationships and takes a toll on the lives of those around them as well.

Someone suffering from ASAD lives their life on edge, constantly worrying about being alone and losing the one that they love. As nightmares take over an inability or unwillingness to sleep in combination with general anxiety will lead to exhaustion which in turn leads to a lack of functioning.

Individuals with ASAD feel trapped and often feel as though they are unable to do something, anything, until they have reconnected with their figure of attachment. Living with ASAD is exhausting and draining and often these individuals feel helpless as well as overwhelmed with their own level of being needy.

What’s It Like Living With An Adult That Suffers?

Being the loved one of someone with adult separation anxiety disorder can be just as exhausting as being the individual with the disorder. There is a constant demand for your attention that cannot be calmed or satisfied and often times it will feel as though there is no escape. Even the shortest respite from the clinginess of a loved one with ASAD will be interrupted by vies for your attention through text messages and phone calls.

Unfortunately, living with and loving someone with adult separation anxiety can be so taxing that relationships soon begin to break down. It is important for every relationship in which one or both persons have a diagnosis of ASAD that each person have their own support system.

Support systems should always include a licensed professional who is able to work with the individual with ASAD to develop coping tools to reduce their burden upon their loved one. It is also important for each person in the relationship to have their own support system of family and friends.

Not Always A Solo Diagnosis

Purple brainThose individuals diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder more often than not also present with a second psychological disorder or at least a cluster of symptoms that fit the diagnostic criteria for a second disorder. Most common among those with ASAD are mood disorders and anxiety disorders.

It is also believed that individuals with a diagnosis of ASAD are three times more likely than those without the disorder to become addicted to illegal drugs. These individuals are also five times more likely than those without ASAD to have an anxiety disorder and four times more likely to have a mood disorder. One of the biggest questions to date in the psychiatric community in regards to the diagnosis of ASAD is whether or not the varying other psychological disorders often seen with ASAD precede or follow the ASAD diagnosis.

How Is Adult Separation Anxiety Treated?

Unfortunately for those who have been diagnosed with adult separation anxiety and for those living with those diagnosed, there have been no treatments targeted towards ASAD. Since adult separation anxiety is a relatively new diagnosis in the psychological community, not enough research has been conducted in reference to treating the adult variety of this anxiety disorder.

Simply because there is not a specific “cure” for those with ASAD however, does not mean that there are not options. It is imperative for those with a diagnosis of ASAD to first get themselves a psychologist in addition to psychiatrist in order to help themselves find a way of coping with this disorder.

How Can A Psychologist Help With Treatment?

Online Doctor on computer screenWhere psychologists do not focus their attention on the prescription of medications to treat symptoms, they do focus on teaching coping skills. Coping skills are one of the biggest components in being able to build a functional life with healthy relationships despite an ASAD diagnosis. Therapy with a psychologist will allow those with ASAD to learn how to cope with their feelings and how to break free from unhealthy habits that make others feel overwhelmed.

How Can A Psychiatrist Help?

Where psychologists are unable to prescribe medications to help those with ASAD to manage their symptoms, psychiatrists do have that ability. While there are no drugs at the moment designed to target separation anxiety in adults, there are many generalized anxiety medications that are designed to help individuals cope with their high anxiety levels.

What Is the Future Of Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder?

With more people in the medical community recognizing adult separation anxiety disorder the future of treatment for this disorder looks bright. It is the hope of the ASAD community that as research into this disabling condition continues a better understanding will lead to the development of more targeted treatment plans.

Until such a day comes however, the best that the psychological community can offer is combination treatment plans. The current “best treatment” offered to those diagnosed with ASAD is the same treatment plan being offered to those with generalized anxiety disorders. A combination of talk therapy and medication therapy is the most utilized answer to ASAD at the moment.

Talk therapy gives those diagnosed the ability to discover why they have such difficulty with attachment and how they can correct their behavioral and thought patterns. Medication therapy gives those diagnosed with ASAD the ability to overcome some of their most crippling symptoms to try and make those bigger changes suggested through talk therapy. All in all the future of ASAD therapy looks bright, but for now, patients must make do with a generalized treatment.

In any case, we encourage anyone who is suffering from ASAD to seek treatment to help them on the path to recovery.

Additional Resources

Learn more about human psychology and mental health conditions including dissociative personality disorder and addictive personality disorder.

Do you or someone you know suffer from separation anxiety?

About The Author:

Amy grew up in England and in the early 1990's moved to North Carolina where she completed a bachelors degree in Psychology in 2001. Amy's personal interest in writing was sparked by her love of reading fiction and her creative writing hobby. Amy is currently self employed as a freelance writer and web designer. When she is not working Amy can be found curled up with a good book and her black Labrador, Jet.

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