What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder? – An Easy Guide

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A distressed girl sitting on the floor by holding hands to her chest - what is Separation Anxiety?
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While at times contributed by guest authors, our content is medically reviewed periodically by professionals for accuracy and relevance. We pride ourselves on our high-quality content and strive towards offering expertise while being authoritative. Our reviewers include doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, and even medical students.

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“I fear getting away from you.”

“I won’t be able to live without you.”

“Please don’t leave me alone, else I’d die.”

“What would I do without you?”

If I were to give all these lines a name, it’d be separation anxiety because these statements are common symptoms of this condition.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Out of different anxieties, this one compels you to get clingy to your parents, children, and family members and makes you feel miserable when they leave you or are about to leave because you don’t want them to go away from your side ever.

In a sophisticated way,

Mayo Clinic explains that “Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for infants and toddlers. Young children often experience a period of separation anxiety, but most children outgrow separation anxiety by about 3 years of age.”

I’m sure you would have experienced this because it’s normal separation anxiety.

A common example is an attachment a child experiences to their mother. They fear and cry to get her to their side and not let her go away by any means.

A mother holding her baby.
By: Hollie Santos on Unsplash

But!

Is Separation Anxiety a Disorder?

This stage is crucial for a child to form a bond with a parental figure or anyone else who is in charge of them so that they can feel more confident and secure in facing the world at developmental age.

It becomes a sign of concern when:

  • The amount of fear or concern heightens.
  • They feel anxious even after the age of 3.
  • They feel insecure within themselves, which means they fear that they can get lost from their family or get in any trouble.
  • They frequently display increased anxiety that interferes with day-to-day life.

People take it for granted and don’t reach the stage of treating it when it becomes a life-affecting disorder.

When this anxiety disorder touches the boundaries of adulthood, it becomes adult separation anxiety disorder and has the same signs found in anxiety in children.

That’s why the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM – 5) has categorized SAD as an anxiety disorder.

Do I have Separation Anxiety Disorder? / Signs

Following are the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder, and a child’s symptoms are almost the same in adults:

  • Feeling excessive fear of separation or losing them.
  • Thinking about the parting situations, especially extreme ones like kidnapping, accident, or even death.
  • Excessive worry about being alone or being left out by them.
  • Overstressing about protecting them.
  • Thinking and dreading too much in your head that they can get harmed or injured.
  • Excessive worry about your well-being that you can get away from them.
  • Living a sheltered life and avoiding social situations.
  • Trouble sleeping alone or away from your parents, partner, or child.
  • Accompanying them everywhere and getting into a zone of excessive worrying when you don’t see them for a while.
  • Repeated nightmares about the same situations of separation or losing your significant figures.
  • Experiencing physical symptoms like nausea, stomach issues, headaches, and panic attack.

How is Separation Anxiety Disorder diagnosed?

A child has to go through about a month of severe anxiety to be diagnosed with the disorder, and this limit is increased to 6 months in adults.

What causes Separation Anxiety Disorder? / Risk Factors

Separation anxiety isn’t just related to the worry of being away from people but anything which matters to you.

Following are some of the reasons that result in forming childhood separation anxiety. These are more or less the same in adults as well.

Parental anxiety

  • If one or both parents have ever struggled with anxiety disorders, their kids are likely to inherit this disorder. Research has indicated that it might be a genetic problem.
  • Also, parents play a crucial role in their child’s normal growth, and if they become easily anxious, kids learn this behavior and continue it in adulthood which gives rise to adult anxiety.
  • Overprotective parents can get in the way of their children becoming self-dependent in their developmental years.

Change in surroundings/Environmental factors

A girl watching a herd.
By: Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

When younger children start school, they feel reluctant to leave their attachment figure and familiar surroundings. Therefore, they make excuses.

If this tendency increases to a greater level of doing any possible thing to avoid new experiences, this might cause worry and amount to anxiety.

Even adults face trouble leaving their partners or kids for studies or work because they get insecure about their well-being.

Traumatic experiences

Incidents like:

  • Accident of a loved one or extended illness.
  • Death of a parent, close friend, family member, or pet.
  • Conflicts between parents or some abuse within the family.
  • Divorce or separation of parents at an early age.
  • Loss of close people due to a disaster.
  • Absence of attachment figures due to which you feel unloved and unworthy.

Can cause you to become prone to separation anxiety disorder.

Alcoholism

According to this article, alcoholic parents are responsible for 14 percent of children with separation anxiety disorder.

Other Anxiety Disorders

Following mental disorders can lead to SAD or can be the sign that you are likely to get affected with separation anxiety –

Agoraphobia

A type of anxiety disorder in which you fear unfamiliar places and situations. You just want to stay home and avoid all social situations or places where you can get panicked.

This phobia includes fear and anxiety and a need to avoid stressful events in anticipation of an unlikely outcome, which relates to separation anxiety.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

OCD doesn’t directly result in separation anxiety, but according to a study, both are interrelated.

While the study indicates that people with OCD have a history of SAD, people with OCD show signs of fear that their attachment figures won’t get any harm from potential dangers. That links to separation anxiety.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks are also related to SAD and can increase its risk.

Unsupportive environment

A sad crying boy.
By: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

People or kids with low self-esteem tend to feel that they aren’t worthy of love and care. This happens due to neglect or unstable parenting.

They develop a fear of abandonment (not a medically proven condition but similar to SAD) as a result, and that leads to abandonment issues which are often confused with separation anxiety.

Abandonment issues only give fear, rejection, and loneliness to a person.

Also, people with anxious attachment styles tend to develop this disorder characterized by excessive clinginess and insecurity.

Suggested Reading: How to Explain Anxiety to Parents in 5 Easy Ways

Codependency

People in a codependent relationship overperform and feel at the mercy of their partners as they dread rejection. These kinds of relationships share the symptoms of SAD, and the same can make way for a codependent relationship. It goes both ways.

What are the chances of having Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Out of many anxiety disorders, separation anxiety is found in half of the patients suffering from mental health. While around 4 percent of children are diagnosed with SAD, about 36 percent of those cases continue in adults without any treatment.

Treatment

Initially, mild anxiety or physical complaints can be cured by family support, but therapy should be considered in the face of anticipated excessive worry.

Let’s cheerfully say goodbye to prevent separation anxiety disorder!

Two girls enjoying travelling under a clear sky.
By: Raphael Rychetsky on Unsplash

What can you do at a personal level?

  • Frequently check in on your kids or partner to know their behavior or whether something is causing them distress. Don’t avoid their concerns and fear; try to understand instead.
  • Conversate with them if you find any anxiety signs, and let them know that you’re always on their side.
  • Practicing separation beforehand or a goodbye ritual to help them prepare for a future departure.
  • Provide your child all the attention, love, and care never to let them fear that they can be rejected.

Professional Help

Following are the methods you can use in the treatment process of severe separation anxiety:

Behavioral therapy

Systematic desensitization and flooding techniques come under behavioral therapy, also known as exposure therapies.

Less anxious participants are treated using a systematic desensitization method. They’re exposed to separation or their fear for a short period, which is gradually increased as per the child’s tolerance.

In the flooding method, participants old enough to join in are suddenly exposed to certain anxiety-involved situations. This technique is beneficial but involves significant distress and can’t be used on small kids.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

This psychotherapy involves patients learning and skilfully coping with their anxiety in a most helpful manner.

They are assessed by a mental health expert or child psychiatrist for which situations trigger anxiety and to which extent and treated accordingly. This is used on grown-ups and adults who can actively participate in this therapy.

Medications

Antidepressants can work to lessen anxiety but have side effects as well. So, they should strictly be taken on the prescription of a qualified mental health professional.

Final Words

The commonness of SAD (which occurs equally in men and women) makes it evident that everyone faces it. But to stop it from developing into a disorder, you’ll have to notice early signs and head towards early treatment.

Separation anxiety disorder can be effectively treated by applying the necessary measures in your relationships and setting boundaries.

While at times contributed by guest authors, our content is medically reviewed periodically by professionals for accuracy and relevance. We pride ourselves on our high-quality content and strive towards offering expertise while being authoritative. Our reviewers include doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, and even medical students. -----------------------------------

Any information found on the site does not constitute legal or medical advice. Should you face health issues, please visit your doctor to get yourself diagnosed. Icy Health offers expert opinions and advice for informational purposes only. This is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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