What is separation anxiety disorder (SAD)?
Although it’s often associated with young children being separated from their parental figures, adults also experience separation anxiety. Separation anxiety for adults is characterized by the fear that something negative will happen to someone important in their life. Adults can experience significant fear and anxiety if they are separated from their significant attachment figures. Such figures can include romantic partners, family members, children, or even pets. About six percent of adults will experience SAD at some point in their lives, and in a typical year, 1-2 percent of adults will suffer from SAD. (mindyra.com). A general characteristic of separation anxiety in adults is an unhealthy attachment to significant attachment figures.
Separation anxiety disorder falls under the cluster of anxiety disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Other anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and specific phobia. These disorders are characterized primarily by the experience of excessive fear and anxiety, along with behavioral disturbances. The anxiety disorders vary in the target or focus of the fear. Mindyra.com characterizes those with separation anxiety disorder as being“afraid of being away from a certain person, usually because they are afraid that something bad might happen to them or the other person if they are separated.
What does SAD look like?
Separation anxiety in adults manifests differently in different individuals. Some report experiencing groundless fears that loved ones will be abducted or fatally injured (healthline.com). Others may experience an extreme and persistent hesitancy (or even refusal) to leave the proximity of loved ones. They may also find it difficult to sleep away from a loved one for fear that something will happen to that person.
SAD in adults may also appear in some of the following ways, as noted at mindyra.com
- Distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from home or attachment figure(s).
- Worry about losing attachment figure(s) or about possible harm coming to them (for example, from illness, disasters, or death).
- Worry about a negative life event that would separate the individual from the attachment figure(s) (such as being kidnapped or becoming lost).
- Reluctance to leave the home or travel alone because of fears of separation.
- Doesn’t want to be alone, including at home.
- Uncomfortable sleeping away from home, or sleeping at home without an attachment figure close by.
- Nightmares involving themes of separation.
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting), or cardiovascular symptoms (dizziness, lightheadedness) when separated from their attachment figure.
SAD In Adults
For adults, SAD may also result in unhealthy relationship dynamics, including extreme jealousy, overly strict parenting, and being caught in unhealthy relationships (calmclinic.com). Adults with separation anxiety may demonstrate signs of extreme jealousy in relationships due to a fear of being alone or abandoned. .
There is some evidence to suggest that extremely strict and demanding parents exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety disorder. Such parents become preoccupied with the fear that their children will leave them and this leads to overly controlling behavior.
Often, separation anxiety and the fear of being abandoned or alone affect the way adults manage their relationships. Individuals with SAD may work to maintain a romantic, familial, or friend
ly relationship even when the dynamic is extremely emotionally or physically unhealthy.
What causes separation anxiety disorder?
For some adults, SAD may have developed during childhood or as a result of experiences in adolescence/early adulthood (calmclinic.com). The onset of SAD usually occurs during childhood and persists into adulthood stemming from neglect or abuse from a significant attachment figure in the past. Adult-onset of SAD is also possible. Adult separation anxiety sometimes emerges as a result of a major life event stressor such as a move or the loss of a loved one.
How severe can separation anxiety be?
The severity of separation anxiety can vary depending on such factors as attachment styles, anxiety levels, and trauma. SAD can range from mild to severe and can impair an individual’s functioning. In mild cases, the individual may socially withdraw from others, exhibit extreme sadness, or have difficulty concentrating. In some cases, adults may find it difficult to attend or perform well at school or work.
Those with severe levels of SAD may experience depressive symptoms, anxiety, or panic attacks, when away from their significant attachment figures. Separation anxiety may also cause conflict and frustration between the individual and their attachment figures. Attachment figures can feel pressured to comply with the individual’s demands for constant closeness and communication, causing resentment, or a rift in the relationship.
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