Key Takeaways

  • People who have separation anxiety disorder experience fear or distress when separated from their attachment figure. 
  • Although most commonly diagnosed in children, separation anxiety disorder can also affect adults and limit their daily functioning in a variety of ways.
  • Common causes of adult separation anxiety disorder include life transitions, insecure attachment styles, and a genetic predisposition.

We often think of separation anxiety as an issue between children and their caregivers, but adults can also experience separation anxiety disorder. With adults, separation anxiety disorder involves an excessive fear of being away from their attachment figure, who can be any close relationship such as their child, romantic partner, or parent. 

An attachment figure is a person with whom someone has formed a strong bond and provides a sense of security. For a person experiencing separation anxiety, being without their attachment figure can provoke feelings of fear and distress. 

Separation anxiety is treatable. Finding support for the disorder can lead to more fulfilling relationships and help prevent additional mental health issues.


What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety disorder is a type of anxiety disorder defined by excessive fear or anxiety about being separated from a person’s attachment figure. Separation anxiety is not simply wanting to spend quality time with loved ones or preferring to stay home rather than go out. Rather, it’s extreme distress over being separated and may include persistent worry that something might happen to your attachment figure and a fixation on finding ways to remain close to them. Adults with separation anxiety may persistently call, text, or use other technological means to communicate with their attachment figure in an attempt to relieve their anxiety.

Separation anxiety can interfere with your quality of life, affecting everything from your performance at work or school to your ability to make and maintain friendships outside of your primary attachment figure. Separation anxiety disorder can also take a toll on your independence, affecting your willingness to take vacations, accept promotions, and explore new hobbies. 

Research suggests that between 4 and 6% of adults in the U.S. experience adult separation anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. And 75% of adults developed the condition as adults, not during childhood. 

Although separation anxiety disorder is primarily diagnosed in children, the condition and its symptoms can be just as problematic for adults. 


What are signs of separation anxiety in adults?

The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual for mental health conditions is called the DSM-5. It states that adults must experience at least three of the following symptoms for at least six months to be diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder.

  1. Recurrent excessive distress about being separated from the attachment figure or home 
  2. Persistent and pervasive worry about something happening to their attachment figure, like illness, injury, disasters, or death
  3. Persistent and pervasive worry that something will cause a prolonged or permanent separation from their attachment figure
  4. Reluctance or refusal to go out due to fear of separation
  5. Refusal to be alone at home or in other settings
  6. Refusal to sleep without being near the attachment figure
  7. Repeated nightmares about being separated from their attachment figure
  8. Repeated physical reaction to being separated from their attachment figure

Prior to receiving an official diagnosis, there may be signs that you or someone you know is struggling with adult separation anxiety disorder:

Physical symptoms include

  • Panic attacks
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea 
  • Muscle tension

Behavioral symptoms include

  • Repeatedly contacting someone when they’re away (calls, emails, texts)
  • Being too strict or overprotective with your children
  • Staying in an unhealthy relationship longer than you should
  • Obsessively checking someone’s location via tracking apps
  • Being overly involved in someone else’s life 
  • Difficulty coping with life transitions

Emotional symptoms include

  • Vulnerability
  • Extreme jealousy
  • Shame
  • Embarrassment 
  • Helplessness 
  • Worry (for example, worrying that your children will no longer need you as they gain independence)


Common causes of separation anxiety in adults

The exact cause of separation anxiety in adults is still unknown, but several factors have been shown to increase your risk of developing the condition.


Insecure attachment style 

One theory for why separation anxiety occurs in adults relates to attachment style. Attachment theory suggests that having a strong relationship with your primary caregivers during childhood is a key predictor of mental and emotional health as an adult.

People with insecure attachment styles may have experienced uncertainty or inconsistency during their childhood, impacting how they connect with others later in life. Having an anxious, insecure attachment style, in particular, can lead to relationship troubles, like difficulty setting healthy boundaries.


Childhood experiences

Childhood experiences may be a predictor of separation anxiety in some adults. For example, experiencing significant trauma or being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder during childhood may increase your risk of developing separation anxiety later in life. On the other hand, being raised in a situation where caregivers were overly protective or struggled with their own anxiety may also contribute to separation anxiety later in life. 


Life transitions 

Separation anxiety in adults can be triggered by major life events, such as the loss of a loved one, starting a new job, moving to a new location, or ending an important relationship. 


Genetics and other health conditions 

Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to adult separation anxiety disorder. For example, some research suggests that having a family history of separation anxiety may cause an increased risk of developing separation anxiety disorder.

Having one of the following mental health conditions, or a family member with the following mental health conditions, may also be a risk factor for adult separation anxiety disorder:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder 
  • Mood disorders 
  • Personality disorders 


How therapy can help adults with separation anxiety

If you’re constantly worried about being away from a loved one or find yourself searching for ways to remain close to them, you might consider seeking professional mental health support. Similar to other forms of anxiety, separation anxiety disorder can be managed and treated with therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

Finding the right therapist to help you cope with anxiety symptoms can feel overwhelming, but Path is here to help make the process easier. With Path, you can use our matching tool to find a therapist who takes your insurance, is accepting new patients, and is an expert in caring for your unique needs. Plus, Path’s network of over 8,000 therapists means you can be seen this week.

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