Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder: What you may not know

why am i lonely

He told the boss he couldn’t do the trip because he hasn’t been feeling well. That’s likely true, because the real issue is he’s afraid to be away from his wife. What he, and you, may not know about adult separation anxiety disorder…

Imagine constantly being afraid that horrible things will happen to those you love the most: spouse, partner, children, etc.

Our friend above is in a major jam. Thing is, this isn’t the first time he begged-off something important because of his fear of being separated from his wife. 

And he isn’t alone. Some 7% of the population has had a go with adult separation anxiety disorder.

What you may not know…

What is adult separation anxiety disorder?

Once upon a time, separation anxiety was considered a child and adolescent disorder. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) categorized separation anxiety disorder in Disorders Usually First Diagnosed in Infancy, Childhood, or Adolescence. But the current edition, the DSM-5, lassoed it into the Anxiety Disorders.

Separation anxiety disorder, diagnostically, is no longer just for kids.

Let’s take a good look at separation anxiety disorder by turning to DSM-5 criteria…

Developmentally inappropriate and excessive fear or anxiety concerning separation from those to whom the individual is attached, as evidenced by at least three of the following…

  • Recurrent excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from home or from major attachment figures
  • Persistent and excessive worry about losing major attachment figures or about possible harm to them, such as illness, injury, disasters, or death
  • Persistent and excessive worry about experiencing an untoward event (e.g., getting lost, being kidnapped, having an accident, becoming ill) that causes separation from a major attachment figure
  • Persistent reluctance or refusal to go out, away from home, to school, to work, or elsewhere because of fear of separation
  • Persistent and excessive fear of or reluctance about being alone or without major attachment figures at home or in other settings
  • Persistent reluctance or refusal to sleep away from home or to go to sleep without being near a major attachment figure
  • Repeated nightmares involving the theme of separation
  • Repeated complaints of physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or vomiting) when separation from major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated

Key in a diagnosis of adult separation anxiety disorder is the fear, anxiety, or avoidance persisting for six months or more. By the way, if you’re concerned about a child or adolescent it drops to four weeks.

what causes separation anxiety disorder

“He should be home soon. But why can’t I let it go?”

In addition, the disturbance has to generate significant distress or impairment in social, academic, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. And, of course, the goings-on can’t be attributed to another emotional/mental situation.

This is seriously unpleasant stuff. Imagine constantly being afraid that horrible things will happen to those you love the most: spouse, partner, children, etc.

And it comes down to being terrified of being alone. That can lead to demanding to know where these people are at all times.

No wonder many with adult separation anxiety disorder are over-involved parents and overbearing partners. And no wonder the adults and children on the receiving end suffer terribly. 


What causes adult separation anxiety disorder?

As with any mood or anxiety disorder, the cause of adult separation anxiety disorder is that all too familiar combo of nature and nurture – varying on a per case basis.   

Instead of opening that frustrating can of worms, we’ll go with these risk factors…

  • Diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, bipolarity, depression, and personality disorders (emphasis on cluster B)
  • Diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder as a child or adolescent – applies in some 36% of adult cases
  • Traumatic separation such as loss of a loved one or divorce
  • Growing up with overbearing or neglectful parents
  • Childhood or adolescent trauma or attachment issues

Along with signs and symptoms, use these risk factors to realistically assess what’s going on and reach-out for help if indicated. Hey, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s more than likely – a duck. 

How is adult separation anxiety disorder treated?

Treatment for adult separation anxiety disorder is similar to interventions for other anxiety disorders. A therapy and meds combo show higher success rates in managing symptoms.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in an individual, group, and/or family setting is the most common therapy used. A type of CBT, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), may be an option.

When it comes to meds, common antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs may be prescribed.

That’s a wrap

Adult separation anxiety disorder can bring on all sorts of torment for those wrestling with it and the people they love. If you ask me, it deserves much more attention than it receives.

If you or someone close to you are struggling with any of what we discussed, it’s time to do something about it. This is serious business.

Adult separation anxiety disorder: What you may not know can hurt you.

Thanks to healthline and Thriveworks for reference material. 

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