Separation Anxiety in Adults

By Jill Kapil, Psy.D.
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 19, 2022

Separation anxiety is commonly associated with children, causing extreme fear when they’re away from their parents.

But this type of anxiety can impact adults, too.

The fear of being away from an attachment figure can feel intense, but it does not have to control your life.

In this article, I’ll explain what separation anxiety disorder is, and explore the differences between separation anxiety in adults versus children.

I’ll talk about its symptoms and causes.

I’ll outline its diagnosis, certain risk factors, and treatment options.

I’ll also tell you when it’s best to see a doctor.

What is Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Separation anxiety is a normal phase of development for infants and toddlers.

From about 18 months to age 3, children may have a higher level of attachment to caregivers.

This is a vital stage of development that helps them feel secure and ready to branch out in social experiences when they are older.

Some children may experience separation anxiety that lasts longer and is known as separation anxiety disorder.

If they are older than age 3, or they struggle with attending school and everyday functions because of panic, anxiety, or fears relating to being away from a caregiver, it is usually considered to be part of an overall anxiety condition.

But separation anxiety disorder is not limited to young children.

It can also develop in older adolescents, teenagers, and adults.

It can interfere with the ability to go to school or work, and can have a significant burden on daily life.

Adults who experience separation anxiety disorder are typically preoccupied with fears that bad things will happen to important people in their lives if they are not with them.

This could involve a partner, children, or other family members.

It is not always clear what causes separation anxiety disorder, but it is often seen with other anxiety conditions, such as:

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Adults vs. Children

There are different diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety disorder in adults versus children.

  • Children older than age 3: Symptoms of distress at separation from a caregiver or attachment figure that persist for longer than 4 weeks
  • Adults: Symptoms of distress at separation from attachment figures that persist for longer than 6 months

Symptoms

Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder in adults and children can be similar:

  • Excessive, prolonged, and consistent distress at the thought of or separation from loved ones or home
  • Constant worry over losing a loved one to illness, disaster, or other traumatic circumstances
  • Frequent worrying over bad things happening that result in separation from loved ones or attachment figures
  • Fear of being at home alone or away from home without attachment figures
  • Fear of sleeping away from home or prolonged visits away from home without attachment figures
  • Frequent recurring nightmares about separation
  • Physical complaints of headaches, nausea, or anxiety when separation is talked about or thought about

While it is normal to not want bad things to happen to loved ones, or to enjoy being with your family or the people you love, separation anxiety disorder involves extreme anxious panic at the thought of planned or forced separation.

Separation disorder can lead to challenges with relationships, work or school life, and daily function.

To be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, symptoms must be present in adults for at least 6 months and contribute to a significant impairment in daily function.

Causes

There is not a single known cause of separation anxiety disorder.

It can be associated with other anxiety conditions, or genetics may play a role.

Trauma, stress, complicated grief, and other mental health conditions may also contribute.

Risk Factors

Separation anxiety has some common risk factors:

  • Genetics
  • Having a personality that is more prone to anxiety
  • Being involved in natural disasters or other trauma that involve forced separation (evacuations, war, etc.)
  • Family history of anxiety disorders
  • Serious life stress, trauma, or loss such as the death of a loved one, serious illness, divorce, or relocation
  • Lower levels of social support

Adults may be at greater risk of developing separation anxiety disorder if they have one or more of the following:

Diagnosis

A medical provider will consider your symptoms and experiences to diagnose separation anxiety disorder.

This could include:

  • Comprehensive physical exam, including lab tests or imaging to rule out physical causes
  • Psychological examination

You may be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder if you have experienced symptoms for at least 6 months that have significantly affected your ability to function as expected in daily life.

Any other possible diagnoses must also be ruled out.

It may take several appointments, and multiple healthcare providers, to receive an accurate diagnosis.

Treatment and Management

Treatment for adult separation anxiety disorder is similar to the management of other anxiety-related conditions.

A medical provider will recommend treatment options based on your symptoms and other health conditions.

Treatments typically include a combination of therapy and medication.

Potential options include:

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on helping people identify and change thoughts that are negatively influencing them.

CBT helps challenge and replace thought processes that are associated with anxiety, depression, and similar conditions.

Anti-anxiety medication

Depending on the specific triggers and symptoms that you experience, certain antidepressants, buspirone, or benzodiazepines may be prescribed.

Support groups

Support groups are available online and in person. Healthcare providers can often recommend options for patients who desire additional empathy and support while receiving treatment for mental health conditions.

Outlook

Whether someone develops separation anxiety disorder as a child or an adult, it can impact the quality of life and a person’s ability to enjoy new experiences, social activities, and relationships.

Like other anxiety conditions, separation anxiety disorder can respond to treatment.

You do not have to feel as if fear, tension, and dread over separation are controlling your life.

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When to See a Doctor

If you or someone you care for is experiencing fear, anxiety, and panic over being apart from loved ones, it could be separation anxiety disorder.

Speak with a healthcare provider to get a proper diagnosis.

Once you know what is the source of your anxiety or symptoms, medical providers can recommend effective treatment options.

There is support for separation anxiety disorder.

You do not have to live with these feelings, and you are not on your own to find relief.

How K Health Can Help

Want mental health support?

K Health offers anxiety medication for the right candidates.

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Online therapists are also available in select states for individualized care.

Connect with a licensed mental health therapist for unlimited asynchronous text-based therapy. Therapists respond Monday through Friday between 9am-5pm, within 24-hours.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety in adults?
In adults, symptoms of separation anxiety disorder can appear as panic or extreme fear over being apart from attachment figures. These could be a partner, a child, or other family members. They must last longer than 6 months and cause a significant impairment in quality of life and ability to function.
What triggers separation anxiety in adults?
Trauma, stress, grief, genetics, and other factors can influence the development of separation anxiety.
How do you deal with separation anxiety in adults?
Separation anxiety may be treated like other anxiety conditions. It can respond to a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle adjustments.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Jill Kapil, Psy.D.

Dr. Jill Sorathia Kapil is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in California. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology with a minor in Education from the University of California, Irvine; and received her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from CSPP, San Diego (California School of Professional Psychology). Dr. Kapil completed her predoctoral and postdoctoral training at various College/University Health Centers across California, and has been licensed as a Psychologist since 2016.

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