Everything You Need to Know About Separation Anxiety in Adults

separation anxiety adults

People experiencing separation anxiety disorder feel intense fear or anxiety when they’re away from loved ones.

The disorder is mainly associated with children, but adults are not immune. In fact, close to half of all cases start in adulthood.

And adults struggling with separation anxiety face extra challenges. The distress it causes can make it impossible to focus at work or provide a stable environment for children.

This guide covers the causes, symptoms and treatments for this challenging condition. Keep reading to understand how to handle separation anxiety in adults.

What is Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Separation anxiety involves intense emotional distress caused by separation from a loved one, known as the attachment figure.

Most cases are diagnosed in children. Children are naturally dependent on caregivers and often feel worried when separated from them. When this worry is unmanageable and irrational, it may be diagnosed as separation anxiety.

Adult separation anxiety disorder (ASAD) is similar. It’s characterised by intense worry or dread when separated from an attachment figure, typically a spouse or child. Because adult relationships are more complex, the anxiety ASAD causes is different to that seen in children.

Children typically fear for their own safety when away from attachment figures.

Adults don’t have concerns for their own wellbeing. They fear for their spouse or child when separated. This unfounded worry compels them to keep the attachment figure close, even if it’s completely impractical for themselves or their loved one.

Separation anxiety in adults can significantly impact daily functioning. The persistent worry about a spouse or child’s safety strains relationships and can complicate professional and social responsibilities.

Anxious parents can also inspire similar behaviour in children. Children might then develop their own separation anxiety or will be predisposed to the condition as adults.

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What Causes Separation Anxiety in Adults?

Several risk factors are related to ASAD. Recognising these factors is crucial for understanding the condition’s onset and treatment options.

Risk factors include:

  • Loss of a Loved One: The trauma of losing someone close can heighten the fear of experiencing this pain again.
  • Significant Life Events: Significant life changes can destabilise a person’s sense of security. Events such as moving to a new city, changing jobs or going through a divorce can all increase anxiety levels around separations.
  • History of Childhood Trauma: Adults who experienced trauma in childhood may be more susceptible to separation anxiety in later life. Difficult early experiences can lay the groundwork for persistent fears around relationships and the safety of loved ones.

Separation anxiety in adults is also commonly linked to other anxiety disorders. ASAD can coexist with other conditions, including Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). The symptoms of ASAD and anxiety disorders also overlap.

What are the Symptoms of Adult Separation Anxiety?

Symptoms of separation anxiety can present in several different ways in adults. But the condition is defined by two key indicators:

  • Excessive Distress upon Separation: Adults experience profound sadness, anxiety or panic when anticipating or undergoing separation from their attachment figure.
  • Irrational Fear of Harm: Adults fear something catastrophic will happen to the attachment figure in their absence.

Other symptoms are common to both ASAD and other anxiety disorders, including:

  • Constant worrying
  • Panic attacks
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping

Extreme anxiety can also trigger physical symptoms, including:

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Exhaustion
symptoms of separation anxiety in adults

How is Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?

Separation anxiety in adults was previously seen as a continuation of childhood anxiety. This thinking has changed and the medical community now recognises adult-onset separation anxiety.

To be diagnosed with ASAD, individuals must exhibit symptoms for a minimum of six months. This duration helps separate ASAD from temporary or situational anxiety. There can also be no history of the disorder in childhood. This distinction helps differentiate ASAD from cases where childhood separation anxiety extends into adult life.

For the same reason, patients must display the hallmark symptoms of the disorder. These symptoms are excessive distress related to separation and an irrational fear that harm will come to the attachment figure when apart. And they must be severe enough to significantly impair social, professional or other important areas of life.

Separation Anxiety and Other Disorders

Medical professionals must also be sure that symptoms can’t be better explained by another mental disorder. This differentiation is crucial for successful treatment.

Underlying causes of separation anxiety are distinct from those associated with other anxiety disorders despite the symptomatic overlap. Treatment approaches need to suit the individual’s condition to help. Identifying the root of anxiety helps choose the right treatment.

How is Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder Treated?

Adult separation anxiety disorder is treated similarly to other anxiety disorders. Treatment can include both therapeutic and medical interventions.

The following treatments can help manage the disorder and reduce symptoms.

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT has proven effective for a wide range of anxiety disorders and is often the first line of treatment for ASAD.

This therapy helps individuals understand the thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their anxiety. It then enables them to develop healthier thinking patterns and coping mechanisms.

For those with separation anxiety, CBT may involve gradual exposure to the source of anxiety (i.e., being away from the attachment figure). This exposure can help develop resilience in situations that typically trigger intense worry.


Medication can also help manage ASAD for those with severe symptoms. Anti-depressants or similar medicines can help reduce overall levels of anxiety and make other forms of treatment more effective.

Other Therapies

Other therapies may also be prescribed. These therapies include supportive psychotherapy and family therapy.

Supportive psychotherapy provides a safe space to express feelings and fears associated with separation. This form of therapy emphasises emotional support and understanding, helping individuals build self-esteem and improve their coping strategies.

Given that ASAD almost always affects family relationships, family therapy can be an important part of the treatment process. This type of therapy helps family members understand the disorder. It also teaches them ways to support their loved ones without reinforcing anxiety-related behaviours.

Lifestyle Changes and Coping Strategies

Healthy lifestyle choices are also key in managing ASAD. Regular physical activity, good sleep and a balanced diet can all help reduce anxiety levels.

Additionally, learning and practicing relaxation techniques can provide immediate relief from anxiety symptoms. Effective techniques include deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness.

Learning More About Mental Health

Learning stress-management techniques can help you manage your mental health in the long term.

Our mental health courses can help you handle stress better. We offer courses that teach skills and strategies for staying calm and managing workplace pressures. You’ll be able to reduce anxiety and boost resilience, focus and productivity at work.

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Jonathan Goby
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