Separation anxiety is the fear of being separated from loved ones or people who we perceive to be a source of safety and connection.
It’s normal for anyone to feel some loneliness and uneasiness about being away from loved ones, but when it feels out of control or causes a lot of distress, it can put a strain on your relationships and may require attention.
This article explores the characteristics and causes of separation anxiety, its impact on relationships, and strategies to help you deal with it.
Separation Anxiety in Relationships
Typically, a relationship is created in the spirit of cultivating a secure, lasting connection. When we get into an intimate relationship and start to be vulnerable, it brings up deeper parts of the self that are younger, closer to our earliest experience of family.
When we are vulnerable with someone in a relationship, we start to see our partner as a source of connection, safety, and familiarity. And because of these stronger feelings, we fear losing this relationship to the point of developing separation anxiety, especially if we were raised in a family that unconsciously propagates insecure attachment styles.
So even if you know your partner is coming back (from traveling, from a business trip, etc), if you struggle with separation anxiety you may feel hyper-stressed and anxious during their absence.
Living in a state of fear causes us to be more reactive and make decisions from a place of fear or a place of not wanting to lose someone or something. Therefore, we make decisions that aren’t usually from our heart, they’re more from our head, reacting to an imaginary negative outcome of the future. This state of being can have a major impact on our mental health because it’s harder for us to experience joy and secure connection and attachment.
For those who experience separation anxiety, fear will guide them more toward trying to be possessive, controlling, or jealous.
But in a healthy relationship, when we let go and learn how to build trust and love, we are less likely to be caught in separation anxiety. This is known as interdependence—the ability to be autonomous and still be deeply connected with another person.
We should also note that separation anxiety manifests more in some relationships than others. For instance, you may be more likely to experience this form of anxiety in a relationship with a romantic partner than with a friend or acquaintance.
Symptoms and Characteristics of Separation Anxiety
- Behavioral and cognitive symptoms: Separation anxiety can cause significant changes in mood (such as worsening anxiety or depression), concentration, decision-making, or even eating or sleeping.
- Physical symptoms: In some people, separation anxiety can cause symptoms like rapid heartbeat, tingling in the limbs, or an anxious feeling overall.
- Functional problems: Separation anxiety can also cause some people to have functional problems, such as avoiding leaving the house, difficulty at work or school, or turning to substances to cope.
- It is typically recurrent: As a disorder, separation anxiety is typically recurrent and manifests as excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separation. It can cause persistent and excessive worry about losing someone through harm, illness, injury, accident, abandonment, etc.
- It functions on a spectrum: Separation anxiety functions on a spectrum in the sense that some may have some mild symptoms of it whereas others might experience a great deal of anxiety and distress.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety most often affects those who exhibit insecure attachment style.
These are some of the causes of separation anxiety:
- Hereditary factors: Separation anxiety has a heritable component and there is a correlation between parents who have anxiety and higher levels of separation anxiety in children.
- Environmental factors: Some environmental factors might also play a role, such as parental loss (due to separation, divorce, or death, for instance), highly chaotic or stressful homes, extended parental absences (due to military deployment, incarceration, or abandonment, for instance), parental conflict, etc.
- Anxiety disorders: Having a diagnosis of another anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety or social anxiety, can be a risk factor for separation anxiety.
Coping With Separation Anxiety in Relationships
Here are some strategies that can help you cope with separation anxiety in relationships:
- Recognize the signs: First, it’s important to recognize the signs of separation anxiety by talking with trusted family, partners, friends, or professionals.
- Admit and accept it: People who can identify with separation anxiety need to do their best to recognize this as not just separation anxiety, but as a deep fear of letting go of loved ones. Being able to admit this or work to accept it can be very helpful.
- Observe healthy relationships: It can be useful to observe healthy, interdependent relationships. These examples give the brain-body a template of how a relationship can be, as opposed to only understanding co-dependent, insecurely-attached relationships.
- Believe in your own capabilities: It’s important to keep in mind that separation anxiety is temporary and can be eased by being mindful about your own capabilities–if you are apart from your partner, remind yourself that you’ve handled this before and that the reunion with your partner will be extra special. Meanwhile, he recommends seeking ways to meaningfully occupy your time.
- Try yoga and meditation: Hanson suggests physical and mental exercise routines like yoga and meditation, to help you combat anxiety.
- Seek therapy: Professional treatment in the form of psychotherapy could be a useful option to explore in addition to developing a plan to increase communication with partners and other family members. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful for reframing cognitive biases or learning to relax when the anxiety ramps up.
Separation anxiety can make it difficult for you to be apart from your loved ones, your partner in particular. It can cause a wide range of symptoms and take a toll on your mental health as well as your relationships.
Practicing yoga and meditation and keeping yourself meaningfully occupied can help you control your anxiety. However, understanding why these symptoms exist and addressing the deeper layers—including processing any unresolved trauma—will ultimately be the way to truly heal from separation anxiety.
This phenomenon is referred to as ‘earned secure attachment.’ In other words, you have to work for it, and earn it; but once you do, life, love, and relationships become so much more enjoyable.