Separation anxiety is the feeling of nervousness, distress or fear an individual might get when they get separated from someone they love or someone very important to them. That feeling may come as a result of worry that something horrible may happen while they’re away.

As a child, you probably might have had this feeling. In fact, separation anxiety is normal in toddlers and babies and a part of their development. An infant or toddler may get upset when their caretaker, maybe a parent, family member or friend, leaves for a while. But as they grow, most kids start outgrowing this stage of separation anxiety, usually at the age of three.

When this separation anxiety becomes stronger or gets more intense in children instead of waning away it could start becoming a disorder. It could disappear as kids but then reappear later in life in adulthood and start affecting their life in a major way. If this happens, you’ll be diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder.

The main differences separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder have is that the former is a normal part of a kid’s development while the latter is an intense feeling of fear when a loved one is absent. Basically, separation anxiety turns to a disorder when the fear and anxiety starts interfering with what is considered normal age appropriate behavior.


Can adults have separation anxiety disorder?

When it comes to adults, prolonged intense feelings of anxiety and fear when an important person is absent could be considered Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD).

The manual that’s accepted by the American Psychiatric Association to be used for diagnosing mental health conditions explains that separation anxiety disorder is said to occur when an individual feels excessive or intense fear or worry when they get separated from someone the individual is attached to emotionally. This person could be a very close friend, family or spouse. This constant fear and worry could be so intense the adult may start having nightmares, be unable to go to work and have other complaints that interfere with the normal flow of their life.

Usually, this kind of anxiety is common in young adults when they leave home for the first time and are just adjusting to being independent. Later in life, major life impacting events such as the death of their spouse may occur that result in more mature adults getting affected by this intense worry.

The effects of separation anxiety disorder can get very severe to the point of limiting an individual’s daily life routine. The individual may be unable to perform optimally at work due to the anxiety of being away from the loved one. Separation anxiety disorder can result in the affected getting depressed and withdrawn due to the anxiety they are facing.


SAD in adults can result from emotionally impactful life events such as getting separated from a loved one who moved away, getting divorced and others. It also could be because of a primary underlying mental health disorder. For example, there’s a high chance those with obsessive compulsive disorder will experience separation anxiety disorder. Autistic individuals are also at high risk of having separation anxiety.

Asides underlying mental health conditions, some other factors that could cause or increase the risk of getting separation anxiety as an adult are:

  • Significant and sudden life changes leaving no space to get mentally prepared such as the loss of a spouse
  • Getting abandoned as child resulting in abandonment issues as an adult
  • Medical history of anxiety or stress in the family
  • Forceful and unwanted separation
  • Neurological problems resulting from brain trauma
  • Lack of parental attention as a child
  • Codependency


In adults, separation anxiety may appear as intense bouts of anxiety or fear during the period of separation or thoughts of getting separated from loved ones. This fear could be so severe it could result in poor sleep or even insomnia. It could also manifest itself as having issues with placing or observing personal boundaries with intimate partners, spouses or their kids.

Some diagnostic symptoms mental health professionals may note include:

  • Recurring bouts of distress before and during separation
  • Intense fear for the attachment figure’s safety
  • Intense fear about events that could result in separation
  • Reluctance to sleep without being in the company of the attachment figure.
  • Repetitive nightmares on potential separation.
  • Reluctance to leave the attachment figure in any way to either go to work or even get groceries
  • Anxiety related physical symptoms stemming from separation or thoughts of separation.
  • Extreme fear of being

Before making a diagnosis for separation anxiety disorder, your mental health professional will take into account your medical history and other factors. It states that before an individual can be diagnosed with SAD, three conditions must be met:

  • The symptoms have to be present for at least six months in the adult.
  • The symptoms must be a major impediment to normal life function and routine. ● The symptoms cannot be explained by another diagnosis.

These anxiety attacks could also have physical impacts on the individual that could be noted by a loved one. These include:

  • Stomach aches.
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Extreme worry
  • Headaches.
  • Chest pain
  • Breathing issues
  • Trouble with sleeping
  • Other resulting disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and a variety of social anxiety disorders.


So how do we treat separation anxiety in adults?

After getting medically diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, the medical practitioner will recommend certain treatments based on the patient’s medical history and other factors. The treatments they might recommend include therapy and medication.


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the first treatment for anxiety related disorders and will probably be used as a first response for separation anxiety disorder. What this therapy aims to do is guide people to figuring out and understanding their thoughts, actions and behaviours that trigger their separation anxiety or make the separation anxiety even worse. The therapist will help the patient identify any negative emotions or thoughts that could result in the separation anxiety being intensified.

This allows the patient to reach the exact cause of the anxiety attacks and from there start working on systems they can use to treat those causes.

During therapy, mindfulness and meditation could also be emphasized. This is due to the grounding effects they have especially in patients with anxiety disorders. Meditation can help with emotion and mood regulation, allowing the patient to relax themselves when they feel an anxiety attack coming.


For anxiety, antidepressants and anti-anxiety could be prescribed by the doctor to assist the patient through the more severe parts of their separation anxiety. Antidepressants usually include Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) that increase the serotonin, a hormone responsible for mood regulation in your body. After 6 months, doctors will usually recommend a reduction in the dosage.

In cases where after meeting a medical professional, the separation anxiety disorder doesn’t meet the diagnostic requirements, there are some techniques and advice that could be tried to get comfortable with separation.

These include

  • Getting a support group – Support groups are spaces with individuals going through the same situation or having a similar problem. They’re great because not only do they help educate and provide techniques that have worked for them, they also serve as a support system of people who could relate with the adult creating a safe space to share and be vulnerable.
  • Educating yourself on what separation anxiety disorder and what the symptoms are so you’ll know what to look out for.
  • Start journaling – Writing and documenting your thoughts and expressing feelings on paper can be quite therapeutic and also give you a timeline of your progress. If you don’t see yourself writing, try confiding in a close friend.
  • Take up activities that helps you understand yourself and build your sense of self worth. It could be a new hobby or something that interests and distracts you.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle – Good physical health contributes to good mental health. Regular exercise, healthy eating, practice mindfulness with yoga or meditation can help improve your mental state and stay relaxed in separation anxiety triggering moments
  • Praise yourself. Give yourself positive feedback when you’re able to go for certain amounts of time without the attachment figure.


Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is a condition that can affect both children and adults.

The anxiety that comes from the worry they feel when separated from a certain person can be so severe it intrudes on normal daily life functioning.

If you think you might have SAD, consult with your medical health professional for more advice. Therapy and in some cases, medications can help you cope and reduce these symptoms.