Over the last few months, many of us who have shared our home with someone – our partner, our parents, our kids, or our housemates – are likely to have been connected at the hip, always being no more than a few rooms away from our loved ones. But what happens now that some people are starting to go back to work?
Separation anxiety is something often associated with young children clinging to their parents’ legs at the school gates, but it can also impact adults. It impacts adults when they struggle to be apart from a particular loved one or someone that they are close to and can result in extreme anxiety when they are separated. It is more than just missing someone, it is extreme anxiety and distress when apart from someone.
What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V), the following are symptoms of separation anxiety;
- Unusual distress about being separated from a person or pet
- Excessive worry that another person will be harmed if they leave them alone
- Heightened fear of being alone
- Physical symptoms when they know they will be separated from another person soon (e.g. headache, stomach ache, nausea)
- Excessive worry surrounding being alone
- Needing to know where a spouse or loved one is at all times.
These symptoms can cause significant distress that impacts their social occupational, or academic functioning.
According to the DSM-V, adult separation anxiety is diagnosable if the symptoms have been present for at least 6 months, the symptoms are so severe that they affect your social functioning and ability to take care of responsibilities, and if symptoms cannot be better explained by a different disorder.
What are the risk factors?
Those who suffer with clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder are more likely to experience separation anxiety as an adult. Furthermore, those with separation anxiety often have other coexisting conditions such as social anxiety, social phobias, panic disorder, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), personality disorders, and generalised anxiety disorder.
It has also been found that being female, experiencing childhood adversity (such as the death of a family member), or having a history of childhood traumatic events (such as abuse), increases your risk for adult separation anxiety. You may also be more likely to develop separation anxiety as an adult if you experienced it as a child.
Sometimes, a significant life change, such as a divorce, death, or even the recent coronavirus pandemic, can cause the development of adult separation anxiety.
However, it is important to remember that a person could have all of these risk factors and still not develop separation anxiety. Equally, a person can have none of these risk factors, but experience separation anxiety. These risk factors are a guide, but not a prediction.
How to manage separation anxiety
As we ease out of lockdown, it is important to consider how you might be able to manage possible separation anxiety in yourself and your loved ones. If your symptoms are really unmanageable, it is worth contacting a professional such as a psychotherapy or your GP for support.
However, if your anxiety around being separated from your loved ones feels manageable, here are some steps that you can take to manage it;
- Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, mindfulness, and deep breathing. These are all recognised ways of managing anxiety.
- Practice being separated. If you can, perhaps go for a walk without your loved one, go to the supermarket alone, or stay home while your loved one runs some errands. These will be shorter periods of time, as opposed to a whole work day. This is a form of exposure therapy.
- Make a plan for your day. If you are staying at home while others in your house are returning to work, then it might benefit you to make a plan. Start building up a routine and a daily/weekly to-do list. Make sure that this to-do list isn’t just filled with chores, but has some fun or exciting elements as well. Having something to look forward to and to structure your day can help you to feel more in control and less “left behind”.
- Identify healthy self-soothing techniques. These are generally individual to each person, but some examples include cooking, baking, exercising, having a relaxing bath, journaling, painting, or listening to music.
- Practice emotional agility. Start focusing on the way that you talk to yourself when you are feeling anxious. Do you say; “I’m anxious” or “I’m panicking”? If so, you are telling yourself that this is the only option and that these feelings are in control.
Try changing these sentences to “I’m feeling anxious” or “I’m having panicked thoughts” – or go even further with “I’m experiencing the feeling of anxiousness.” Immediately, you are telling yourself that the thought or feeling is only a small part of you and that you are in charge of it, not the other way around. You can read more about emotional agility here.
If you feel that you would like some professional emotional support with concerns around separation, please contact us on 020 8673 4545 to talk to one of our lovely reception team or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We have telephone and online video appointments seven days a week, with low-cost options as well.