What is adult separation anxiety?

adult separation anxiety infographic

adult separation anxiety infographic

Adult separation anxiety is the intense and excessive anxiety and fear someone experiences when being separated from a loved one or ones. Usually, this intense fear causes a great deal of disruption in their lives. Sometimes people with adult separation anxiety report physical pain when they are being separated from their loved one(s), or develop another mental disorder. It’s also possible that the person with adult separation anxiety experiences anger and frustration when someone is leaving them.
Fortunately, professional counseling can help someone overcome adult separation anxiety. Usually, treatment aims to reduce the distressing symptoms, to restore functioning, and to help form healthy relationships.

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At Barends Psychology Practice adult separation anxiety treatment is offered (also online). Go to contact us to schedule a first, free of charge, first session. (Depending on your health insurance, treatment may be reimbursed).


What are the triggers of this anxiety?

People with this type of anxiety may live a normal and happy life for a long time. Usually, they focus on the well-being, health, and safety of their loved ones. Often, they seem over-concerned when it comes their loved ones, but it’s okay for as long as nothing happens in regard to a possible separation. The idea of being separated from their loved one(s) may trigger this anxiety. Here are a few examples:

  • The possibility of being separated from a loved one.
  • Anxiety that a loved one suddenly dies or gets very ill.
  • Worrying that a loved one may get kidnapped or hurt.


What are the signs of adult separation anxiety?

Most signs and symptoms adults with separation anxiety experience are common in child separation anxiety, and include:

  • Extreme distress when separated from their primary caregiver (in adults: loved one).
  • Reluctance to do anything that involves being apart from their primary caregiver (in adults: avoidance of being alone in any circumstance).
  • Constant worry that something will happen to their primary caregiver (in adults: loved one).
  • Inability to go to sleep without being close to the primary caregiver.
  • Adults also fear that their loved one will leave them or that they will be harmed in some way.
  • Adults also experience extreme fear when asked to do something alone.

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Other signs of adult separation anxiety are:

Extreme jealousy. The idea that someone else becomes best friends with your partner or friends, or the idea that your partner prefers to do things with someone else, may make someone with separation anxiety extremely jealous. In the case the fear of losing someone is present again.

Strict parenting. Trying to control the life of your child in every way possible. The idea behind it is: by controlling your child’s life you hope he or she will remain dependent on you and thus will not leave you. Usually, the opposite happens because it’s suffocating for an adolescent or young adult.

The idea that you can’t live without your partner. Sometimes people are afraid of breaking up with their partner, because they are convinced that they can’t live without him or her. Sometimes these relationship become very unhealthy, because the person with separation anxiety will go to extreme ends to keep the relationship going.

How does adult separation anxiety develop?

Separation anxiety is a fairly new mental health topic so little research has been done on it. I believe that there is a inheritable component and a learning component in regard to developing separation anxiety.

  • The learning component: the way someone has been raised may cause this person to be afraid of separation. Imagine parents who are always over-concerned for their child’s well-being, health, and safety. These parents will warn their child a lot for possible dangers and will probably also check up on their child a lot. These parents will also join their child when he or she needs to go to an activity. In other words: the child doesn’t learn to be independent. Subconsciously the child learns that being alone can be dangerous and scary. As a result it can happen that the child develops separation anxiety when he or she experiences something bad when he or she is alone.
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  • The inheritable component: people who have relatives with anxiety disorders have a higher risk of developing anxiety disorders themselves, compared to those without relatives who have anxiety disorders. Separation anxiety is an anxiety disorder. Even though there hasn’t been done much research on adult separation anxiety, it’s likely that there is an inheritable component partly responsible for the development of separation anxiety. Also recent research shows that 88.5% of the people with adult separation anxiety have other mental disorders as well (anxiety disorders and mood disorders are equally common).*

Even though both components may be present in the person, it doesn’t mean someone will develop separation anxiety. If someone doesn’t experience anything that triggers separation anxiety, then there is no need to develop this kind of anxiety at all. If, however, someone does experience something that could trigger separation anxiety, then it is possible that the person develops separation anxiety. Separation anxiety can develop when someone experienced a traumatic separation in the past. This event could have taken place in childhood, adolescence or your adulthood. Such a traumatic experience can become a (small) PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). This can cause fear of commitment or separation anxiety.
In case of fear of commitment someone is afraid to get too attached to someone because of the fear that this person leaves them sooner or later. Click here for more information about fear of commitment.
In case of the adult separation anxiety someone is afraid that a new person they get attached to will leave them and thus try to prevent that. As long as no-one leaves them everything is fine. But the possibility of a separation will trigger the old PTSD and cause a lot of problems.


How can separation anxiety be treated?

It’s important to figure out if the separation anxiety is the result of a traumatic event. If that is the case then it’s a good thing to treat that first. After that you can see how much of the separation anxiety is still left.
Then it’s important to determine whether or not there are other anxiety issues or disorders present at the moment. If so, it is best to treat them first. After that you can see how much of the separation anxiety is still left.

If there hasn’t been a traumatic event that triggered adult separation anxiety, and if there are no other anxieties present, then Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is an effective way of treating the separation anxiety. Together with the therapist you replace negative beliefs for more neutral or positive beliefs and you test them with little behavioural experiments.


  • * Shear, M.K., Jin, R., Ruscio, A.M., Walters, E.E., Kessler, R.C., 2006. Prevalence and correlates of estimated DSM-IV child and adult separation anxiety disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. The American Journal of Psychiatry 163, 1074.

    At Barends Psychology Practice, adult separation anxiety treatment is offered (also online). Go to contact us to schedule a first, free of charge, first session. (Depending on your health insurance, treatment may be reimbursed).