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Separation Anxiety In Relationships: What You Need To Know 2024
Separation anxiety doesn’t just affect children; adults can struggle with intense fear and worry when separated from their loved ones, especially within romantic relationships. To a degree, it is normal to feel anxious when separated from someone you love.
However, if this anxiety begins to affect your day-to-day life, it could be a sign of something bigger, such as separation anxiety disorder. This article will delve deeper into separation anxiety, focusing on symptoms, causes, and coping strategies for adults experiencing this issue.
- Adult separation anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive anxiety and unusually strong fear when separated from a loved one or attachment figure such as a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse.
- Symptoms of separation anxiety in adults can include excessive worry, panic attacks, difficulty sleeping or eating, and physical symptoms such as nausea or headaches.
- Relationship separation anxiety can manifest as overbearing or controlling behavior, leading to codependency or other relationship issues.
- Treatment for adult separation anxiety disorder may involve psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.
What Is Separation Anxiety In Relationships?
Separation anxiety in adults can be present in any form of a significant relationship. For example, it can be common within a romantic relationship, such as with a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse.
Adults experiencing separation anxiety may experience excessive fear and constant worry when preparing to be or become separated from loved ones. They may feel like they cannot function without them and experience intense anxiety or panic attacks. This anxiety can interfere with daily life and affect relationships, causing insecurity, loneliness, and fear of abandonment.
Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety
Previously, adult separation anxiety disorder was only diagnosed if symptoms began in childhood or adolescence. However, this was later changed when the prevalence of adults with signs beginning after adolescence increased. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, removed this requirement and categorized it alongside other adult anxiety disorders.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in relationships can be both physical and emotional. These symptoms range from mild to severe and can significantly impact an individual’s day-to-day functioning.
Some common symptoms include:
Individuals with separation anxiety may experience excessive worry about the safety and well-being of their significant other or attachment figure. They may constantly worry about their loved one’s health, safety, and whereabouts, even when there is no evidence of danger.
They may experience intrusive thoughts and disturbing visions involving harm to their loved ones, leading to compulsive behaviors in an attempt to reduce their anxiety levels.
Difficulty Sleeping Or Eating
Anxiety has been shown to significantly affect sleep and appetite due to the physiological responses that occur during the fight or flight response triggered by anxiety. As a type of anxiety, separation anxiety can cause significant disruptions in sleeping and eating patterns.
Individuals may struggle to fall or stay asleep and experience nightmares or night terrors related to their anxiety. Additionally, they may lose their appetite or overeat, leading to weight gain or loss.
When the body senses a threat, it releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. These physical responses can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, leading to insomnia and disrupted sleep patterns.
Excessive Checking In
Individuals with separation anxiety may need to check in with their significant other or attachment figure frequently throughout the day. They may send multiple text messages, make numerous phone calls, or check social media accounts obsessively to ensure their loved one is okay.
Various studies have found a strong relationship between obsessive-compulsive disorder and separation anxiety disorder. This can help to explain the compulsion to check in with loved ones or the tendency to jump to the worst-case scenario if contact with loved ones is limited.
For example, if your partner does not reply to a text or answer your call, you may have a bad feeling that they have been involved in a dangerous situation, such as a car accident, when their phone battery may have died. This tendency to assume the worst can cause panic attacks and significantly affect your day-to-day functioning when separated from your partner.
Avoidance And Isolation
Individuals with separation anxiety may avoid activities or situations that require separation from their significant other or attachment figure. This can lead to decreased socialization, missed career opportunities, and avoidance of other activities that may be important for personal growth and development.
Research has indicated a relationship between separation anxiety disorder and symptoms of agoraphobia. In some cases, people may develop agoraphobia due to trying to avoid situations that trigger their separation anxiety, such as leaving the house or being alone.
They may become afraid of being in situations where they may experience separation, such as crowded places or situations where they feel trapped or unable to escape.
Similarly, people with agoraphobia may experience anxiety about being separated from their support systems, leading to feelings of dependency and fear of being alone. Therefore, there can be an overlap between the two conditions, and they can co-occur in some individuals.
Anxiety & Depression
One study found that adults diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder were more likely to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, depression, and panic disorder. Similarly, another study found that having a preoccupied attachment style with romantic partners increased this risk compared to an attachment with friends and family members.
Separation anxiety can lead to various physical symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, racing heart, trembling, shortness of breath, headaches, muscle tension, and insomnia. These symptoms often appear when anticipating or experiencing separation from people an individual is emotionally attached to.
Difficulty Maintaining Relationships
Separation anxiety can hurt relationships, particularly romantic partnerships. People with separation anxiety may become overly dependent on their partners or other attachment figures. They may also avoid separation, fear abandonment, experience jealousy and possessiveness, misinterpret others’ behaviors, and have difficulty communicating effectively.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
Several factors can contribute to separation anxiety in adults and relationships, including
Many studies support the idea that separation anxiety in adult relationships is usually a manifestation of an anxious attachment style.
People with an anxious attachment style may exhibit behaviors such as constantly seeking contact with their partner, feeling insecure or jealous when their partner is away, and worrying excessively about the relationship. These behaviors can lead to relationship conflicts and difficulties, as partners may feel overwhelmed by the constant need for reassurance.
Anxious attachment style can develop due to various factors, including early childhood experiences, inconsistent or neglectful caregiving, and traumatic events such as loss or abandonment. Cultural and societal factors, such as expectations around gender roles and attachment, can also influence it.
Trauma & Loss
Traumatic experiences such as separation from parents, loss of a loved one, or a history of abuse can also contribute to separation anxiety in adulthood.
One study found that 68% of people diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder also exhibited signs of prolonged or complicated grief disorder, an intense form of grief that does not ease with time.
There is also a strong association between borderline personality disorder and adult separation anxiety, specifically regarding fear of abandonment. Borderline personality disorder has a strong association between early trauma and attachment injuries.
Codependency is a behavioral pattern in which a person relies heavily on another person to fulfill their emotional needs, sacrificing their own needs and well-being. Codependent individuals often have a strong need to be needed and may struggle with feelings of abandonment or rejection when their romantic partner or loved one is unavailable.
This can be associated with separation anxiety in adults and relationships because codependent individuals may experience heightened anxiety and distress when their partner or loved one is not around.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the brain that plays a crucial role in processing emotions, including fear and anxiety. Studies have shown that people with anxiety disorders, including separation anxiety, tend to have increased amygdala responsiveness and volume.
When the amygdala detects a potential threat or danger, it sends signals to other parts of the brain to trigger the body’s stress response.
This response can include increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and a surge of adrenaline, which prepares the body for fight or flight. For people with anxiety disorders, the amygdala may be hyperactive, meaning that it is more likely to perceive a threat even in situations that may not be dangerous.
This can lead to heightened anxiety and a tendency to avoid situations that trigger anxiety.
How To Deal With Separation Anxiety In Relationships?
Dealing with separation anxiety in relationships can be challenging, but there are steps that individuals can take to manage their symptoms and improve their overall well-being.
Here are some strategies that may be helpful:
Identify The Root Cause
It is important to understand the underlying reasons for developing separation anxiety, such as past trauma or attachment issues. Seeking therapy can help individuals gain insight into their thoughts and behaviors and learn healthy coping mechanisms.
Mindfulness techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can help individuals manage their physical anxiety symptoms and feel more centered and grounded.
Develop A Support System
A strong support network can help individuals feel less alone and more connected. This can include friends, family members, and support groups. A strong support system comprises people who understand and know how to help somebody with anxiety.
You may also find it helpful to connect with others who understand your or your loved one’s symptoms, such as through online group therapy.
It is important to set healthy boundaries in relationships and communicate openly with partners about your needs and expectations, allowing those who experience separation anxiety to express their needs without judgment or feeling invalidated.
Likewise, loved ones must be given their own space, privacy, and autonomy, thus enabling a solid support system while encouraging independence.
Engage In Self-Care
Self-care activities such as exercise, hobbies, and relaxation can help individuals manage stress and feel more balanced. Basic self-care practices such as healthy eating and getting enough sleep are essential in managing anxiety symptoms. Failing to meet these basic needs can lead to worsening symptoms.
Seek Professional Help
If the reasons for separation anxiety are deep-rooted, help from a mental health professional may be necessary. A therapist or psychiatrist can help individuals develop a treatment plan, including therapy, medication, or both.
If separation anxiety is affecting your relationship, couples therapy may be helpful. A couples therapist can provide you with various techniques to help you manage your anxiety individually and as a couple. If you struggle to fit treatment into your schedule, remote sessions such as online marriage therapy might be helpful.
It is important to remember that dealing with separation anxiety takes time and effort. Still, with the proper support and resources, it is possible to manage symptoms and improve overall well-being.
The Bottom Line
Separation anxiety in relationships is a common issue that can cause excessive distress and interfere with daily life. Understanding the symptoms, causes, and strategies to manage separation anxiety can help individuals and couples work together to build stronger, more secure relationships.
If you are experiencing separation anxiety in your relationship, remember that you are not alone. Resources are available to help you manage your anxiety and build a stronger, more fulfilling relationship.
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