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Separation Anxiety: Is It Just for Children and Pets?

Separation Anxiety: Is It Just for Children and Pets?

Izzy Harris explores the tough reality for those living with separation anxiety

When you hear the words separation anxiety, what do you think of? Lots of people think of a nervous child on the first day of nursery school clinging onto their parents, or perhaps a dog barking at the front door after its owner leaves.

What a lot of people don’t know, is that separation anxiety disorder is not just limited to children and pets, but in fact lots of adults experience it as well. t’s more common than you might think.

Ever since I can remember I have struggled with separation anxiety, and I have first-hand experience of what it’s like to experience this issue not only as a child, but as a young adult too. My greatest fear has always been something bad happening to my family when I wasn’t there to control it.

What started off as a few tears and a lift home from a sleepover when I was seven, turned into panicking in classrooms at the sound of an ambulance siren when I was ten, which then morphed into Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (commonly known as OCD) when I was twelve. The thoughts were always the same, if I was with my family, I could monitor what they were doing, and somehow the risk of something bad happening to them would decrease. Is this sounding irrational? Welcome to the mind of an anxious person.

Through years of therapy and determination I managed to stop OCD behaviours from controlling me, and instead I control my OCD behaviours. OCD had almost packed it’s bags and moved out of my head, leaving separation anxiety sitting stubbornly in the centre of my mind.

Whenever I heard a distance ambulance siren, I’d think What if my mum is in that ambulance? Did she fall down the stairs at work?

Whenever I saw a traffic report of a car accident on the motorway I’d think What if that was dad’s car on his way to work? What if he was hurt in the crash?

Whenever I heard a bump upstairs at my grandparent’s house I’d think Was that my grandma hitting her head? What if she’s had a horrible injury?

Whenever my boyfriend didn’t answer his phone I’d think What if he’s been mugged or attacked? What if nobody saw and he can’t get to the hospital?

And right after the thought, the physical anxiety begins; my heart starts racing, my chest gets tight, every breath is a conscious effort and I lose focus on whatever I’m doing, my attention shifting to finding out if the person I’m worried about is okay.

And just as the thoughts subside, or as I ring my mum to find out if she’s okay, I hear or see something else that triggers the anxiety and the cycle starts all over again.

It took a while for me to realise that the horrible thoughts I was having was just the voice of separation anxiety and once I worked that out I could find ways of stopping it from interfering with my life so much.

Now when separation anxiety starts telling me that someone I love could be in that ambulance, I know it’s just a voice that I can tell to be quiet.

Now when I start panicking about why someone isn’t answering their phone, I turn around and politely ask separation anxiety to cool it and come back when I’m less busy.

Now when I get these thoughts, I know it’s not me, it’s just separation anxiety, so I rationalise and distract myself with writing or going on a walk or talking to a friend or watching something on Netflix. Eventually, separation anxiety gets the message and shuts up for a while.

My experience is common, in that lots of adults experience separation anxiety, however everyone who experiences it will have their own unique perspective and understanding of it, and it manifests itself in different ways.

Any questions? You might find the answers below.  

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a form of anxiety disorder. It can be described as when a person experiences excessive fear or anxiety concerning separation from those to whom the individual is attached Often the people the anxious individual feels most anxious about are family members, spouses or partners, close friends or children. When the anxious individual experiences periods of separation from the people they worry about, the anxiety they experience as a result may interfere with their daily lives and function. Common fears of those experiencing separation anxiety include the fear of someone they know or love dying suddenly, being injured, lost or ill.

Who is affected by separation anxiety?

Individuals of any age, race and socio-economic background can experience separation anxiety. It’s true that statistically, more children and teenagers experience separation anxiety, however adults are less likely to report their experience of it which may affect the statistics we have on separation anxiety. Statistically, groups of adults that are more susceptible to separation anxiety include females, individuals who have a history of mental health conditions, individuals who have or are experiencing the death of a loved one and individuals with a family history of separation anxiety, however it is not limited to these groups.

What causes separation anxiety?

Like with most mental health conditions, there is not one sole cause of separation anxiety. Researchers have found that a combination of genetic, biological and environmental factors can contribute to the development of separation anxiety.

What are the signs of separation anxiety?

There are so many signs and symptoms of separation anxiety, mainly because it manifests itself in different ways for each person that experiences it. Saying that, some of the common signs include but are not limited to; nightmares about bad things happening to loved ones, frequently checking on loved ones, inability to do things that involve being apart from loved ones, or intense physical and/or mental anxiety when separated from loved ones, distraction from tasks, social isolation and restlessness.

What can I do if I think I’m experiencing separation anxiety?

As with most mental health conditions, with the right treatment and approach, the negative thoughts and feelings caused by separation anxiety can be greatly reduced.

If you think you are struggling with any sort of mental health condition, including separation anxiety, seeking help from a trained professional is a good place to start.

A therapist or counsellor should be able to provide expert advice and assistance with regard to coping with separation anxiety and should help to prevent it from interfering with your daily life. UCL offer services through the Student Wellbeing Office which is there to help any student struggling with issues surrounding their mental health and wellbeing. Websites such as Mind UK, Rethink UK and Sane UK have some really useful information about accessing help for anxiety and advice about what you can do to manage anxiety yourself.  

The important thing to remember about separation anxiety, is something that applies to most mental health conditions – with the right treatment, and an awareness of what’s happening in your mind, the symptoms and effects of separation anxiety do not have to dominate your life. Recognising that there’s a problem is the first step towards managing your mental health, so if you think that separation anxiety is disrupting your life, talk to someone about it, research it and if you feel like it would help, seek professional treatment. Take control of your mental health. Don’t let separation anxiety control you.

Izzy Harris
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