Kid Fears in Adults: Separation Anxiety

The term “separation anxiety” usually conjures the image of a tearful toddler, or worse, a whimpering dog, but millions of grown-ups live with separation anxiety, too. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen begins a two-part series on kid fears in adults. First up, one of the most common adult fears no one ever talks about: separation anxiety.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #157

Tip #3: Shift from “What could happen?” to “What’s happening right now?”

“What ifs” also commonly take the form of “coulds.” “There could be a storm and his plane will crash.” “There could be a drunk driver on the road as she drives home.” “I could have a stroke and not be able to speak or get help.”

All these things are true—there could indeed be a disaster. But instead, shift your focus to what’s happening right at this moment. “I am currently safe.” “I am brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed in my apartment.” “I am letting my mind spin with worry while absently petting my dog.”

Essentially, this is mindfulness. Reel your mind in from the imaginary future and settle it on the very real here and now. Pay attention to what you’re actually doing, not to improbable catastrophe. Brush your teeth. Pet your dog. Focus on where you are, not where your mind wants to take you.

Tip #4: Stop asking your anxiety if you’re OK.

Interestingly, one study found that almost half of adults with panic disorder—that is, fear of having another panic attack—also have adult separation anxiety disorder. Let me say that again: in their sample, fully half of people with panic also had separation anxiety. That’s a lot of people!  This made sense when I thought about it—lots of people who are worried about panicking keep close to their nearest and dearests. It makes them feel safer. 

But what’s going on here? Why might so many people with panic also have separation anxiety? There’s no definitive answer, but it’s possible that both problems are driven by over-interpreting your own body signals.

The hallmark of panic is misinterpreting body sensations as dangerous. Your heart may start to pound for no apparent reason. Or you’ll randomly feel a little lightheaded. But then, your brain over-interprets these random—but totally normal—blips and bloops of your body and concludes you’re in real danger, which in turn triggers fight or flight, which, ironically, amplifies your anxiety and kickstarts a panic attack.

In a rather torturous study, researchers had adults with panic, adults with separation anxiety, and a control group breathe in a mixture of regular air and 35% carbon dioxide, which is fairly unpleasant and can make you feel like you can’t breathe or are even suffocating.

A full 55% of the people with diagnosed panic had a panic attack as a result, but so did almost as many of the people with separation anxiety—52%. In the unlucky few who had both disorders, 69% had an attack. By contrast, in the comparison group, only 18% had an attack.

The researchers concluded that an underlying hypersensitivity to potentially alarming body sensations—known to be a problem in panic—may also be true for separation. I hope they also concluded that they had better pay their participants a wheelbarrow full of money for being willing to endure a panic attack.

Therefore, if you’re scared to be alone, this is one place where you don’t want to take the advice of “listen to your body.” Remind yourself that your body may not be a credible source of information when you’re scared.

Tip #5: Of course, practice being by yourself.

Start slowly. Practice being apart for a few hours, then overnight, then a day. Send your partner to stay with a trusted friend or offer to house-sit when a relative goes on vacation.

When you’re alone, plan things to do that will help you cope, but also be willing to be anxious. The first few times are always the hardest, but it gets easier every time.

So if you’re sick of having to stick by your partner, get specific, answer your own “what ifs,” pay attention to the here and now rather the imaginary future, and for heaven’s sake stop asking your anxiety if you’re OK.

With all that, you and whoever you rely on can go the way of light and dark laundry: be separated, and then happily reunite.

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Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.