Separation Anxiety in Adults: Five Powerful Tips to Overcome It

People often associate separation anxiety with children and pets. However, adults can also experience anxiety when separated from the people they care about. Divorces, breakups, separations, and even long work hours can lead to separation anxiety in adults.

The feelings of anxiety that arise can interfere with your ability to get things done. You may have trouble fulfilling work and personal commitments. Luckily, there are ways to work through your emotions and overcome separation anxiety as an adult.

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a form of anxiety that arises due to separation from a loved one, such as a spouse, partner, child, or caregiver. Even the thought of separation may cause anxiety.

Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development. Infants and toddlers typically experience separation anxiety. According to the Mayo Clinic, separation anxiety typically passes by the time the child reaches three years of age. Although the same feelings are less common in older children and adults, separation anxiety can affect people of any age.

Signs of Separation Anxiety in Adults

When separated from someone close, you may constantly worry about something bad happening. You may find that you struggle with everyday tasks, as your mind is so focused on negative thoughts. Some of the signs of separation anxiety in adults include:

  • A constant worry that something negative will occur when separated
  • Reluctance to spend time away from someone close
  • Difficulty concentrating on other tasks when separated
  • A general feeling of nervousness or restlessness
  • Increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and sweating
  • A sense of impending panic or danger

When the symptoms of separation anxiety become intense, some individuals may experience panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden feeling of very intense fear. It triggers extreme physical reactions, such as a much faster heart rate and shortness of breath.

Five Ways to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Adults

Whether the symptoms of separation anxiety are mild or severe, adults can work through their emotions and learn to cope with the anxiety. Here are five strategies for dealing with separation anxiety in adults.

1. Identify the Triggers

The first step in dealing with separation anxiety is to recognise it. You need to identify the situations that cause feelings of anxiety to arise.

For example, you may experience anxiety shortly after your spouse or child leaves the house. Some people experience anxiety simply at the thought of a loved one leaving. You may fear that something bad will happen or have a general sense of dread.

Identifying the situations that trigger your anxiety allows you to prepare for the negative feelings that arise. It allows you to prepare a response for the situation.

You may want to consider writing the triggers down in a journal or text document. Describing your feelings in words can help you identify and analyse them.

Seeing your triggers on paper or in a text document may also help you see things from an outside perspective. It allows you to detach yourself from your emotions and see how irrational some of them are.

2. Challenge Negative Thoughts

After identifying the triggers of separation anxiety, start using coping strategies to deal with the anxiety as it occurs. A common coping method involves replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. This is the basic idea behind cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

CBT helps you challenge negative thought patterns, including thoughts related to separation anxiety. When a loved one leaves the house, you may feel a sense of dread and panic. The first step is to question those feelings.

Ask yourself whether your thoughts are based on facts or emotion. In most cases, your emotions are ruling your thoughts. The chances of something truly bad happening during the time that you spend away from a loved one are slim. The fact is that you likely have nothing to worry about, but your emotions create irrational fear.

Replace your irrational thoughts with positive, realistic thoughts. For example, if your anxiety is related to a loved one leaving for work, remember that they will come back home at the end of the workday.

You can also remind yourself of the positive reasons for separation, such as earning an income and maintaining social connections.

3. Recognise That Anxiety Is Temporary

Most of the emotions related to separation anxiety are temporary. You may experience panic when a loved one leaves for work and joy when they return. Instead of focusing on the feelings of panic, remember the joy.

Try to think of all the times that you experienced anxiety in the past. In each of those situations, your feelings of anxiety were only temporary. You eventually overcome the anxiety and continue with your day, which means that any anxiety you may experience in the future is also temporary.

4. Keep Yourself Busy

When symptoms of separation anxiety occur, distract your brain. Keep yourself busy to avoid dwelling on negative thoughts. You can distract your brain with other activities.
Here are a few ideas that may help you keep your mind busy:

Spend more time on an existing hobby or learn something new. Hobbies are a great way to keep your mind focused on something other than negative emotions, especially when the activity requires concentration. Woodworking, crafting, learning a new language, or learning to play a musical instrument can occupy your mind.

Meditation, yoga, and exercise are also useful for combating anxiety. Physical activity and meditation can help calm your brain. Even going for a walk around the block can help fight the anxiety.

Listening to music or watching TV may also distract you temporarily. However, one of the best ways to stay busy and eliminate anxiety is to talk to someone close.
Find someone you can talk to about your feelings. A close friend or family member can hear you out and help challenge your assumptions.

5. Join a Support Group

If you do not have someone you can talk to about your feelings, find a support group. Joining a support group for adults with separation anxiety or general anxiety can help you realise that you are not the only one dealing with these emotions.

Hearing someone else describe the same feelings that you experience is also helpful for seeing the irrational side of your fears. You can analyse anxiety from an outside perspective.
If you cannot find a support group in your local area, look online. The internet offers access to a wide range of online support groups and communities where you can freely discuss your emotions.

Conclusion

If you or someone you love suffers from separation anxiety, try using the techniques discussed. Identify the triggers that lead to anxiety. Challenge and replace negative thoughts. Remember that anxiety is temporary and keep yourself busy. Joining a support group and talking with others can also help ease your anxiety.

Keep in mind that anxiety impacts everyone differently. In some cases, professional help may be necessary to get to the root of the problem. Working with an experienced counsellor allows you to identify the triggers that lead to your anxiety and develop strategies for coping with them.

In the end, if separation anxiety continues to interfere with your daily life, it is highly recommended that you seek the help of a professional.

About the editor, Dr Malcolm Winstanley-Cross

I am a Registered Psychologist with AHPRA’s Psychology Board of Australia and a Chartered Counselling Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, UK. My formal training began with a B.A. in Psychology and Welfare at Charles Sturt University, and B.A. (Hons) Psychology from the University of Wollongong. I then progressed to the M.A. (Hons) Clinical Psychology at the same university before moving to the UK to undertake a PhD in Psychology from City, University of London.

Find out more about Dr Malcolm Winstanley-Cross

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