Separation Anxiety, Definition – Causes – Treatments

What is separation anxiety? You’ve probably seen it before. A young child dives into a fit of anxiety when the parent leaves him or school. The place of departure is not the issue. The departure itself is the issue. You’ve probably seen a parent enter a state of anxiety when concerns for their child’s safety turn into neurosis; for example, excessive concern about the child getting hurt, kidnapped or becoming ill. Let’s not overlook the household pet’s destructive behavior when left alone at home. These dysfunctional behaviors are not trivial. They represent a mental health condition known as separation anxiety.

Affecting more women than men, research tells us that up to 5% of the US adult and child population struggles with separation anxiety. Separation anxiety onset usually occurs during childhood leading into adulthood and causing dysfunction in the areas of behavior as well as physical and mental health. Frequently verifying the whereabouts of the child or person of interest, a refusal to leave home and travel and social withdrawal including missing work are behavioral symptoms. Muscular tension, headaches, stomachaches, nausea and vomiting are physical symptoms. And nightmares and the inability to concentrate are mental symptoms.

What causes separation anxiety? If an individual, child or adult, has a genetic predisposition to anxiety and if the individual is exposed to certain environmental factors, the likelihood of development of separation anxiety increases. Genetic considerations are having a family member, especially a first-degree relative, who has also suffered from separation anxiety. It is believed that the disorder may be inherited.

Environmental considerations are experiencing a significant life event whereby parent and child are unexpectedly separated by death or disaster. Or if a child is abruptly dislodged from a parent, such as with divorce, the environment is fertile for the child to develop separation anxiety. It is also believed that a pregnant mother undergoing extreme stress may cause separation anxiety in the new born child. While ongoing unhealthy romantic relationships may be seen as cause for separation anxiety, it may be argued that the condition of separation anxiety existed before the relationship creating a rich environment for the disorder to surface.

Physical considerations are malfunctioning or out of balance neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that act as messengers between a nerve cell and another nerve cell, muscle or organ. Imbalances in these messengers can cause havoc with mood, impulse and the ability to manage stress. A minor non-threatening event may lead to a crippling episode of separation anxiety.

If untreated, how does separation anxiety affect a person’s life? Social isolation is likely including maintaining employment. The inability to focus may create financial issues. Personal relations become problematic. Substance abuse may enter as the person begins to self medicate. Other mental and emotional disorders may begin to manifest including bipolar disorder or social anxiety disorder. And finally suicide may be considered as an option by the person suffering from separation disorder.

How is separation anxiety treated? Modification of behavior is a popular treatment for children. Instead of punishment for poor behavior, rewards are given for improved behavior. Cognitive behavior is often used for adults since they have a developed sense of problem solving as well as the ability to reason through the causes and effects of their suffering. Both adults and children benefit from relaxation exercises such as self calming through mantras or counting numbers. For extremely severe cases where these therapies are ineffective, medication is an option. While there is no FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approved drug for separation anxiety, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) have been useful. A professional certified therapist fully trained in anxiety disorders will be able to diagnose and treat separation anxiety, allowing individuals to return to a more peaceful functional place in society.

Colin B. Denney, Ph.D., is the Director of the Pacific Psychology Services Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, he is a Child Psychologist in Honolulu.