Techniques For Managing Separation Anxiety

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated June 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Embarking on a path to greater independence can be hard for many—especially if they may be experiencing the symptoms of separation anxiety. 

This emotional hurdle, often characterized by distress and worry when one is away from a loved one, could impact daily routines, relationships and personal growth. Understanding the possible root causes, identifying symptoms and exploring practical coping techniques can help you on your journey toward emotional resilience and independence.

Read on to learn more about the management of separation anxiety. 

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Experiencing separation anxiety?

Understanding separation anxiety disorder

Separation anxiety, which can be a normal part of human development for many, generally occurs when you feel apprehensive about being away from someone or something you are attached to—such as a primary caregiver, family member or pet. It can become problematic, however, when anxiety-related symptoms become excessive or persistent, possibly interfering with daily life and hindering personal growth. In some cases, it may signal the presence of a mental health condition known as separation anxiety disorder. While commonly associated with young children, separation anxiety disorder might also manifest in older children, adolescents, and adults. 

Criteria based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), published by the American Psychiatric Association, outlines the diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety disorder. According to the DSM-V, an individual may experience separation anxiety disorder can be diagnosed when an individual experiences “excessive fear concerning separation from those to whom [they are] attached”. 

The intense fear must be evidenced by three of eight possible symptoms, which we’ll discuss more below. A child’s separation anxiety must last at least four weeks, while adult separation anxiety must be present for six months. Separation anxiety must also cause significant impairment in an individual’s social, professional, or academic life. Additionally, the excessive distress must not arise due to other mental health conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder or other anxiety disorders. 

Separation anxiety is commonly confused with dependent personality disorder. The main differences between the two are that dependent personality disorder is characterized by a reliance on other people, while separation anxiety disorder is marked by extreme distress when one is unable to spend time with an individual. Unlike dependent personality disorder, an individual with separation anxiety may feel anxious about the safety of the subject of their fear. 

Factors contributing to separation anxiety 

Many factors could contribute to the development of separation anxiety. Some common factors to consider can include genetic predisposition and temperament. Additionally, if a child experiences trauma or loss, this can cause them to constantly worry about experiencing such an event again. A child’s feelings can be related to parental anxiety in many cases. In a systematic review, researchers found that children of parents with an anxiety disorder had a high risk of developing separation anxiety disorder

A child’s symptoms may also be related to an insecure attachment that developed early in life. An avoidant, anxious, or disorganized attachment style can make it difficult for a child to feel safe when a parent or other individual is away. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Additionally, one might consider possible contributing environmental factors—such as overprotective parenting or lack of a support system. 

Understanding the possible risk factors of separation anxiety can empower someone living with the condition to develop appropriate coping strategies and interventions that can help on an individual basis. It may also lead to a more empathetic society as a whole. 

Mental and physical symptoms of separation anxiety

Identifying the symptoms of the condition can be a helpful step in treating separation anxiety effectively. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, some common signs to watch for can include:

  • Excessive worry about being away from a loved one
  • Reluctance to engage in activities or attend events without the attachment figure
  • Distress when anticipating separation
  • Strong desire to sleep near attachment figure
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches or dizziness
  • Difficulty concentrating 

Recognizing these signs ahead of time can empower one to take appropriate steps to manage and overcome separation anxiety.

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Treatment and coping strategies for separation anxiety

If separation anxiety continues to impact an individual’s life, professional treatment can help alleviate its effects. Psychotherapy and medication are the most common forms of treatment for separation anxiety disorder. Therapeutic modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy and family counseling can help identify the sources of a child’s anxiety and help them develop coping strategies. 

Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or benzodiazepines may also be prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. Always consult with a healthcare provider prior to starting or stopping any medication. 

Additionally, there are several self-help techniques that can reduce symptoms of separation anxiety. Common coping strategies include:

Establishment of a routine

Creating a predictable routine may alleviate some of the stress associated with separation. This can look different for many and might involve tasks such as setting consistent times for waking up, bed and mealtimes. Because going to school can be anxiety-inducing for a child, having a regular drop-off schedule can also be helpful. Planning regular activities, such as physical activity, hobbies, or social outings with other children, could also alleviate anxiety. 

Additionally, designating specific times for spending with the attachment figure might provide a sense of stability and reassurance for the person experiencing symptoms, giving them assurance that the distance may only be temporary.

Gradual exposure for tolerating separation

Gradual exposure to absence generally allows someone to slowly build a tolerance to separation, potentially reducing the intensity of anxiety and related symptoms over time. 

Some tips for implementing gradual exposure can include starting with short separations and progressively increasing the duration. Gradually increasing the amount of time spent apart from the attachment figure might help to reduce anxiety and related symptoms, as opposed to removing the figure abruptly. 

Trying new activities or locations could also be helpful in gradually expanding one’s comfort zone. 

Encouraging independence and self-reliance during these activities might further promote a sense of accomplishment and confidence.

Support networks

Building a strong support network can be helpful in overcoming separation anxiety. This may involve connecting with friends, family members or colleagues who can understand and empathize with the situation. It can also involve participating in a support group. 

Joining support groups or online communities for individuals experiencing similar challenges could provide additional resources and encouragement. Seeking advice or guidance from professionals, such as therapists or counselors, might also be beneficial. These professionals could offer tailored support and strategies to help you navigate the complexities of separation anxiety. 

Self-care and relaxation techniques

Incorporating self-care and relaxation techniques into one’s daily life could help to manage symptoms of separation anxiety more effectively. 

Some examples of relaxation techniques to try can include deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery. These techniques might assist in reducing overall stress levels, making it easier to cope with separation anxiety. 

Other self-care practices, such as engaging in hobbies, getting regular exercise and maintaining a balanced diet, could also contribute to overall well-being and mental health. Prioritizing self-care can help one to feel more grounded and better equipped to handle the challenges of separation anxiety.

Communication and emotional expression

Open communication with loved ones and the attachment figure can be helpful in overcoming separation anxiety. Encouraging honest conversations about feelings and concerns can also foster a deeper understanding of the situation and create an environment where one feel supported and validated—possibly facilitating a higher level of healing. 

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Experiencing separation anxiety?
Online therapy for separation anxiety

Online therapy can be a helpful first step for many as they begin to overcome separation anxiety. 

Online therapy generally offers one the opportunity to go through the therapeutic process, offering valuable insights into the possible factors that could be contributing to separation anxiety. This can empower survivors to address the root cause(s) more effectively. The virtual environment of online therapy can allow many more to reach a higher quality of life, possibly removing the nervousness and barriers that can be associated with in-person treatment. 

By using online therapy to address symptoms of separation anxiety effectively, one can become more self-aware and develop the emotional intelligence necessary to navigate possible situations involving separation.

A study showed that psychodynamic therapy might be an effective treatment for separation anxiety in adults who have not responded to traditional treatments, which science suggests can be done quite effectively through digital and online formats

The participants reviewed in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry showed significant improvement on measures of global severity, current separation anxiety, and the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale at the end of the 12-week intervention. 

Furthermore, the results indicated a possible link between oxytocin levels and therapeutic outcomes, suggesting its potential usage as a biomarker or mediator of SA response. These findings suggest that targeting attachment issues with psychotherapy could be a promising avenue for treating those experiencing challenges related to separation anxiety.

Takeaway

Separation anxiety can be a complicated and overwhelming experience for many. However, with the right strategies, it can be possible to manage this condition to lead a more balanced life. 

Through therapy, self-care practices, relaxation techniques, open communication and emotional expression, you can gain insight into the underlying causes of your separation anxiety while cultivating resilience and emotional growth. Embracing the journey could present opportunities for personal development that will serve you well beyond these challenging times. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

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