The phrase “separation anxiety” is one we’ve come to use in a fairly off-the-cuff way. We whine that we have it when our bestie gets a boyfriend and goes MIA for a while. When we move desks away from our favorite coworker. When we miss our dog. But there’s a difference between joking about feeling this way and actually having separation anxiety, which happens when being away from someone impacts your mental state in a big way. Still, some of the ways to cope with separation anxiety and just flat-out missing someone are similar.
Aleta G. Angelosante, Ph.D. and the clinical director for NYU Langone Health’s Anita Saltz Institute for Anxiety and Mood Disorders, says that when you really have it, separation anxiety can take a few different forms. There’s the “normative” kind that makes you miss your mom when you leave for college, giving you pangs of homesickness. And then there’s separation anxiety disorder. The latter can present both physically and mentally, culminating in a potential panic attack.
What is separation anxiety disorder?
You might have this if your worry and dismay about being separated from someone is disrupting your world in a big way. “Say, if someone goes off to college and it’s really interfering with their daily life that they miss their parents, it could be separation anxiety,” Angelosante says. “You have to think about the amount of distress it’s causing. It’s not just that they’re a little anxious, but they’re getting recurring anxiety, sadness, or loneliness — and it’s getting in the way of them going to class or making friends.”
She notes that it’s also about duration. If you’re super anxious when you first move or go to a new school, it’s one thing. But if it continues for weeks or months, it might be a problem.
How is separation anxiety different from general anxiety?
Angelosante says that when it comes to anxiety disorders, you have to look at the root of where the worry is coming. If everything (public speaking, getting sick, diving, and separation), makes you a nervous wreck, that could just be generalized anxiety disorder. But if all of the issues are coming from your distance from one or a few people, that could be a sign it’s this specific form of anxiety. She says that people often feel this way because they fear something will happen to the person they’re away from, like heart attack — or that something will happen to them before they can get back to the person they love.
Who gets separation anxiety disorder?
Within the last decade, the DSM-5, or the latest edition of the diagnostic and statistical manual doctors use to assess and classify mental health disorders, broadened their rules for who could be diagnosed with separation anxiety, including adults for the first time.
For a long time, doctors would only diagnose children with separation anxiety. Mayo Clinic still discusses the disorder as one that affects kids who miss their parents. “If your child’s separation anxiety seems intense or prolonged — especially if it interferes with school or other daily activities, or includes panic attacks or other problems — he or she may have separation anxiety disorder,” Mayo Clinic dictates. “Most frequently this relates to the child’s anxiety about his or her parents, but it could relate to another close caregiver.”
Now, Angelosante says adults are included as well, although she says that she’d be surprised if someone developed it as an adult out of the blue for the first time, unless they’d suffered with other forms of anxiety in the past.
How to deal with separation anxiety.
Angelosante says the most common way to treat it is to gradually expose yourself to the distance between you and your loved one. Start small, with an overnight, then separate for a little longer each time you leave home. “It’s generally good to expose people to the thing they’re scared of in a slow, controlled way,” Angelosante says. However, when it comes to big moves for work or college, that’s not always possible.
In that case, Angelosante says it can be helpful to keep small reminders of your loved one around you so that you know they’re not going anywhere. “Sometimes people like to have a talisman, something with you that helps remind you of that person, and that they’re not going anywhere,” she says. “If a picture of them on your phone makes you smile, or it helps to have a ticket stub in your wallet from a movie you saw together, that can be nice.” However, she adds that you shouldn’t get too attached to this item, in case you lose it.
It also may help to call the person you love, and talk to them if you’re really upset. However, it’s best to find balance with this. You might alternate between calling your mom, or asking new friends where you are if they want to hang out and talk. If you’re at a new school, chances are they’re feeling a little upset or homesick too.
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