Separation anxiety is most common among children. It’s a normal developmental stage for infants and toddlers, and most kids outgrow it by the time they’re three years old. With that said, some adults also live with separation anxiety, typically manifested through a fear that something ominous or harmful will happen to their children or other important family members.
Separation anxiety often coincides with other disorders like agoraphobia and panic disorder. Agoraphobia refers to the extreme fear of leaving one’s home; it impacts how a person approaches social situations and sometimes leads to panic attacks.
If you think you might suffer from separation anxiety, agoraphobia, panic disorder, or any combination of these, it’s essential to address them and find healthy coping strategies. Let’s discuss these conditions in more detail and help you discover effective treatments.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
As discussed, separation anxiety typically fizzles out when a child reaches three years of age. But it sometimes indicates a more severe version of the condition called separation anxiety disorder, which sets in as early as preschool age.
Separation anxiety disorder often appears as a more intense and prolonged form of separation anxiety, and it can negatively impact a child’s academics and other routine activities.
It can also cause panic attacks and other issues. Most children with separation anxiety fear being away from their parents or caregivers.
While it’s not as common, adults can also struggle with separation anxiety disorder, leading to various problems navigating the workplace or leaving home. Most adults with the disorder are afraid of being away from their children or spouse.
What Are the Most Common Separation Anxiety Symptoms?
Children and adults display different symptoms of separation anxiety disorder, and it’s important to know how to recognize signs that you or your child might be living with the condition.
Mental health professionals reserve separation anxiety disorder diagnoses for children experiencing excessive symptoms for their developmental age and when their anxiety is significantly hindering their daily lives.
Let’s take a look at the most prevalent symptoms of separation anxiety disorder in kids:
- Significant, recurring distress about being separated from loved ones, home, or anticipating separation
- Persistent anxiety about something bad happening (e.g., being separated from parents or other caregivers by being kidnapped or getting lost)
- Fear of being home alone without a parent or caregiver
- Recurring nightmares about being separated from loved ones or bad things happening outside of the house
- Persistent worry about a parent or caregiver dying from a sickness or a disaster
- Refusing to leave the house because they’re afraid of separation
- Refusing to sleep at other people’s houses without a parent or caregiver nearby
- Stomach aches or headaches stemming from the anticipation of being separated from a parent or caregiver
Separation anxiety disorder has been linked to panic attacks and panic disorder. Panic attacks refer to recurring episodes of sudden, intense feelings of anxiety, fear, or terror. These attacks can last for a few minutes or for more than an hour.
Thinking about and feeling concerned for loved ones is a normal part of adulthood. However, experiencing high levels of anxiety or panic attacks when you’re unable to reach close family members might indicate a separation anxiety disorder.
Adults with this condition often struggle to concentrate and experience extreme sadness when they’re not with loved ones. They also tend to withdraw from social situations. Parents who suffer from separation anxiety disorder can become overly strict or overly involved (e.g., “helicopter” parenting). And you’re more likely to be an overbearing spouse, family member, or friend when you live with separation anxiety disorder.
Here are a few other prevalent symptoms to consider:
- Disrupted sleep or insomnia when away from a loved one out of fear that something will harm them
- Extreme, recurrent reluctance or refusal to be away from loved ones
- Illogical fears that yourself or a loved one will suffer a fatal accident or abduction
- Anxiety attacks, extreme fear, or depression concerning any of the above topics
Separation anxiety disorder can also lead to physical symptoms, such as headaches, bodily aches and pains, and even diarrhea. Mental health professionals typically don’t diagnose adults with this condition unless their symptoms significantly hinder their daily functions for six months or longer.
What Is Agoraphobia?
Agoraphobia is the extreme fear of leaving your house or going outside in general. Most people with the disorder avoid any situation or place that may make them feel helpless and trapped, cause embarrassment, or lead to a panic attack.
In its most extreme form, agoraphobia prevents people from ever leaving their homes. But the condition can also manifest in individuals who fear large crowds, standing in line at stores, or sharing enclosed spaces (e.g., elevators or subways) with other people.
Individuals with agoraphobia often pursue an occupation that allows them to work from home and opt for food and supply delivery services.
They essentially structure their entire lives in a way that minimizes interactions with anyone outside their home. Agoraphobia frequently coincides with panic attacks; nearly everyone with agoraphobia experiences panic attacks — at least occasionally — because of their symptoms.
This disorder can impact people of all backgrounds and genders. A person’s overall health, well-being, social standing, or socioeconomic status doesn’t necessarily influence their susceptibility to agoraphobia. It comes with a range of symptoms and can affect individuals from all walks of life.
With that said, socioeconomic status can play a role. Someone who doesn’t have access to resources may not be able to take advantage of specific treatments and coping mechanisms. Nonetheless, socioeconomic status doesn’t necessarily dictate a person’s ability to treat symptoms and live a fulfilling life.
You can’t really grasp the impact agoraphobia can have on someone’s life unless you learn to recognize the wide-ranging symptoms. Most agoraphobia symptoms can be categorized into physical and mental health issues.
Remember that agoraphobia and panic attacks are almost always intertwined, and some of the most prevalent physical symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Excessive sweating
- Shakiness or numbness
- Lightheadedness and dizziness
- Rapid heart rate
- Difficulty or shallow breathing
- Upset stomach or diarrhea
- Sudden feelings of flushness
- Suddenly getting chills
It’s extremely common for an individual with agoraphobia to show anxiety and fear at the prospect of leaving the house alone, being in a crowd, waiting in a line, or taking public transportation. Some even fear being in malls, parking lots, or other open spaces.
The root cause of such symptoms has been attributed to the person feeling an inability to get help or escape the situation in the event of a panic attack or incapacitation.
Unlike many other phobias, agoraphobia rarely becomes dormant. Various situations can trigger fear, which is why so many people with agoraphobia construct their lives to avoid such situations.
Maybe they vow to never use public transportation or visit the mall. Maybe they only use grocery delivery. Perhaps they quit their job and seek work-from-home opportunities. In other words, individuals with his condition often go to great lengths to avoid triggering situations, stay in their house, and find ways to get everything they need without stepping a foot outside their home.
Many experts believe that an individual’s genetics and overall health can influence their susceptibility to agoraphobia. While more research needs to be conducted, we know that someone has a higher chance of developing the disorder if they have a parent who also lives with it.
At its core, agoraphobia is the fear that you won’t be able to escape a situation or place — or that no one will be able to help you — if you experience an anxiety attack. A long line of panic attacks almost always precedes the development of agoraphobia.
The tricky thing about panic attacks is that it only takes one episode to make a person afraid that they will experience another one. The fear feeds off of itself and makes the individual more susceptible to further panic attacks. Moreover, it can cause the person to avoid any situations, or places that they perceive puts them at risk of a panic attack.
Some people with agoraphobia discover that it helps when a family member or close friend accompanies them in public places, making it easier for them to leave their homes. But over time, agoraphobia can become so overwhelming that an individual eventually determines never to leave the house altogether.
Anyone can develop agoraphobia, even children. In most instances, however, it surfaces in adolescence or early adulthood, typically before the age of 35. Environmental stressors, learning experiences, and other outside influences can contribute to the development of agoraphobia, and it’s more likely to affect those with a nervous temperament. The death of a loved one, emotional or physical abuse, and other traumatic life experiences can also lead to the development of the disorder.
Tobacco and alcohol use may contribute to the development of agoraphobia. Some experts believe that the effects of smoking and nicotine dependence on someone’s breathing are related.
Agoraphobia not only adds inconvenience and impracticality to a person’s life, but it can also cause substance abuse and clinical depression. The longer an individual neglects to address the condition, the more likely they are to experience additional health problems and mental disorders.
Coping With Separation Anxiety and Agoraphobia
So, you have a basic understanding of separation anxiety and agoraphobia. Now, how do you cope with these conditions and take practical steps towards a healthy, fulfilling life?
Separation anxiety disorder and agoraphobia can become so overpowering in a person’s life that they drastically influence their daily routines and harm their health and well-being. It’s impractical to think that you can continue to risk panic attacks every time a loved one leaves or you’re faced with the prospect of leaving the house (or going outside).
Facing Your Fears
The longer you suffer from separation anxiety or agoraphobia without facing your fears, the more likely your symptoms will fester and worsen. Consider simple breathing exercises you can do each day as you take gradual steps to overcome your disorder.
Maybe this means going to public places with a friend or allowing your spouse or children to leave the house more often. Over time, you may find your fear becoming less and less intense.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is among the most impactful forms of therapy for separation anxiety disorder and agoraphobia. In short, it teaches you specific skills and tools necessary for coping with anxiety and facing your fears. It can help you gradually restructure your life so it more closely resembles the life you previously enjoyed.
Depending on your specific symptoms and needs, your therapist may prescribe you anti-anxiety medication or an anti-depressant. Benzodiazepine is the most prescribed anti-anxiety drug on the market. But since benzodiazepine primarily addresses short-term problems, anti-depressants have been found to work more effectively in treating agoraphobia. The best approach is to ask a licensed therapist for recommendations on which medications will meet your needs.
If you suffer from separation anxiety disorder or agoraphobia, now is the time to act. Consider the information and advice above as you determine how to treat your condition and cope with the symptoms. And remember that you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Connect with Tennessee Counseling for an online consultation and surround yourself with supportive family members and friends.