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Distinguishing between normal versus high levels of separation anxiety

Anxiety is a normal experience when we feel threatened or vulnerable. The physical and emotional sensations of anxiety reflect our urges to either confront or flee from whatever is threatening us. Referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response, this is what enables us to act in times of danger, signalling an increase in adrenaline and other stress hormones, which prepare us for action.


For example, when faced with the task of public speaking, we may experience symptoms related to the ‘fight or flight’ response, such as increased heart rate and sweaty palms. People with a specific fear of public speaking, might freeze-up, they may feel their muscles tense and find that they cannot remember what to say in those situations.  


Specific fears about insects, spiders, storms, heights and enclosed spaces are other common sources of anxiety that can trigger this type of response. For example, if a person with a fear of spiders sees a spider crawling towards them, their fight or flight response will be triggered and they will quickly remove themselves from the situation.


The above reactions are not uncommon with most people experiencing a range of symptoms ranging ‘normal’ to severe depending on the circumstances.


Some anxiety when faced with temporary or permanent separation from people close to us, is also a normal reaction. However, some people are more prone to this type of anxiety and can experience severe distress at just the thought of being away from people close to them even for short periods of time. Often, these people assume the worst when their partner, or child has not returned home exactly ‘on time’. Their mind might jump to conclusions such as, “they must have met with an accident” or “they have abandoned me”.


People who experience these type of unhelpful thoughts about real or imagined separations from others often experience symptoms of anxiety and panic. Some of these symptoms include shortness of breath, rapid heartrate, dizziness and nausea. Persistent worries about separations from their loved ones may negatively impact their relationships and their ability to work and carry out their daily chores. When this occurs, it is likely that an individual might be suffering from Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder.


A diagnosis of Separation Anxiety Disorder is met when people suffer from the following symptoms to the extent that they affect their overall functioning. These symptoms include:

  • Intense worry about currently being separated or the possibility of being separated in the future from someone close to you

  •  Intense worry that someone close to you might be seriously harmed, or that something bad will happen to them when you are not with them

  •  Feeling stressed and anxious when you are away from the person that you are close to

  • Wanting to know the whereabouts of the person that you’re close to at all times

  • Experiencing ‘physical symptoms’ of anxiety when realising that the person you are close to is going to leave

  • Physical symptoms of anxiety/panic – can include shortness of breath, rapid heart rate and sweating

Living in a constant state of fear and distress related to worries about being separated from loved ones can be an incredibly debilitating experience. People will Separation Anxiety Disorder often assume the worst-case scenario when they are separated from those to whom they are attached – a style of thinking referred to as ‘catastrophising’. When we entertain worst case scenarios, we trigger our ‘flight or flight’ response’ which is accompanied by the physical sensations of anxiety and panic that were discussed earlier.


If this is something you experience, it can be helpful to identify the thoughts that contribute to this type of anxiety. This process is referred to as ‘self-monitoring’ which can help you become more aware of your unhelpful thoughts. Becoming more aware of these thoughts can help you address and ‘challenge’ these thoughts, which can help reduce your feelings of anxiety.


You can develop a list of worries by writing down the types of thoughts in a table and assigning each worry a rating from ‘1’ (no anxiety) to ‘10’ (extreme anxiety). For example, you could create a table like the one below to list your worries as they come up:





The practice of self-monitoring your thoughts about separations from loved ones allows you to self-reflect on the logic of such thoughts. Usually, the thoughts you record are an exaggeration of normal worries and represent an unhelpful style of thinking.


Engaging in activities like the one listed above, is just one of the many actions you can take to combat separation anxiety. It is important not to allow separation anxiety to go unmanaged for too long, as it can impact on other areas of your life including your relationships with the people you care for.


You may also lose confidence in carrying out certain activities on your own such as travelling long distances away from home or being at home on your own. Long term separation anxiety sufferers might start to resent relying on the people they are close to. Long-term separation anxiety can result in interpersonal issues, such as irritation and anger towards their loved ones.


If you’re suffering from what feels like separation anxiety and it is impacting your daily functioning and your relationships, please feel free to contact the clinic at:


Clinic details

East Coast Psychology & Psychiatry, 

Level 4, 9-13 Bronte Road, 

Bondi Junction, NSW 2022

Tel: 0293895630 


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