Understanding Separation Anxiety

Understanding Separation Anxiety

The first thing to understand about any anxiety disorder is that anxiety is completely natural and totally human which every person experiences.

In fact, anxiety can be extremely healthy and life-giving when confronted and overcome.

When anxiety becomes a disorder is a matter of frequency and intensity.

The key phrase for all anxiety disorders is "excessive worry." 

NOTICE: Excessive!

But how do you know when your worry is excessive? And doesn't it become a little more complicated when the worry is about someone you love?

Those two questions are the driving force of Separation Anxiety.

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Defining Seperation Anxiety

Before diving into the weeds of anxiety, let's get an overview of Separation Anxiety first. 

Essentially, Separation Anxiety is the experience of fear regarding separation from someone you are attached to.

Pretty simple. 

But, don't most people experience some kind of worry or fear when a loved one leaves on a big trip, travels out of state, or leaves for an extended period of time?

Yes, actually, most people absolutely experience that, if you love someone you're bound to worry about them!

If most people experience this, then what makes Separation Anxiety, a disorder?

This is where our earlier NOTICE comes into play.

When Separation Anxiety becomes excessive and inappropriate from a developmental perspective, that's when it becomes a disorder. 

Now we can get into the weeds of Separation Anxiety Disorder and finally define what excessive really looks like. 

What "Excessive" Looks Like

If you love someone, then you are bound to worry about their safety and well-being, especially if they aren't within immediate reach.

However, not everyone experiences Separation Anxiety every single time their loved one leaves the house, much less BEFORE they leave the house.

One of the first markers of "excessive" is feeling fear or anxiety in anticipation of the loved one leaving; so, before they actually leave you are already experiencing the fear as if they had left.

Another marker of "excessive" worry is the persistent fear that they are in harm's way; they'll get lost, kidnapped, get in an accident, become ill, or even die.

It doesn't matter how unrealistic it is, the fear overrides reason. 

This fear can manifest as physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches, even nightmares about being separated. 

The individual refuses to be alone without their attachment figure and refuses to sleep without them or at least without being near them. 

With all these going on, it will inevitably start negatively impacting other areas of life such as work, school, friendships, and hobbies. 

The person suffering from separation anxiety can't really function on their own, which is one of the greatest measurements of when anxiety becomes "excessive." 

This not only disrupts their lives but the life of the one they're most concerned about!


Frequency is also very important when discussing if anxiety has entered the realm of disorder.

Say you are going through a hard time at work, you feel stressed, finances are a mess, and the one person who is your rock is about to leave for a 3 week trip out of the country; you won't be able to have much contact and you are worried about being alone while things seem so overwhelming.

Do you have Separation Anxiety Disorder?

If this is the only time or even 1 of only a handful in your life, then no matter how many of the markers for "excessive" you meet or how intensely you feel, you likely don't have Separation Anxiety Disorder (though depending on what and how intense there may be something else).

Why? Frequency.

In order to qualify for Separation Anxiety Disorder, you must meet the major markers listed above for a duration of at least 6 months (4 weeks in the case of children and adolescence).

Now, that is not to underscore how intense you feel about their leaving, especially if you're encountering a number of external stressors, the experience is every bit as terrible, but we are talking specifically about Separation Anxiety as a disorder. 

And, for that, the 6-month mark must be met. 


Everyone experiences Separation Anxiety, but not everyone has Separation Anxiety Disorder.

Separation Anxiety is the fear or anxiety of being apart from someone you love often feeling as though they are in some kind of danger.

This becomes a disorder when it becomes "excessive" resulting in physical symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, nightmares, and more every time the person you love is leaving, even if for only a short period.

It gets in the way of your daily functioning and limits your loved one as well. 

If you feel this way, consistently and excessively, talk to a mental health care provider, and live a life fulfilling to you and your loved ones, without fear.

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