Being separate from someone you’re attached to can cause distress — and, sometimes, depression. Treatments for depression may help.

Many people feel sad when they have to separate from a loved one. But for some, time apart can feel overwhelming, causing panic or intense discomfort. They might worry about something terrible happening to their loved one, or feel panicky about being alone or leaving the house.

Intense anxiety when you anticipate being separated from someone you’re emotionally attached to — whether this is perceived or actual separation — is known as separation anxiety.

Depression is not uncommon for people experiencing separation anxiety.

In fact, a 2021 study into the co-occurrence of other mental health disorders with major depressive disorder found that, out of 100 people receiving treatment for depression, 41% also had separation anxiety disorder.

Help is available if you are experiencing separation anxiety, depression, or both.

Separation anxiety is when you experience distress about separation from a person you are emotionally attached to.

Separation anxiety disorder was first viewed as a childhood disorder; however, experts now know that it can continue into or even begin in adulthood.

A certain amount of separation anxiety is typical for infants who are apart from their attachment figures. When this anxiety becomes intense and very distressing, it can be classified as separation anxiety disorder.

Because separation anxiety is an overwhelming experience for many people, depression is likely due to challenges with going to work or school, feelings of loneliness, and having trouble adjusting to being without your loved one.

The symptoms of depression include the following and typically last for 2 weeks or more:

  • a low mood
  • loss of interest in things you usually enjoy
  • difficulty concentrating
  • changes in your sleep and appetite

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) lists depressive disorders as comorbid with adult separation anxiety disorder.

According to the DSM-5-TR, the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder include:

  • chronic distress when there is perceived or actual separation from your home or attachment figure
  • intense worry about loss of attachment figures or attachment figures experiencing harm
  • rumination about something harmful happening to you that would separate you from your loved one
  • difficulties with leaving home or going out in public because of separation fears
  • intense fear of being alone or without your attachment figure
  • refusing to sleep away from your home or without the person you’re attached to
  • nightmares about loss or separation from your loved one
  • physical symptoms, such as nausea or headaches, when thinking about separation or experiencing separation from an attachment figure

To receive a diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder, you must experience 3 out of 8 of the symptoms listed above. In children, the symptoms must be present for at least 4 weeks, and in adults, the symptoms must last at least 6 months.

There are various causes of separation anxiety disorder in children and adults.

According to 2021 research, separation anxiety disorder in children may be caused by:

  • high levels of stress within the family, such as parental conflict or divorce
  • environmental changes, such as moving schools
  • presence of anxiety disorders within their family
  • traumatic events or loss of an attachment figure

In adults, 2015 research suggests that some potential causes of separation anxiety disorder may be:

The authors also note that separation anxiety disorder in adults is most common in females ranging in age from 18-59 and in people who have never been married, or were previously married but aren’t currently. However, the exact causes of separation anxiety disorder are unknown, and this area still needs further research.

Treatment for separation anxiety disorder and depression can involve a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

According to 2022 research, one of the first-line treatments for separation anxiety disorder in children and adults is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy reduces symptoms and helps you challenge unhelpful patterns of thinking.

The researchers suggest that when symptoms aren’t reduced with CBT alone, you may experience improvement with antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Note that SSRIs are not typically prescribed for children under age 6.

If you’re considering starting mental health treatment you may consider talking with a doctor about what therapy or medication may be right for you.

If you are experiencing separation anxiety, you may become very upset and feel overwhelmed when you’re without your parent, spouse, or child. Separation anxiety affects both children and adults and often occurs with depression.

Separation anxiety can also cause physical health symptoms, such as vomiting and headaches.

While the exact causes of separation anxiety are unknown, shared experiences in children and adults include:

  • high levels of stress in childhood
  • experiencing trauma
  • problematic family functioning

Treatment for separation anxiety disorder and depression often involves a combination of medications and psychotherapy.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can find mental health support today. Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource may help.

For more resources on separation anxiety, consider visiting Anxiety Canada to connect with tools that may help.