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7 Highly Effective Ways to Manage Separation Anxiety

Anxiety about separation has escalated during the pandemic.

Key points

  • The level of anxiety and/or discomfort about separation has escalated in recent months.
  • People are talking about COVID-related “separation anxiety,” which is exactly what it sounds like—anxiety about separating.
  • Cultural and family beliefs encourage self-sufficiency and independence.
  • Feelings of sadness and anxiety about separating are actually signals that we are deeply attached.

“My company has said that everyone who’s vaccinated should return to the office next week,” Andrea* told me recently over Zoom. “I’m excited about being back in my office and back with my colleagues. I’m vaccinated, and we’ll all wear our masks, so I’m not worried about being safe. But I don’t know how I can leave my dog alone. She’s gotten so attached to me, so used to being with me 24/7, that she howls if I leave just to run to the deli for a few minutes. I’m worried about how she’ll manage if I’m away for the whole day.”

“My wife is going back to work in person,” Michaela* said in her Zoom session. “My office is going to be remote for another few months, at least, so I’m going to be working alone from home. I’m going to miss knowing she’s in the next room while I’m working, being able to pop over and chat with her for a couple of minutes when we both have a break… The house is going to feel so empty without her.”

“I complained about my kids sucking up my time and energy during the pandemic,” said Ethan,* who balanced work and his children’s needs through the pandemic, “but now, I’m having a hard time with them going back to school. I know this is sappy to say, but I’m walking around with a kind of emptiness inside and out. The house is too quiet. I’m glad they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing to move on with their lives, but I miss them a lot!”

The level of anxiety and/or discomfort about separation has escalated among my clients recently, and people are talking about COVID-related “separation anxiety,” which is exactly what it sounds like—anxiety about separating from the people, pets, and places we’ve been with for the past eighteen or so months. But is this a disorder or a normal response to the life we’ve been living under the pandemic? And either way, what can we do to help our kids, our pets, and ourselves manage these difficult feelings?

Is "Separation Anxiety" Always a Bad Thing?

I’m someone who has always felt sad about separation, which is probably why I’ve always been particularly interested in the topic. As a young girl, I got homesick if I spent the night with my best friend. And sleep-away camp… well, when my parents downsized years ago, my mom sent me a bunch of letters I had written to her over the years. Among them were letters I had written from camp, with little circles all over the page and the note, “these circles are where my tears have fallen while I’m writing to you.”

For much of my life, I felt ashamed of this tendency to hurt over separation. Cultural and family beliefs suggested that I should be self-sufficient and independent, and not need other people to make me feel good or comfortable. My early days of training to be a psychotherapist reinforced this idea as I learned about “separation-individuation”—that is, the capacity to be an independent person separate from parents and family and other supports.

But these days we recognize that the capacity for attachment is as important as the ability to separate. We also understand that individuation itself occurs best in the context of attachment, what some theorists have called “attachment-individuation.”

My own conclusion is that feelings of sadness and anxiety about separating are actually signals that we are deeply attached, not that we aren’t independent enough. But it’s also important to find ways to manage the sadness so that it doesn’t overwhelm you. In fact, what I now understand is that there is a fine balance between attachment and individuation, and we are always having to recalibrate and re-balance as we move through life.

Coping with Feelings of Separation Anxiety

The separation discomfort that many of us are feeling these days is in many cases simply a sign of how well we managed the balance during the pandemic, and how much we need to find a new point of equilibrium now.

One of the hardest things for most of us is to accept that attachment and individuation are always shifting. The balance between them is always changing, requiring that we constantly work to find a place simultaneously for sadness and excitement, loneliness and happiness, and other opposite feelings that emerge at the same time when we or someone we love is separating.

Some ways to manage these opposites include:

  1. Prepare for separation: Think and talk about some of the changes that will come as a result. Talk about and accept your different, often contradictory feelings. And listen to the feelings your loved one expresses, even when they’re not the same as yours.
  2. Take it in small steps: If you can, give your pet or your child some brief moments of tolerable separation before asking them to manage longer ones. The more often you reunite after a short break, the easier it will be for them to believe you’ll come back after a longer one.
  3. Ask for or provide a keepsake reminder of the loved one: A picture, a favorite book, a small stuffed animal can help, depending on your relationship and what you and your loved one want. I’m not a pet person, so this isn’t from my personal experience or knowledge, but I understand from my friends who are pet people that something with your scent on it can sometimes help.
  4. Stay in touch: Short, meaningful check-ins can make a world of difference. For college students, who are busy separating, it can be an important way of reminding them that you are still concerned with them and paying attention to their well-being. (I’ve written a lot about that. Click here to see my PT blogs about separating from your college-aged child.) This also applies to separating from adult loved ones. Being in touch can ease the pain and make it possible to balance the loving feelings with the sad ones.
  5. Get involved in other activities and in meeting other people: Distract yourself, just as you would distract a young child. You will enjoy other activities and other people, which doesn’t mean that you’ll forget your loved one. You are simply working to discover a new balance in your relationship.
  6. Be patient: Sadness about separation doesn’t go away overnight. It may take time. It may go away for a little while and return later. No matter what, you will find that you are gradually able to find a new equilibrium, if you give yourself and your loved one’s time.
  7. Please note: Recognizing the positive aspects of this worry doesn’t mean you should ignore the problematic components. Separation anxiety, if not dealt with, can become severely disabling. If you or someone you love is having problems moving forward during a separation, please seek professional help. It will make it much easier to find your balance.

*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy


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