Dear Doctor George...

My husband and I have been married for 10 years and we have a good relationship. My problem is that I get anxious when he has to go on occasional business trips. I get very worried something bad will happen to him. One time, I sat at the kitchen table just trembling in fear. But when I know he has safely reached his destination, I relax and am okay. I felt the same way when my children started preschool. What is wrong with me?

... Goodbyes Make Me Anxious




Dear Goodbyes Make Me Anxious...

The feelings you describe are consistent with a problem called “separation anxiety”. This is the recurrent, excessive fear of losing a person with whom we have an emotional attachment. Such fears of loss and separation are truly miserable feelings to have and, even when we know they are irrational, they can still interfere with our lives.

People have separation anxiety to greater and lesser degrees. It comes out in small ways in everyday life, such as when we use our cell phones like electronic umbilical cords to avoid feelings of being alone.

Separation anxiety occurs in childhood because infants and young children are physically and emotionally dependent on their parents. For them, the fear is a literal one as in, “If I lose this person I won’t survive.” If we have not outgrown this fear by the time we are adults, it may be because of earlier painful separations from a parent that we never got over. The earlier in life such absences occur, and the longer their duration, the more insecure we become in our relationships because we haven’t developed the confidence that the other person will be available when we need them.

Separation fears may develop not only because of parental absence but also when a parent is psychologically enmeshed with their child. In the latter case, the overly-involved parent attempts to maintain constant connection in order to sooth their own anxieties. The child absorbs the parent’s worries and comes to excessively fear separations from the parent, without learning to tolerate being alone and developing healthy autonomy. This child may, for example, strongly resist being with a baby sitter or staying with relatives while the parents go away for a weekend. When starting school, this child may have extended periods of crying, clinging, headaches, and stomachaches: symptoms which may indicate separation anxiety.

As adults, it is important to know that our excessive fears of separation cause problems in our relationships, since the other person can feel burdened and constrained by our anxiety. To understand and minimize our separation anxiety, it is important to make a connection between our current feelings and our past experience. We may search our own memories and make use of information about the past that is supplied by family members and others who know our history. A friend and/or a therapist may help us talk it out. In whatever way we choose to explore our feelings, perhaps the most important thing is to learn that our fears and worries are not caused simply by the absence of our loved one, but by previous emotional experiences that we carry within us.

   Doctor George