Separation anxiety disorder is a psychological disorder characterized by the display of extreme worry and discomfort while going away from the things and/or people to whom one is attached.
It is commonly observed in infants and toddlers, who suffer from the fear of something bad happening to them or their loved ones after saying goodbye, even for a short duration. They remain sad and dissociated from the surroundings, and display an unusual social behavior. Some of them continue to cry uncontrollably when their favorite toy is lost or broken accidentally.
Emotional and behavioral support at an early age plays a vital role, in the absence of which deep-rooted changes may result in the individual’s personality. Young adults with separation anxiety disorder find it difficult to change cities for higher education or work, they feel extremely homesick. Elderly people with the condition, despite having considerable experience of life continue to feel anxious and constantly worried about the well-being of their children, spouse, or parents.
In order to be able to manage it effectively, it becomes imperative to understand the risk factors which can cause this condition.
Image Credit: Pathdoc / Shutterstock Genetic Factors
The majority of the patients who are diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder are found to have a history of other psychiatric conditions themselves, or in their family. Therefore, researchers believe separation anxiety disorder to be a heritable disorder and of genetic origin.
The first-degree relatives of patients with a history of mental illness are usually at a higher risk of developing separation anxiety disorder, albeit the precise genetic trigger has not been identified yet.
VIDEO Biological Factors
Similar to other psychiatric disorders, separation anxiety disorder also involves imbalances in neurotransmitter levels. In the patients with separation anxiety disorder, the regulation mechanism that controls the optimal level of such brain chemicals is impaired. Serotonin and norepinephrine levels are believed to be majorly affected in such patients.
This results in poor central regulation of emotions, and amplified stress responses to low-level triggers of danger.
While genetic and biological factors are believed to be the causal triggers of separation anxiety disorder, environmental factors also form a major set of contributors. And unlike the above two, environmental factors can be pinpointed relatively easily by closely observing the surroundings and events of the patient’s life.
There exists a panoply of environmental stressors. The most basic one is an abrupt change in the surroundings of a child who is prone to the disorder, such as, for example, the family moving to a new city because of the parents’ work commitments. Having to adjust to a new dwelling, school, neighborhood, and locality altogether can get too much for the child to handle.
Additionally, children may also “learn” anxious behavior from their parents or grandparents who are over-protective and show excessive concern about their safety. They subconsciously imbibe a habit of worrying extensively from the mere observation of their surroundings, and eventually fail to see anything abnormal in that habit.
Stress and trauma are other important triggers of anxiety. Major losses such as the unexpected death of a family member to whom the patient was closely attached can render the person very lonely and traumatized. Separation from a caregiver, a close friend, or a pet may all have similar impacts with varying severities according to the given situation. Partners with an emotionally interdependent romantic relationship also find it really difficult to cope if faced with separation or divorce. The extreme unfamiliarity with the new emotional space and unpreparedness to deal with the change can contribute heavily to separation anxiety disorder.
Reviewed by Liji Thomas, MD. Further Reading