NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Overcoming Separation Anxiety

When most people think about separation anxiety, they think of children having problems separating from their parents.   But separation anxiety can occur at any time in life.  It often has its roots in childhood, but it can continue into adulthood causing panic and shame as well as discord in relationships.

Overcoming Separation Anxiety

Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall St. Journal online wrote an interesting article called When It Never Gets Easier to Say Goodbye about separation anxiety.  The examples that she gives remind me of many psychotherapy clients that I have treated for separation anxiety over the years.

Case Example
The following vignette illustrates how the separation anxiety affects the person who suffers from it as well as how it can affect a relationship.  As always, this is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality.

Rose and Mike
Rose and her husband, Mike, were together several years when he started a job where he had to travel at least once a month.  The trips were usually short and not that far from home, but they often involved his staying away at least a couple of nights.

Prior to taking this job, Mike had been out of work for several months.  Both he and Rose were concerned about how his being away from home would affect Rose because she got very anxious whenever Mike was away.  But they both felt that Mike had no choice but to take this job because he was unemployed and he had no other offers.

As soon as Rose heard from Mike that he had an upcoming trip, she would begin to worry immediately.

It could be weeks before Mike had to leave, but she would worry obsessively, asking him countless times if he really needed to go, and talk about all the things she worried about that could go wrong:  What if the plane crashed? What if a burglar broke into the house while he was away?  What if there was some other kind of emergency that she couldn't handle by herself?

Mike did his best each time to reassure Rose, but nothing he said every reassured her.  After a while, inevitably, they would get into an argument about it because Mike would lose his patience.  He felt frustrated and annoyed because nothing he said had any impact on Rose's anxiety.  She, in turn, felt hurt and misunderstood.  She also felt deeply ashamed about her worrying and out of control.

Mike and Rose tried different strategies to help her feel better:  He called her as soon as his flight landed and he would call her a few times during the day to assure her that he was all right.  But these strategies never  helped Rose stop worrying incessantly that something awful might happen to Mike and then she would be alone.

After several of these arguments, he told Rose that she needed to get help because it was affecting their marriage as well as his ability to focus on his work while he was away.   Rose decided, somewhat reluctantly, that Mike was right--she needed to get help.

After a few sessions, it was evident that Rose had separation anxiety that stemmed from a chaotic childhood with parents who were very unpredictable.  They would often leave Rose, as a child of five or six, alone at night while they went out drinking.  Understandably, she was very afraid of being alone and she would beg them each time not to leave, but they told her to "stop being a baby" and they left anyway.  When her baby brother cried at night, she didn't know what to do to soothe him, which made her even more anxious.

Then, one day, when Rose was six, she woke up to find her grandparents and aunts in the living room with her mother.  Everyone was very upset and crying, but they wouldn't tell her what was wrong.  Her father wasn't there, and when Rose asked about him, her mother told her that he was "gone," but she wouldn't give Rose any more information.  Later that day, Rose overheard her aunt talking about a car crash.  She tried to ask her aunt and her mother about it, but they refused to talk about it and sent her to her room.

Rose never saw her father again. No one ever told her, as a child, what happened to her father.  She missed him terribly, but she felt she couldn't ask her mother about it any more because she feared her mother would get angry with her and leave too, and then she'd be all alone.  It wasn't until she was in her early 20s that she heard from an uncle that her father was drunk and had a fatal car accident.

We used EMDR to help Rose to process this earlier loss, as well all the times she felt abandoned by her parents even before her father died.  While we were working on these issues with EMDR, we also worked on Rose developing better coping skills.  She learned to meditate and she also began attending yoga classes.  She also strengthened her emotional support network among her friends.

Once she worked through her earlier losses and experiences of separation anxiety, Rose was no longer anxious about Mike going on business trips.  She and Mike began getting along much better.  They stopped arguing and even planned a romantic getaway, which was something they had not done in a while.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you suffer with separation anxiety, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience working with separation anxiety.  Getting help can make all the difference between living a life of constant anxiety and a fulfilling life that you and your loved ones can enjoy.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.