If you’ve heard the phrase ‘separation anxiety’ before, it’s probably been about parents and their children or pets and their owners, not necessarily people in relationships. But after three lockdowns in a global pandemic, and a lacklustre summer, more and more people are recognising separation anxiety in themselves. On top of that, they’re feeling ashamed of it.
“When my husband is out I start getting anxious,” Silva tells R29. “Not about him, that something terrible will happen to him, but selfishly for me. This dreadful loneliness and inadequacy overtakes me. Pretty pathetic.”
I’ve felt the same way. Despite being perfectly happy in my own company before 2020 and even looking forward to it, I find myself increasingly anxious when my wife goes out in the evening or if I venture out on my own. I’m scared of the rational and the irrational – that my OCD will flare when I’m in public and I won’t be able to deal; that I’ll choke on something and no one will save me – and I miss the comfort of her being in the next room. It is almost embarrassing to feel like this, still, when lockdown ended months ago. Surely I should have moved past it?
Happily, that particular anxiety is misplaced. After spending so much time at close quarters (especially when the outdoors was so perilous), this kind of separation anxiety is inevitable, says certified counsellor and Counselling Directory member Kathryn Taylor.
“Lockdown and the pandemic has created a lot of fear around illness and death and made people recognise their immortality. Being anxious about COVID and the possible impact in terms of losing loved ones to it has heightened that fear,” says Kathryn. While being in lockdown meant that those risks were less, the lifting of lockdown can mean people feeling excessive fear or panic that something will happen to their loved ones when they are apart.
These fears aren’t always directly COVID-related, although that doesn’t make the impact any less significant, adds psychotherapist Shelley Treacher. “People have had to be unusually self-reliant or dependent on a select few for so long that we can expect to feel insecure or uncertain of our capabilities.” Significantly, many of us have also felt traumatised or have experienced earlier trauma resurfacing, too. “This takes time to heal from, and may leave us feeling insular and socially unsure of ourselves.”
Despite knowing that COVID has had an impact on our collective psyche, there is a lot of shame surrounding anxiety about being away from your partner. It feels like you’re admitting something childish or taboo when you say that you’re struggling to be on your own, or like you’re bragging about how smitten you are. Shelley thinks this could come from the emphasis that is put on independence in our culture. “[The shame] may have something to do with patriarchy and a dominance-led culture where value is placed on hardness and strength. Here, being emotional or dependent may be seen as weakness. Or it may be that we hide our vulnerability for fear of not being accepted for who we really are.”
As with all forms of anxiety, knowing that the fear is fundamentally irrational doesn’t help either. In fact, it can just add to it, confirms Kathryn.
“A lot of people don’t find it easy to talk to others about their feelings for fear of being laughed at or looking stupid. Often clients are unable to prevent themselves from feeling the way they do, which transpires into them seeing themselves as inadequate, bad, weak or not deserving.”
Ultimately, this kind of anxiety is perfectly natural, even now, and should not be mistaken for a form of co-dependency. Shelley says: “We all need others in order to co-regulate and be happy. It’s okay to admit that and to talk about it. It’s only when separation anxiety tips into game-playing, passive aggression, manipulation or self-harm that it becomes unmanageable and a problem.” Equally, it’s important to be mindful of when it can begin to affect your ability to function (such as inability to sleep, fear of being alone, obsessive thoughts, anxiety and agitation or controlling behaviours).
If you’re struggling to deal, Kathryn suggests several ways you can manage and reduce your anxiety, including journalling, planning and doing things on your own, introducing mindfulness and, of course, seeking professional support through your GP or a therapist.
On top of that, directing kindness and compassion towards yourself is fundamental, not only in alleviating the anxiety but in lifting the shame around it, too.
“The key to coming out of separation anxiety,” emphasises Shelley, “is compassion for the feelings, and focusing on yourself rather than the other.”
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