Study Explores Personalities Of People With Adult Separation Anxiety, A “Neglected Clinical Syndrome”

By Emma Young

Most parents will be very familiar with the concept of separation anxiety. It’s hardly rare for babies and toddlers to become anxious when separated from a parent. But I have to confess, I hadn’t heard of Adult Separation Anxiety (ASA) until I came across this new paper in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. For adults, it can manifest as extreme distress at being separated from a partner, or another loved one — even a pet. And it’s thought that 7% of people suffer from it at some point in their lifetimes.

Partly because ASA has been so neglected by researchers, Megan Finsaas at Columbia University and Daniel Klein at Stony Brook University set out to better understand it — and specifically, to explore links with aspects of personality.

The pair studied data on US-based mothers from 609 families involved in an ongoing study of potential links between children’s temperament and their risk of developing depression. Finsaas and Klein analysed responses to various surveys gathered every three years over a nine-year period. The mothers reported on any symptoms of adult separation anxiety (such as anxiety at the prospect of being separated from a loved one, or fears that that person may suffer harm), mood and also personality. The key personality scale that was used, a short form of the the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire (MPQ), assessed the traits of negative emotionality, positive emotionality  and constraint (which includes measures of control and harm avoidance). It also assessed the trait of absorption; someone who ranks highly for absorption is prone become wrapped up in their own mental imagery. For some of the women, the researchers also had access to MPQ assessments of them made by their own partners.

Finsaas and Klein found “substantial” links between symptoms of Adult Separation Anxiety and negative emotionality — and particularly, with scores on the subscale of “stress reaction”. People who score highly on this often describe themselves as being tense and nervous and prone to worry. (And a tendency to worry maps onto aspects of separation anxiety, including fear that the loved one will come to some kind of harm, the researchers point out.) The mothers with higher ASA scores were also more likely to report greater feelings of vulnerability. This fits with an idea from research on separation anxiety disorder in children — that these children overestimate the dangers of being left alone, and underestimate their ability to function independently.

The results also suggested a link between aggression and ASA. Though aggression is not among the characteristics of ASA listed in DSM-5, it is recognised in children with separation anxiety disorder. For adults, it might stem from a desperation to keep their attachment figure close, when other efforts to do this have failed. Some researchers even suggest that this type of aggression could be linked to at least some cases of domestic violence.

Absorption also emerged as being linked to ASA scores. High levels of absorption have been related in other work to feelings of unity with objects outside the self — such as another person. “For someone with separation anxiety, when an attachment figure leaves, it may feel like a part of the self is leaving and thus be particularly threatening and painful,” Finsaas and Klein write.

The researchers also found that having a “negative temperament” (as assessed by another questionnaire) was linked to a higher risk of developing ASA three years later.

The study does have some limitations. The participants were all mothers who began providing data when they had a child of about three at home — and having young children may worsen ASA, the researchers write. Most of these women were also White, middle class and in their late 30s and early 40s, restricting generalisability. Also, the nature of the data the pair had to work with means it’s also possible that ASA itself influences personality over time, rather than certain personalities being predisposed to ASA.

However, given that so little work has been done to understand links between personality and adult separation anxiety, this provides a great base for further investigation. And in theory, a better understanding of these links could help with spotting people at risk of developing adult separation anxiety, or with tailoring treatments.

Adult separation anxiety: Personality characteristics of a neglected clinical syndrome.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest