Separation Anxiety and Panic Disorder: What’s the Connection?

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is severe distress that a child feels when forced to be away from a parental figure. Some separation anxiety is normal for young children, but excessive, persistent terror and screaming may be indicative of an anxiety disorder. Ideally, children should be able to outgrow separation anxiety to a degree as they age. A healthy child will slowly become comfortable with leaving his or her parents and learn to enjoy being with peers.

According to the site for the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a child who is developing normally should stop experiencing separation anxiety at age two. However, separation anxiety can still occur in certain situations as the child continues to grow and face new challenges (e.g., starting a new school).

What Is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder in adults is characterized by high levels of anxiety and intermittent panic attacks. A panic attack is essentially a strong physiological response to a perceived threat. The body, for reasons unknown, falsely detects danger in its environment.

In order to prepare itself to confront or escape from this supposed danger, the body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. The heart races, the breathing quickens, and there may be some perspiration.

Some people who experience panic attacks also describe a feeling of disconnectedness with their body. For many, a panic attack seems very much like a heart attack. Sufferers usually describe a panic attack as being sudden, terrifying and uncontrollable.

Connecting Separation Anxiety and Panic Disorder

For years, researchers have examined the link between separation anxiety in children and panic disorder in adults. Some mental health specialists have even proposed the existence of an adult form of separation anxiety (“Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder”).

An article by Robertson-Nay et al. (2012) discusses the genetic basis of separation anxiety and panic disorder.

By studying over 1,000 sets of twins with separation anxiety and their parents, the researchers were able to conclude that separation anxiety and panic disorder are very likely to be related on a genetic level.

Some of the children in the study were diagnosed with overanxious disorder. However, this condition was not shown to be genetically related to panic disorder in adults.

Robertson-Nay et al.’s study may contribute to an explanation of why anxiety disorders often seem to “run in the family.” Twin studies are especially useful for researchers in the mental health field because twins are so genetically similar. Research involving twins can help to separate environmental versus hereditary causes for a disorder.