Separation Anxiety: What Is It? Part I

Most people have heard the expression “separation anxiety.” The image they get is of the 5-year old who cries when her mother drops her off at kindergarten. And that is indeed a common manifestation of separation anxiety. But it is almost certainly not the first time the child experienced anxiety. That occurred years earlier. Most likely it happened when when her mother put her in the crib at 9 months of age.

To Understand Separation Anxiety, You Have to Understand Anxiety

What is separation anxiety? It’s a rather complicated psychological phenomenon. Separation anxiety is  a gift, as it were, from our distant ancestors.  It’s a universal human sentiment. Virtually everybody feels it, at one time or another. Some feel it nearly all the time (we’ll get to them later!) To understand it completely, we need first to understand what anxiety itself is.

The Free Dictionary defines anxiety as “A state of uneasiness and apprehension, as about future uncertainties.”  “Worry” is one of the principal synonyms.  That has it about right. Anxiety deals with the future, which is uncertain almost by nature. And in particular it’s worry about the future.

Fear of Loss

Worry about what? What about the future are we worried about?


We’re worried about losing something.

At its most basic level, we’re worried about losing something very particular. That particular thing is something, or more precisely someone, we love. It’s someone to whom we have developed a deep loving attachment. That someone is most often our first caregiver, usually our mother. Our first, most basic anxiety, is fear of losing the person we love.

At its core, anxiety springs from the very human capacity to love

Other Conceptions of Anxiety

separation anxiety
He’s extinct. We’re still here

There are other explanations of anxiety. Some believe it’s an ancient instinct, shared by virtually all animals. It’s the survival instinct. We instinctively recoil from danger. Or better, we run from it, or we fight to survive. Anxiety has been described as the “flight or fight” adrenaline rush that we feel when a Saber Tooth Tiger appears at the mouth of our cave. It was a very helpful instinct! Without it we might have gone extinct millions of years ago. With it, we survived and the Saber Tooth Tiger went extinct!

So which is it?

I like the first definition better. That’s the one that says anxiety is basically a fear that we’re going to lose a loved one. Here’s why: In order to be afraid of the Saber Tooth Tiger, you have to perceive the threat that the tiger wants to eat you. That’s a fairly advanced concept for an infant to develop by 9 months!  Way before we develop the capacity to be afraid of being eaten by a tiger, we develop the capacity to fear losing a loved caregiver.

At it’s very core, anxiety springs from the very human capacity to love. When we love, we take on the risk of losing the object of our love. Anxiety is deeply embedded in the human psyche because it is one of the very first emotions that humans feel.

Anxiety Floats

Once it’s embedded in our psyche, anxiety detaches from that early infantile fear of loss (though we always love our mothers, right kids? RIGHT?) It detaches from our mothers and floats around until it attaches to something else we’re afraid of losing. You may have heard the expression “free-floating anxiety.” To me, this is a redundancy. All anxiety floats. That’s what anxiety does. It floats around our unconscious mind and attaches itself to some other uncertain future event. But at it’s core it remains fear of losing someone we love.

And that brings us back to separation anxiety, which truly is fear of loss of our first loved one.  Stay tuned.

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Rob Lindeman

Rob Lindeman is a sleep coach, entrepreneur, and writer living in Massachusetts. Ready to Get Rid of the Pacifier? Sign up for our FREE Video eCourse: The Paci-Free Method

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