How to conquer post-lockdown separation anxiety

    illustration of two friends embracing eachother
    Published: 11 May 2021. Written by: Jo Usmar. 

    Feeling fearful about getting to spend less time with your pet or partner as restrictions ease and we gradually return to ‘normal’? You’re not alone. Here’s how to conquer this post-lockdown anxiety.

    While you may have spent the first six months of lockdown cursing the moment you ever set eyes on your partner or housemate, chances are you may now be feeling a bit fearful about the looming prospect of time apart. Not to mention spending less time with children as we slowly emerge back into reality. 

    We spoke to Dr Roderick Orner, clinical psychologist and Professor at the University of Lincoln, about post-lockdown ‘separation anxiety’ and how you can manage it. 

    What is separation anxiety? Is it what some people are experiencing now?

    Illustration of family with pets facing separation anxiety

    ‘From a developmental perspective, separation anxiety is when someone has grown up through childhood with a too-close relationship with another person – usually a parent or a sibling. You often find it in twins,’ Dr Orner explains. ‘They grow up with the sense that their identity is intrinsically tied to this other person, so if they’re away from them they become very anxious, believing that they cannot adjust to life on their own.’

    Dr Orner emphasises how important it is to recognise that feeling anxious about leaving your pet at home is not the same as experiencing long-standing separation anxiety that developed during your youth. However, that doesn’t mean missing your pet to the point of anxiety isn’t real or valid. 

    ‘Feeling anxious about missing your pet or partner now that lockdown is lifting can fit with the syndrome of separation anxiety – with one very important distinction,’ he explains. ‘There are those who will have experienced separation anxiety throughout their lives, as a feature of their everyday experience. For those that haven’t, suddenly feeling anxious about the prospect of having to leave them and step outside into the world is more a transient reaction to a sudden change in circumstances.’

    The good news being, of course, that transient means temporary.

    Signs of separation anxiety 

    Illustration of someone talking to therapist about separation anxiety

    Symptoms can include: excessive distress about anticipating or being away from home and loved ones, constant excessive worry that something bad will happen to them, repeated nightmares about separation, and frequent headaches or stomach aches (caused by the constant state of tension your body is in and being in constant fight-or-flight mode). 

    One perhaps surprising consequence can even be losing your hair. Harley Street trichologist Mark Blake told us how he’s experienced an increased number of clients reporting hair loss ‘because they’re missing their dogs’. 

    ‘They’re used to working on their laptops at home with their dogs lying across their feet and now they’re pining for them,’ Blake says. ‘A feeling like that can be a real hair-loss trigger. It’s a disruption to what you’re used to – you’ve lost something that gave you comfort.’ 

    He goes on to explain the physical process behind what’s happening. ‘Stress and anxiety can trigger the fight-or-flight response, where your body releases cortisol, which disrupts your hormonal balance. Your body prioritises the organs it needs to survive – to either fight or run away – and that most definitely does not include hair. A chronically stressed body can shut down a person’s hair follicles.’ 

    Blake agrees with Dr Orner that, in his experience, this form of separation anxiety is temporary. ‘As you get used to your new routine and reconnecting with other people, the stress dissipates causing the cortisol to drop, meaning your hair will stop falling out and regrow.’ 

    Why are we getting feelings of anxiety now?

    Illustration of people wearing masks

    People have adapted and become used to narrower horizons, explains Dr Orner. ‘For the last 12 months, we’ve had all these tall walls around us and we’ve been told that inside those walls it’s safe, while outside of them everything is dangerous.’ 

    If you’re constantly told everything from surfaces and transport to other people are dangerous, it makes sense that you associate ‘outside’ and ‘others’ as threats and inside as safe and comforting.  

    ‘Now we’re being told we can lower those walls,’ Dr Orner continues, ‘and expand our horizons again. And, understandably, people are anxious about that. They’re being told they not only can, but should step outside into what was previously a danger zone; it’s like being invited to walk into a minefield. So, there are a lot of other fears and anxieties tied up in that, not just separation anxiety.’ 

    While you may indeed be missing Fido (hopefully that’s the name of your dog, not housemate), it’s probably tied up in other worries about Covid-19 and lockdown. That should be reassuring because as those anxieties dissipate, so will your fear about leaving your home comforts.

    Is this anxiety only directed at people and pets?

    Illustration of person covering face with hands because they have separation anxiety

    ‘A pet, a partner, friend or housemate makes sense in this circumstance,’ says Dr Orner. ‘People try to make sense of what makes them fearful and, if it’s as huge as “the outside”, they look towards the things closest to them that make them feel safe. They believe that without the protection or support of the person or pet they will be unable to cope. Separation anxiety is very much from within the person. They feel incomplete unless attached to another.’ 

    And, most importantly, what can you do if you’re feeling anxious? 

    Illustration of person with dog at home

    ‘First, it’s really important to talk to the other person about it,’ Dr Orner says. ‘If it’s your pet, that’ll be difficult, but if it’s a partner, flatmate or friend don’t hold back. Talk about the fears of having to move away from the comforts of the relationship. Say, “This is something I feel at the moment. I’m moving back into the world and am re-establishing relationships with others and my fears of the separation will get less as I reform attachments.”’

    Dr Orner reiterates that many other people will be sharing the anxieties we’re experiencing at the moment – a unique situation and one we should take advantage of by discussing it. Also, in telling your partner, friend or flatmate, you’re prepping them for any unexpected neediness or sensitivity, putting you both in the best situation to work through it with compassion.   

    ‘What separation anxiety is really about is a loss of attachment to others,’ says Dr Orner. ‘So, as we re-establish other connections and friendships, we’ll be reassured. Any fears that we aren’t coping will be assuaged. The more you form attachments and have good times with other people, the quicker you will overcome separation anxiety.’

    What you should not do, therefore, is believe your thoughts telling you that you can’t cope and retreat back into your home – as appealing as spending life with your face buried in Fido’s fur might seem. You have to put yourself in situations that will disprove your fears. That can be a gradual process. 

    For example, you could begin by staying out longer than your partner, friend or flatmate at an event, or book small trips out without your dog. Also, ask your employer if you can start with two days at the office, working up to three. Recognise that there’s a lot of other stuff going on as well – things that will be aggravating your sense of unease. Your judgement on your ability to cope is probably inaccurate at the moment. You can cope. And the more you challenge yourself, the more you’ll believe it. 

    What about people with a longer history of separation anxiety? ‘If, during lockdown, your separation anxiety was reduced but now it’s coming back, that’s highlighted a very important personal struggle,’ says Dr Orner. ‘It’s nature’s way of inviting you to look into it. I suggest you do so via therapy or a help group. It’s an opportunity to use the circumstances of lockdown to get some professional help and resolve what hadn’t been resolved before the virus.’

    If you’re still adapting to the new world, you might find that you haven’t quite found how to say no to all those social invitations. We look at how to avoid social burnout.

    Vitality offers mental health support with private health insurance. If you’re a Vitality health insurance member, log into Member Zone to access the mental health hub.