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Separation Anxiety In The Age Of Coronavirus

Sometimes I feel terrible after particularly awesome dates. The day after is usually the worst — I experience an influx of emotions, maybe even bouts of crying or a depressive state. On the surface everything may seem normal. The date was amazing, I am home with my family, work is fine, everything is fine, yet I’m in this horrible mood for no particular reason. Shelter-in-place has further exacerbated these feelings and, although I’ve been feeling particularly down, I see this as an opportunity to dig deep and fully work through the triggers and underlying emotions.

After a few post-date withdrawals, I developed some tactics for working through the onslaught of difficult feelings. Clearly, part of the reason for my petty state was purely chemical: hormonal shifts do happen after particularly good dates. ThisScientific American articlereferences some research studies done on prairie voles (and another study with humans) that did show a stress hormone increase after a few days of separation between those animals and their mates. In a way, amazing dates are similar to taking drugs, such asMDMA. On a particularly good date all kinds of hormones are circulating through the blood —oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins. When the date is over, these neurochemical levels return to normal and we often experiencewithdrawal-like symptoms, just like we do after a good night of partying. Does it mean5-HTP— a supplement that party goers take to recover after taking ecstasy — might help me feel better? Might have to give it a try and report back… Jokes aside, activities that help the brain generate oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine that are not dependent on my romantic partners, seem to work best. Meditation, chocolate, sports, and hugging my kids are all effective ways of restoring my happy hormones.

The other component of these post-date withdrawals is the kind of fear that is not easily cured via a hike through the woods. When I look deep into this fear and stay with it long enough, I can feel my frightened inner child acting up. My inner child is scared of losing people that mean a lot to her, scared that when she calls for someone they won’t be there.

These childhood fears track back to when I was three or four years old. I remember waking up in the middle of the night only to realize I was home alone. It was a terrifying experience that made me cry. I called out for my mom but she was nowhere to be found. It turned out later that my parents had gone to the movies that night, thinking it would go unnoticed, since typically I never woke up in the middle of the night. Later, my parents would divorce. I would see my dad sporadically at my grandmother’s house, never knowing when we would next meet. After he’d leave, the sadness would sweep over me and get progressively worse over the next few days.

When I grew up and started dating, I would develop feelings towards someone and inevitably start feeling irrationally scared of losing them. This fear followed me for a few years after I started dating my husband, until we moved in together. It has been showing it’s nasty face in the newer relationships I’ve started since we opened up our marriage. Eventually I realized I had an anxious attachment style, which is easier to deal with in some ways, by being polyamorous. But sometimes I can even feel this fear creep up in my relationships with friends and family…

As I started digging into my fears, I realized that what I’m feeling sounds a lot like separation anxiety. Here is an excerpt from an article on on adult separation anxiety (ASA):

There are many signs that someone is suffering from separation anxiety, says Elizabeth Zakarin, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York — many of which should not come as a surprise. First is the constant fear about the possibility of being separated from home or a loved one, even due to circumstances beyond a person’s control, such as a house fire or natural disaster.
People with separation anxiety may also obsess that something bad will happen to their loved one when they are away, like getting sick or dying. They may be reluctant to spend time away from home, even to attend school or work. They don’t like being alone, and they can have nightmares themed around separation. They may complain of physical symptoms (like headaches, nausea, or palpitations) when anticipating or experiencing being apart from someone they’re close to.

Yep, sounds about right. The constant fear of being separated from my loved ones is exactly how I feel most of the time. Having parallel poly relationships has escalated this fear, because I am inevitably separated from at least one of my partners most of the time. Now, the Coronavirus shelter-in-place orders have made it even worse. Perhaps, my anxiety could ease up if my husband and I managed to get to a kitchen table style relationship eventually, but we are not there yet. So I have to find an alternative solution to deal with this anxiety and all of its consequences.

Here is how separation anxiety manifests in me:

  • I often default to thinking of the worst case scenarios. For example, if I don’t know when I will see someone next, my brain assumes I most likely won’t see them at all. The more attached I am to the person, the more intense this feeling is.

  • If anything changes in our communication dynamic, I assume the worst as well. For example, if a partner that always texts “good morning” or “good night” skips that text one day, I assume the worst. In my mind the worst usually is something along the lines of “they don’t need/want me anymore” or “they died”. I understand logically that I am most likely wrong, and I’m usually able to let go of those kinds of thoughts using Byron Katie’s framework.

  • Being vulnerable with any new partner is scary, because I know that if I open up and start feeling attached to them, then this anxiety will kick in and I will become an emotional wreck. I am afraid that I won’t be able to control those feelings and will seem too overwhelming to them.

  • I am afraid of losing people I love, especially when I don’t see them. This includes friends, relatives, partners, kids, and anyone who matters to me. Sheltering in place has been particularly difficult for me for that reason.

When I notice these feelings arise, I try to process my emotions using techniques like hakomi, the happiness shield, mindfulness, writing, meditation, doing the work, and talking to my friends and therapist. Jess Mahler says cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is 70–80% effective in treating all kinds of anxiety, and that is essentially what I’ve been doing to get myself through these particularly low moments. Still, it’s hard. I am able to let go of my fears for a moment, but they eventually come back with a vengeance. It’s an uphill struggle and certainly a work in progress. Anybody else out there on the same page? SOS.

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Polyamory (Greek πολύ poly, "many, several", Latin amor, "love") is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of all partners involved.

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