“A little space, time, and distance can often be just what a relationship needs to bloom at its best.” ~Karen Salmansohn
If you feel insecure in your relationships, there are many scenarios that can activate your anxious attachment; however, there is one trigger that can throw you abruptly into a state of despair and sheer panic.
That is the experience or threat of separation from the person you are currently attached to.
That lingering uncertainty when you don’t know when you will see your love interest next, when your partner tells you they have booked a weekend away, or when you receive the dreaded text that they need to postpone your date.
You’re suddenly flooded with images of them meeting someone new (someone “better” than you), thoughts that they don’t care about seeing you, worries that they are mad at you, feelings of being left out and not important to them, and deep concern that you will be left alone.
It happens without warning; a day that was going seemingly well takes a turn that hits you so hard you are unable to function or focus.
I know for me, there have been times when I didn’t recognize myself in these moments. It felt like I had left my body. I could no longer engage in conversation or think about the task at hand.
In hindsight, I see clearly that I was highjacked by fear of what this separation meant about me and/or the relationship. The goal in those moments was to feel okay again, and the only way that was going to happen was if I could establish contact and “save” myself from the possibility of history repeating itself and being left. It’s almost like I didn’t care about anything else.
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of this is the inner conflict that happens. Despite the negative predictions about your relationship, there is a part of you, deep down, that knows you are okay and that this is not the end of the world.
This is especially true if you have dedicated time to “the work” and healing. Despite this knowing, when your anxiety is activated, getting a hold of yourself feels nearly impossible; your relationship stress outweighs any logic.
In a sense, it feels like you have “lost” yourself.
Before I was aware of my insecurity and anxious attachment style, I would act out in ways that later left me feeling full of embarrassment, guilt, and shame.
Sometimes I would find any reason to text (and over-text). There were times when I would start a fight or try to seduce them, other times I would withdraw and give the silent treatment, and there have been times when I would check my phone constantly in the hope it would magically lead to them reaching out.
I was trying to establish that same contact, without directly saying what I needed or desired. These behaviors are common for the anxiously attached and are known as “protest behaviors.”
A sudden change of plans can be a significant trigger for separation anxiety to kick in. I remember any time my ex-partner would text to say he was coming home later, or that he was going for spontaneous drinks, I would immediately become upset. We would wind up in a familiar argument, them unable to understand the problem and me unable to explain (unless you count the accusation that they didn’t care about me or our relationship).
Another challenge is when your partner announces they are going away. You become convinced they will cheat and meet someone new. For me, I would deal with this in two ways: one, constantly seek reassurance from my partner and ask non-stop questions, or two, be full of dread and upset until the time came for the event in question.
Finally, another common scenario is during the early stages of dating when you don’t know if or when you are seeing your date again. Your mind is in constant overdrive and the fun is being sucked out of dating. You are in full detective mode—looking for red flags, seeking advice, questioning their motives, stalking the girl in their latest social media post, wondering how they are spending their weekend, and asking why they haven’t asked you out again.
While I have listed some examples of how the threat of separation can activate your anxious attachment, I know there are many more, and I deeply understand how out of control it can feel, no matter what self-soothing techniques you have picked up along the way.
As someone who continues to work on healing my anxious attachment, I have seen a huge, positive change in how I respond to these triggers, so I am confident change is possible.
It is the greatest feeling when I can share my partner’s joy about the exciting plans they have that do not include me.
I am going to give some useful tips that can soothe separation anxiety. These are strategies I use to this day:
1. Know that separation is a common trigger and name it.
Knowing separation is a huge factor that influences anxious attachment supports you in remembering you are not alone, and you are not “crazy.” When you are in the moment and feeling triggered, take a moment to acknowledge that separation could be a contributing factor. The act of naming and identifying what is happening can release a fraction of the tension and create some space for you to think a little more clearly and feel a little lighter.
2. Resist the urge to believe, justify, or figure out your thoughts when activated.
Once you have recognized that separation is part of the concern, I encourage you to repeatedly tell yourself that right now your thoughts and mental images are most likely unreliable and products of the past.
You can make a pact with yourself that no matter how convincing your thoughts are, you will not judge the other person or make decisions while you are activated. You can trust that when you are regulated again, you will be more in touch with your intuition to decide how you really feel and what steps you should take.
3. Keep in mind that time will pass, and this won’t always be a problem.
Part of the issue is that time can be distorted when your anxious attachment is activated. Three hours can feel like three days or three seconds. It’s important to re-build your relationship with time. This situation is going to play out and time will pass with or without your intervention.
When you experience a sense of urgency and find yourself speeding up, this is a time to slow down by taking deep breaths. When you feel numb and dissociated, this is a time to speed up by becoming physically active. Both options are giving you a better chance of returning to your body and the present moment.
4. Befriend your physical sensations.
Whether it be shallow breathing, nausea, shaking, thumping heart, or overwhelming lethargy, your physical reaction is sending a message that this is serious, and you are in need. To be with these sensations, without judgment, is healing. You can then change your conditions (breathing, temperature, activity) to reduce your physical symptoms, create more ease, and take back some control. This is a case of going inward to self-regulate before you go outward to co-regulate.
5. Co-regulate when you have the space to express yourself without demand.
You may have questions and desire some reassurance. It is okay to seek support from others, including your attachment figure. Many people will deny themselves this strategy for fear of being needy or too much, so remember, it is reasonable to have a voice. It is best to communicate from a space where you can express yourself without demand or expectations. Therefore, it is recommended to self-regulate before you co-regulate.
6. Imagine how you’d like to feel in your relationship.
Allow yourself to explore how you would love for you and your partner to feel in your relationship. Imagine how good it could feel if your relationship was a safe and supportive place for both people. Imagine how space allows you to miss each other and grow a healthier bond. Cultivate that feeling and revel in it; you will then be more likely to call on your imagination and this feeling when activated—again, giving you a bit more space to move from away from the reactive state.
7. Regularly visualize greeting and separating.
In relationships it is normal to regularly say hello and goodbye; however, the goodbye can bring up “stuck” energy for the anxious attached. Parting ways can cultivate lots of fear, memories, and concerns. It is useful to “train” yourself to feel more okay about the flow of separating and parting ways. One way to do this is to regularly imagine yourself greeting and saying goodbye to an attachment figure or someone you love.
Above is a partial list of tips to feel more secure with separation. It can be overwhelming to know where to start, so pick the one that speaks to your heart and start there. You do not have to change everything at once.
I acknowledge that these tips do not stop negative predictions from coming true; however, they do hugely ease separation anxiety so you can experience more security and joy in the right relationships.
I want to leave you with the knowledge that there was a time where I thought I was broken and self-soothing just didn’t work for me. That wasn’t the case at all. It’s just change didn’t happen at the fast pace I wanted it to. Maybe you can relate? The thing with anxious attachment is that we need to slow down despite everything in us feeling like it needs to go fast.