Childhood Separation Anxiety and the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Adult Anxiety

Article (PDF Available)inAmerican Journal of Psychiatry 171(1) · October 2013with483 Reads
DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13060781 · Source: PubMed
Clinically significant separation anxiety disorder in childhood leads to adult panic disorder and other anxiety disorders. The prevailing pathophysiological model of anxiety disorders, which emphasizes extinction deficits of fear-conditioned responses, does not fully consider the role of separation anxiety. Pathological early childhood attachments have far-reaching consequences for the later adult ability to experience and internalize positive relationships in order to develop mental capacities for self-soothing, anxiety tolerance, affect modulation, and individuation. Initially identified in attachment research, the phenomenon of separation anxiety is supported by animal model, neuroimaging, and genetic studies. A role of oxytocin is postulated. Adults, inured to their anxiety, often do not identify separation anxiety as problematic, but those who develop anxiety and mood disorders respond more poorly to both pharmacological and psychotherapeutic interventions. This poorer response may reflect patients' difficulty in forming and maintaining attachments, including therapeutic relationships. Psychotherapies that focus on relationships and separation anxiety may benefit patients with separation anxiety by using the dyadic therapist-patient relationship to recapture and better understand important elements of earlier pathological parent-child relationships.
Reviews and Overviews
Mechanisms of Psychiatric Illness
Childhood Separation Anxiety and the
Pathogenesis and Treatment of Adult Anxiety
Barbara Milrod, M.D.
John C. Markowitz, M.D.
Andrew J. Gerber, M.D., Ph.D.
Jill Cyranowski, Ph.D.
Margaret Altemus, M.D.
Theodore Shapiro, M.D.
Myron Hofer, M.D.
Charles Glatt, M.D.
Clinically signicant separation anxiety
disorder in childhood leads to adult panic
disorder and other anxiety disorders. The
prevailing pathophysiological model of
anxiety disorders, which emphasizes ex-
tinction decits of fear-conditioned re-
sponses, does not fully consider the role
of separation anxiety. Pathological early
childhood attachments have far-reaching
consequences for the later adult ability to
experience and internalize positive rela-
tionships in order to develop mental
capacities for self-soothing, anxiety toler-
ance, affect modulation, and individua-
tion. Initially identied in attachment
research, the phenomenon of separation
anxiety is supported by animal model,
neuroimaging, and genetic studies. A role
of oxytocin is postulated. Adults, inured to
their anxiety, often do not identify separa-
tion anxiety as problematic, but those who
develop anxiety and mood disorders re-
spond more poorly to both pharmacolog-
ical and psychotherapeutic interventions.
This poorer response may reect patients
difculty in forming and maintaining at-
tachments, including therapeutic rela-
tionships. Psychotherapies that focus on
relationships and separation anxiety may
benet patients with separation anxiety by
using the dyadic therapist-patient relation-
ship to recapture and better understand
important elements of earlier pathological
parent-child relationships.
Am J Psychiatry Milrod et al.; AiA:110
The fear extinction model of anxiety, a unifying con-
struct in the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) of the Na-
tional Institute of Mental Health, focuses on biological
underpinnings and plasticity of a critical behavioral re-
sponse. Despite its many empirical strengths, it provides
an incomplete model of anxiety (1, 2). Separation anxiety
and attachment models hold promise for translational
research, address aspects of anxiety complementary to
fear conditioning, and may warrant consideration in work-
ing theoretical models of anxiety.
Anxiety induced by separation from close attachment
gures is normal and adaptive in early childhood (35). Yet
if this prominent emotional state persists into later
childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, separation anxi-
ety becomes linked to increasingly pathological self-
perceptions and inadequate homeostatic regulation of
internal object relations. An individual with separation
anxiety feels unable to function in the absence of the
mother or her surrogate (4, 5). Separation anxiety is often
comorbid with mood, anxiety, and personality disorders
(6). Its developmental role in panic disorder has long been
considered formative (711). From the perspective of
neural systems underlying fear and reward, separation
anxiety may indicate excessive activation of fear circuits
in response to separation and overactivation of reward
circuits with reunion. However, it seems possible, even
likely, that observed functional differences in fear and
reward circuitry in individuals with separation anxiety do
not cause but, rather, result from abnormalities or decits
in systems underlying social representation and cognition
(12, 13). While the fear conditioning paradigm illuminates
anxiety resulting from trauma, it sheds less light on the
developmental pathway of chronic anxiety of more in-
sidious onset. The following case illustrates this point.
Lena,a 25-year-old graduate student, had multiple
daily severe, terrifying panic attacks wherein she felt she
could not breathe and was dying. She described severe
agoraphobia, inability to travel anywhere alone (includ-
ing to her doctorsofce), terror of being any distance
from her home, a new inability to drive because of panic,
and frantic clinging to her girlfriend, Jane,toward
whom she had mixed feelings. She sought treatment
after being forced to take leave from her graduate
program because she could not drive alone in her car
to commute to school. Her DSM-IV diagnoses on the
Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule for DSM-IV (14) at
intake were panic disorder (with a score of 7 out of
a possible 8, indicating severe symptoms), agoraphobia (7
of 8, severe), and generalized anxiety disorder (3 of 8,
indicating trait-level symptoms not meeting the full DSM
criteria). Lenas anxiety had increased to panic propor-
tions several months before, when she began to contem-
plate breaking up with her previous girlfriend. Careful
history revealed that anxiety had dominated Lena since
earliest childhood.
Terried and highly anxious throughout childhood,
Lena experienced severe anxiety daily when her mother
left for work. She reported crying throughout the day,
even when her father or grandmother was present.
Throughout childhood she could sleep only when sharing
her mothers bed, a situation that contributed to her
parentsdivorce. At age 9, when her mother expelled her
AJP in Advance 1
from her bed, Lena began sleeping with her younger
sister. She remained frightened of being alone, especially
at night. At college, she immediately began sharing her
roommates bed. When she sought treatment at age 25,
she had never spent a single night alone in a bed, having
frantically juggled family, friends, and lovers to avoid this
terrifying experience, which she described as being
alone in the void.
Lenas parents had sent her repeatedly to psychiatrists
and therapists through childhood and adolescence. Al-
though she had sometimes found it helpful to discuss
aspects of her life, she never mentioned her terror of
separation to any therapist, knowing it was denitely
unusual and really embarrassing.She considered it an
accepted, nearly imperceptible, if highly embarrassing
backdrop to other aspects of her chaotic life.
Importance of Separation Anxiety
Across Anxiety Disorders
Central attachment relationships form the core of human
emotional development. The formation and qualities of
the dyadic bond between the mother (primary caretaker)
and infant create the nexus of an internal working model
of the mind/brain (4, 5). Bowlby described this internal
working model as the safe base from which the toddler can
explore the surrounding world. This model in turn often
affects patterns in future adult relationships. We describe
this model as a separation-sensitive social schema.
The inherent dependency of the human infant makes
anxiety normal for young children (like other mammals)
when separated from caregivers. In contrast, separation
anxiety disorder in childhood and adulthood describes
a nonnormative, pervasive anxiety state accentuated by
separations from close attachment gures at develop-
mental junctures where the need for proximity to attach-
ment gures is no longer adaptive. DSM-IV identied
separation anxiety disorder solely as a childhood anxiety
syndromeindeed, as the only anxiety disorder listed
under Disorders Usually First Diagnosed in Infancy,
Childhood, or Adolescence(15). DSM-5 groups it more
broadly among the anxiety disorders. The National Co-
morbidity Survey Replication epidemiological survey docu-
mented a 6.6% lifetime prevalence of separation anxiety
disorder in adults across a large national general popula-
tion sample (16). Prevalence ranges between 12% and 40%
in adult psychiatric clinic settings (17, 18). (The studies by
Silove et al. [17] and Pini et al. [18] had two of the largest
clinical samples used to investigate adult separation anxiety
disorder. Silove et al. [17] found a consistently higher degree
of symptom severity and impairment associated with sep-
aration anxiety than with other adult anxiety disorders. Pini
et al. [18] found delineation between the onset ages for
patients with childhood separation anxiety only and those
who had the disorder in both childhood and adulthood.)
Separation anxiety has both heritable (genetic) and
social (experiential/epigenetic) origins. Some patients pre-
sumably have an inborn anxious propensity (i.e., lower
thresholds); others may be phenocopies due to anxious
or anxiety-provoking caretaking (anxious children have
anxious mothers [19]); still others may represent an in-
teraction of genes and environment. Anxiety about sep-
arations in 13-year-olds is a normative sign of healthy
relationships (19), but its pathological persistence impairs
childrens comfort in independent exploration and au-
tonomy, and it complicates age-normative developmen-
tal tasks, such as sleeping without a parent or attending
school, thus interfering with age and stage adaptation (10).
Patients with separation anxiety disorder have greater
disability, more severe depression and anxiety symptoms,
and larger stress responses than do other anxiety disorder
patients routinely treated in anxiety disorder clinics (17).
In cross-sectional ndings, 75% of adults with anxiety
disorders seeking treatment at anxiety disorders clinics
report having had separation anxiety disorder in child-
hood (20). A recent longitudinal twin study suggests that
a common genetic diathesis underlies childhood separa-
tion anxiety disorder and adult panic attacks (21). A meta-
analysis of case-control, retrospective, and cohort studies
associated childhood separation anxiety disorder with
panic disorder and other anxiety disorders in adulthood
(10). Nonetheless, the developmental perspective that
informs such studiesspecically, links between separa-
tion anxiety and the course of other anxiety and mood
disordershas lacked sufcient articulation (20).
Table 1 contrasts summary ndings on separation anx-
iety with ndings on fear extinction in anxiety disorders.
Genetic and Epigenetic Animal Models
of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety has deep evolutionary roots. The
larger literature on primate and subprimate mammals is
selectively sampled below.
As juveniles, rats bred for high levels of infant calling
responses upon separation from mothers showed major
changes in autonomic responses when isolated. These
animals engaged in signicantly less social play behavior
than control rats. As adults, they emerged signicantly
more slowly from familiar enclosed spaces into open areas
and showed the distinctively passive, helplessbehavioral
pattern in a swim test, validated for detecting vulnerability
to depression and anxiety in laboratory rats (28, 29).
Mother bonnet macaques showed rejection behavior
toward their infants (30) when exposed to a variable
feeding delivery schedule, a laboratory-induced environ-
mental stress (31). The stressed mothersdistant behavior
toward their babies led to infantsfearfulness and clinging
to their mothers, difculties in both leaving mothers and
interacting socially, and lifelong timidityaccompanied
by high stress responses. The investigators (32) identied
a specic genetic-environmental interaction constitut-
ing a risk for developing this abnormal mother-infant
relationship that produced chronic anxiety later in life. AJP in Advance
High levels of maternal anxietyor stress appeared to
mediate these changes, impairing the mothersability to
form normal attachments with their infants.
Diorio and Meaney (33) found that changes in rat post-
natal maternal behavior in response to environmental
stress during pregnancy yielded increased fear behaviors
and adrenocortical responses in their adult offspring. The
investigators traced these transgenerational effects to epi-
genetic changes in brain gene expression patterns through-
out the offsprings development. While possibly adaptive in
the setting of acute stressors in adulthood, under normal
conditions these changes placed the offspring at risk for
multiple pathologies and lifelong heightened stress re-
sponses. These early nurture differences generated long-
term changes in gene expression levels throughout life
(28, 34).
Adult Separation Anxiety: Prevalence
in Anxiety and Mood Disorder Patients
The traits of separation sensitivity, excessive depen-
dence on close attachment gures, and anxiety surround-
ing separations (the standard threshold is a score of 35 or
higher on the Panic-Agoraphobic Spectrum Self-Report
[35]) have been linked to development of complicated grief
(36) following loss. A study comparing 53 subjects with
complicated grief to 50 healthy bereaved comparison
subjects found levels of adult separation anxiety signi-
cantly higher (p,0.001) in the group with complicated
grief than in the comparison subjects. In both groups
a higher level of separation anxiety was associated with
higher depressive and manic symptom levels on the self-
report version of the Structured Clinical Interview for
Mood Spectrum (MOODS-SR) (37), and in both groups
mood variations appeared dimensionally related to sepa-
ration anxiety (38). Greater depressive, bipolar, and anxi-
ety disorder comorbidity in the group with complicated
grief, however, makes it difcult to interpret these obser-
vations. A separate study of 283 subjects (36) signicantly
associated childhood separation anxiety with develop-
ment of complicated grief (odds ratio: 3.2, 95% condence
interval [CI]: 1.28.9).
High levels of anxiety generally (39), high levels of sep-
aration anxiety, and high rates of panic spectrum symp-
toms, which include measures of separation anxiety, are
common among patients with bipolar I disorder (50%
prevalence of high separation anxiety level in bipolar I
disorder [40, 41]), complicating course and treatment re-
sponse. Patients with bipolar disorder and high levels of
panic spectrum symptoms report worse depression after
short-term treatment, higher rates of suicidal ideation
(49% in patients with high levels of panic spectrum
symptoms versus 19% in those with low panic symptom
levels), and a 6-month delay in response to short-term
treatment relative to bipolar I patients with low panic
symptom levels (44 weeks versus 17 weeks) (40). Child-
hood and adult separation anxiety are associated with
mood instability and development of bipolar II disorder or
cyclothymia in adulthood (4244). Both childhood sepa-
ration anxiety and adult separation anxiety disorder were
common in patients with cluster B personality disorders
(29% in patients with cluster B disorders versus 10% in
those without cluster B disorders, p,0.01) and patients
with cluster C disorders (55% in patients with cluster C
disorders versus 26% in those without, p,0.01) in a study
of 397 adult outpatients with primary anxiety disorders (45).
Negative Effect of Separation Anxiety
on Treatment Outcome
Through still unknown mechanisms, separation anxiety
is associated with poor response to treatments of adult
anxiety and mood disorders, potentially through disrup-
tions in the therapeutic relationship (40, 4649). In adults,
co-occurring separation anxiety, as well as anxiety gener-
ally (49), negatively moderates treatment response in
major depression, worsening symptom chronicity and
quality of life (46, 49). Among 226 treated patients with
TABLE 1. Comparison of Fear Extinction and Potential Separation/Attachment Models of Anxiety
Domain Fear Extinction Model Separation/Attachment Model
Paradigmatic disorder Posttraumatic stress disorder Panic with or without agoraphobia
Psychosocial treatment Exposure Psychodynamic or interpersonal therapy
Animal model Fear conditioning Disrupted maternal care producing greater
hypothalamic/pituitary responsivity to stress
Neuroimaging ndings Heightened activity in the amygdala and dorsal
anterior cingulate cortex (fear expression),
diminished activity in the ventromedial
prefrontal cortex
Circuitry underlying separation-sensitive social schemas
and attachment: subcortical areas (amygdala,
hippocampus, striatum) and cortical limbic areas
(insula, cingulate); may imply predisposing
endophenotypes from circuitry involved in attention,
learning, and executive control (medial prefrontal
cortex, superior temporal sulcus, and temporoparietal
junction) (22)
Genetics Potential systems: FK506-binding protein 5
(FKBP5, 6), brain-derived neurotrophic factor
(BDNF, 23), serotonin transporter (24)
Potential systems: oxytocin receptor (25), vasopressin 1A
receptor (26), D
dopamine receptor (DRD2, 27)
AJP in Advance 3
major depression, separation anxiety accounted for 24% of
the variance associated with impaired quality of life (46).
High levels of panic spectrum symptoms inhibited the
benets of interpersonal psychotherapy (50), both alone
and in combination with selective serotonin reuptake
inhibitors (SSRIs). Panic-related symptoms decreased the
rate of response to interpersonal therapy alone from 68.4%
to 43.5% and prolonged the time to response after the
addition of an SSRI to interpersonal therapy from 10.3
weeks to 18.1 weeks (47).
The only published study of which we are aware that
investigated the moderating effect of adult separation
anxiety on the response to cognitive-behavioral therapy
(CBT) for patients with panic disorder similarly found that
separation anxiety lessened CBT response. Among 256
patients with primary panic disorder with or without
agoraphobia who were given 11 weeks of CBT, the overall
response rate for the intent-to-treat group was 44.1% and
the rate for completers was 65.6%; the odds ratio for
nonresponse among patients with separation anxiety was
3.74 (95% CI, 1.87.8) (51). Separation anxiety predicted
medication nonresponse in an open-label trial (SSRIs
and tricyclic antidepressants, alone or combined, by algo-
rithm) in 57 subjects with panic disorder with agoraphobia
(p=0.001) (48).
Family Context
Childhood separation anxiety often arises in the context
of anxious parenting (5257). A parental sense of incom-
petence in facing childrens anxiety (54, 58) can aggravate
anxiety symptoms, even in the absence of parental anxiety
disorders per se.
Because separation anxiety clusters in families, it may
not emerge as a treatment focus in adults, who normalize
living with profound, life-limiting restrictions that are con-
sonant with family worries and accepted frameworks. Yet
these predispositions may later erupt into overwhelming
anxiety and mood disorders (7, 20). Childrens anxiety sur-
rounding separations can echo the often imperceptible,
background-noise quality of separation anxiety in adults,
so parents may not notice the childrens separation anxiety;
this situation offers a sense of typical patterns in such
families (59, 60).
Bowlbys work on attachment, and the literature his
ndings have engendered, elucidate the centrality of the
infant-caretaker relationship to subsequent lifelong pat-
terns of attachment quality, quality of relationships, and
mental health. Bowlby highlighted the developmental
premise that small childrens mothers buffer and exter-
nally modulate overwhelming external stimuli that the
biologically immature infant cannot integrate. Bowlby con-
trasted normal development, in which anxiety levels do not
limit the childs capacity to explore age-appropriate devel-
opmental challenges, with the development of anxiety-laden,
insecure attachments that underlie separation anxiety and
limit exploration of the environment and the childs sense
of safety.
Normal, secure attachments arise from childrens mat-
urational ability to use their mothers as a secure base
from which to condently explore the environment(4, p.
13). When mothers reassure and encourage exploratory
behavior within the childs mastery, children develop a
secure sense of competence in their (social) environments.
Anxious, ambivalent, depressed, withdrawn, or neglectful
caretakers may foster insecure attachment, generating
inhibition and anxious avoidance (5).
Toddlers manifest a range of attachment types as they
develop the physical capacity for locomotion (61). Child-
rens security in exploring the environment beyond the
mothers or caretakers presence relates inversely to the
degree of separation anxiety. Secure attachment describes
Mahlers separation-individuation paradigm: a toddlers
comfort in exploring the environment, briey checking
back with the mother or caretaker for security (refuel-
ing), then setting out on new adventures away from the
mother or caretaker (61). The mothers calm encourage-
ment of the toddlers exploration fosters development of
secure attachments. In insecure attachments, however,
some toddlers become anxious and inhibited, manifesting
fear and various stress response patterns, including freez-
ing, becoming mute, weeping, or crumpling when sepa-
rated from their mothers (19).
Although anxious, inhibited early attachment styles
have been linked to development of childhood anxiety
disorders (54), a meta-analysis connecting inhibited at-
tachment with internalizing disorders (62) found this link
small(Cohens d=0.15). Nevertheless, many observa-
tions show that mother-child attachment relationships,
which form the core of the separation-sensitive social
schema, powerfully inuence the development of anxiety
disorders. Parenting style, the level of parental anxiety,
especially surrounding separations, and parentsability to
tolerate their childs distress without urgently intervening
all affect the onset of anxiety disorders in childhood,
irrespective of whether the parents have anxiety disorders
(54, 55, 63, 64). Humans, like other mammals (28, 3032),
display a complex relationship of genetic predisposition,
early experiences (the rst 3 years of human life), and
development of anxiety in later life (65). Whatever the
environmental contributions to this anxiety may be, de-
veloping insecure central attachments does not require
trauma-level criteria, such as DSM posttraumatic stress
disorder criterion A (e.g., child abuse). Attachment style
likely depends on far more subtle parent-child interac-
tions, responses to childrens distress and anxiety, and the
available capacity to moderate stimuli (52, 58).
Social Support
Secure attachment styles and supportive social relation-
ships putatively buffer the negative emotional and physical AJP in Advance
impacts of acute, overwhelming stress, protecting against
PTSD and other disorders (53, 66, 67). Thus, separation
anxiety emerged as a specic risk factor for PTSD in
burned children (68). Degree of maternal stress as well as
physical separation from mothers correlated directly with
childrens anxiety responses to Scud missile attacks (66).
Anxious attachment style and high separation anxiety
likely compromise the ability to modulate stress with social
supports for several reasons: people with separation anxiety
develop fewer social supports, they approach them more
cautiously, and the social supports they have are more
emotionally fraught, less supportive(66, 69).
Treatment Implications
Relative Ego-Syntonicity of Separation Anxiety
Patients with separation anxiety have profound sensi-
tivity to transitions and losses, including those experi-
enced in therapeutic relationships (7). Often normalized,
so that patients and clinicians may hardly recognize its
presence or potency, separation anxiety fuels chronic
anxiety and a global sense of inadequacy and incompe-
tence that can undermine psychiatric treatments of any
modality (7). To enable change, the psychotherapist must
consistently focus on separation anxiety and the distor-
tions it evokes to facilitate its verbal articulation. It is
interesting that contemporary communication devices
(e.g., mobile phones) may cloak a pathological need for
immediate contact, making careful clinical evaluation
even more important.
Psychosocial Interventions
The dyadic nature of psychotherapy leads us to predict
that attachment styles can affect psychotherapy effective-
ness. Conversely, attachment styles can change: several
studies have shown that psychotherapy can render at-
tachment style more secure (7072). Indeed, attachment
can differ among various dyads for the same individual,
although formative early dyadic models strongly inuence
later central attachments.
Key active ingredients of psychotherapy include the
capacities to trust, to share, and to feel soothed by the
therapist (71). Psychotherapies differ in their degree of
focus on attachment and separation-sensitive social sche-
mata. Behavioral therapies for anxiety tend to focus on the
fear extinction paradigm (73) rather than attachment per se.
In contrast, psychodynamic and interpersonal psycho-
therapies for anxiety focus on relationships and associated
affects. These therapies actively address improving patients
capacity for reection and helping them to recognize and
tolerate emotional responses and perceived dangers sur-
rounding attachment (69). Therapists attuned to patients
separation fears may detect them in the transference or in
outside relationships and can use dynamic or interpersonal
approaches to articulate and help patients to better un-
derstand them, thereby decreasing their intensity. This
work presumably increases patientsreective function
(74). A putative mediator of affect-focused psychotherapies,
reective function measures emotional understanding of
ones formative relationships and ones own and others
attachments and emotions (75). Reective function studies
may be useful in delineating mechanisms of change oc-
curring in psychiatric symptoms through modulation of at-
tachment and reection (7476).
Affect-Focused Psychotherapies Targeting Separation
The negative impact of separation anxiety and panic
spectrum symptoms on the outcomes of treatment for
mood and anxiety disorders suggests that research should
evaluate psychotherapy interventions targeting relation-
ships, attachment, and associated affects. Indeed, the
potency of separation anxiety argues for developing better-
tailored treatments across disorders (49, 77). We highlight
two small pilot psychotherapy trials in which some of us
were involved.
Cyranowski et al. (77) treated 18 subjects with primary
major depression and high levels of lifetime panic spec-
trum symptoms (35) in an open trial of interpersonal
psychotherapy adapted to focus on depression, anxiety,
and anxious avoidance. Fourteen (78%) subjects met remis-
sion criteria after 12 weeks, with improvements (p,0.0001)
across all measured domains: depression, anxiety, and psy-
chosocial functioning. A randomized trial comparing this
treatment with supportive therapy is further evaluating
this approach.
In another study, 49 adults with primary panic disorder
with or without agoraphobia were randomly assigned to
panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy (78) or to
applied relaxation training (unpublished manual of J.A.
Cerny et al., 1984), an efcacious non-separation-anxiety-
focused intervention for panic disorder (79). The princi-
ples of panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy
emphasize free association, centrality of the transference,
and unconscious thoughts underlying physical sensa-
tions of panic and difculty with separation and auton-
omy. The therapist focuses on these processes as they
relate to panic symptoms. Common themes of difculty
with separations and unconscious rage inform interpre-
tive interventions. Panic-focused psychodynamic psycho-
therapy, as an affect-focused psychotherapy, specically
targets separation anxiety as a core component of un-
derstanding panic; patientshigh separation anxiety levels
constitute a central organizing element in their self-view as
incompetent and unable to manage developmentally nor-
mative tasks without the presence of their central at-
tachment gures. The inevitable repetition of this dyadic
pattern with the therapist within a time-limited 24-session,
12-week format heightens the opportunity to work with
separation anxiety and permits the reexperiencing and
better understanding in verbal form of this affectively
charged paradigm (7, 78).
AJP in Advance 5
Eleven of 23 patients receiving applied relaxation
training (48%) and 15 of 26 in panic-focused psychody-
namic psychotherapy (58%) had high baseline levels of
current separation anxiety and panic spectrum symptoms,
i.e., a score of 35 or higher on the Panic-Agoraphobic Spec-
trum Self-Report (37). A signicant interaction between
treatment and baseline score predicted panic symptom
improvement at treatment end (b=211.0, t=23.68, df=44,
p,0.001), indicating that baseline severity of separation
anxiety moderated the effect of panic-focused psychody-
namic psychotherapy on panic symptoms. Panic-focused
therapy had signicantly greater efcacy than relaxation
training among patients with high levels of separation
anxiety. Thus, patients with primary panic disorder with
higher baseline separation anxiety levels responded
particularly robustly to panic-focused psychodynamic
psychotherapy, but not to applied relaxation training.
When Lena began panic-focused psychodynamic psy-
chotherapy, she needed a friend to accompany her from
a distant suburb because of her terror of traveling alone.
The therapist rst explored Lenas worst panic attacks,
which had occurred in cars when she was in the midst of
deciding to break up with her last serious girlfriend.
During panic attacks, she felt terried and completely
isolated, as if her car were a tomband as though Ill
never see anyone I love again.
The therapist helped Lena to begin to trace an emotional
line between her fury at her abusive ex-girlfriend and her
plan to leave her, her subsequent physical sensations of
overwhelming anxiety, her sense of loss of executive
control as highlighted by her relatively new inability to
drive, and her central fantasy of her car as a tomb, sep-
arating her forever from the people she loved, especially
from her mother. In carefully delving into the compli-
cated, ambivalent, yet intense and dependent relation-
ships she tended to form, the therapist explored an
emerging core fantasy Lena had about herself that fueled
much of the intensity of her relationships: that she was
incompetent and unable to manage situations that might
arise (on the train to appointments with her therapist, for
Lena relinquished her travel companion and began
traveling and attending sessions alone by session 5. She
rapidly resumed driving and no longer felt so isolated
in her car or as though she would panic. The therapist
continued to pursue Lenas core fantasy that she was
incompetent like a small child and terried to be apart
from her mother, as she had been when she was very
young, and that therefore she was unable to handle
matters that might arise at night if she were to sleep
alone without her new girlfriend. After session 11, Lena
slept alone for the rst time in her life.
The therapist helped Lena to verbally articulate how
her strength and newfound independence were associ-
ated with her relationship with the therapist, something
she would have to relinquish soon because of the (24-
session) study time limit. Lena actively mourned the loss
of her therapist, experiencing jumpy nerveson the
train when coming to see her, resisting a pullto pick
up women to make it better,and later expressing anger
and sadness that the therapy could not continue. She said
that she had never said goodbye as she was now in
parting with the therapist, permitting herself to feel the
sadness of the loss without becoming overwhelmingly
anxious and frantic to replace the therapist with new
emergencyrelationships. Despite tremendous antici-
patory anxiety, Lena felt calmer and more comfortable:
traveling, working, and attending school without anxiety
at termination. She had ended her relationship with the
new girlfriend after session 17 and despite feeling lonely
and unusual,had very uncharacteristically not rushed
into a new relationship and was adopting a wait and
seeapproach to dating. At termination, the Anxiety Dis-
orders Interview Schedule for DSM-IV indicated a score of
3 out of 8 for panic disorder (subsyndromal), 3 out of 8
for agoraphobia, and a score of 0 for generalized anxiety
These two small adult studies demonstrate preliminary
but promising outcomes of psychotherapies for patients
with prominent separation anxiety symptoms amid dif-
ferent DSM disorders. Better tracking of separation anxiety
throughout treatment course and the development of in-
terventions to relieve its global effects might help in spe-
cically targeting interventions for individual patients.
Separation Anxiety as a Research
Model for Developing and Treating
Anxiety Disorders
Neuroendocrine Markers
Close relationships can profoundly reassure patients
with anxiety disorders and depression. Biological mecha-
nisms and neural circuitry underlie this phenomenon. We
note two interrelated systems that might serve as potential
biomarkers of anxiety surrounding separation and attach-
ment: respiratory sinus arrhythmia, a marker for parasym-
pathetic nervous system activation, and oxytocin. Lower
resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia levels are associated
with impairment of adaptive reactivity to stressors (80, 81).
Reductions have been noted across anxiety disorders (82),
depression (83), and borderline personality disorder (84).
Low respiratory sinus arrhythmia correlates with ineffec-
tive, inexible coping responses and insecure attachment
(85, 86). Important hypotheses to test are whether low
respiratory sinus arrhythmia is associated with separation
anxiety and whether improving separation anxiety in-
creases respiratory sinus arrhythmia.
Oxytocin is a hypothalamic neuropeptide that across
species suppresses endocrine and behavioral stress re-
sponses, relieves pain, and facilitates prosocial behaviors,
including maternal behavior and afliative contact seek-
ing (87). For individuals with an anxious attachment style
(88) or borderline personality disorder, intranasal oxyto-
cin aggravates negative reactions to social stimuli (89).
Resting plasma oxytocin levels bear a complex, still
sketchily mapped relationship to interpersonal empathy,
closeness, and trust (25, 90, 91) and to anxiety (25, 92),
interpersonal difculties, and romantic attachment anxi-
ety and distress (93, 94). Higher plasma oxytocin levels
are associated with greater anxiety and relationship AJP in Advance
dissatisfaction in separation anxiety disorder (95). Grow-
ing evidence supports peripheral oxytocin levels and the
oxytocin receptor polymorphism rs53576 as potential
biomarkers of social responsivity and capacity for attach-
ment (25, 96).
Neuroimaging research has focused on brain regions
and circuits whose activity appears abnormal at a single
time point in individuals with anxiety and separation
anxiety from close attachments. Biomarkers of underlying
vulnerability related to attentional and memory systems
that predispose to separation anxiety, but are not them-
selves anxiety circuitry in the usual sense, may merit
As social interaction is central to separation anxiety, we
must identify neural circuitry involved in separation-
sensitivesocial representations or schemas, schemas
that predict danger when separation occurs. Extant evidence
suggests that the temporal cortex and areas specically
important for social cognition may organize such hetero-
modal schemas (97). Affective evaluation may be lower
than normal in individuals with avoidant attachment
and greater than normal in those who are anxiously at-
tached (22).
The apparent clinical centrality of separation anxiety
and anxious attachment underscores the need to better
understand their signicance in empirically delineating
the developmental path of anxiety. Separation anxiety must
relate to emotion regulation circuits in human psychopa-
thology, epitomized in the emotional processes of attach-
ment and separation. The challenge is to move from clinical
observations to a sophisticated understanding of risk,
vulnerability, and symptom expression that might hone
targeting of interventions.
The description of separation anxiety in this article has
been necessarily schematic. Basic information is sparse
even in key areas such as prevalence of separation anxiety
among patients with mood and anxiety disorders and
differential treatment response associated with separa-
tion anxiety. The eld requires additional research to cor-
roborate or disprove the preceding argument. Results,
however, might prove exciting. Closely monitoring sepa-
ration anxiety may uncover different mechanisms of vul-
nerability to anxiety and to anxiety that responds poorly
to standard treatment interventions. For example, is
exposure-based fear extinction more or less effective in
individuals with separation anxiety? As a clinical marker
for pathological dysregulation of the anxiolytic, stress-
buffering effect of close relationships, separation anxiety
and its treatment could provide an important window to
neural circuits and other biological processes associated
with internalization of social support (35, 98).
Received June 14, 2013; accepted Aug. 26, 2013 (doi: 10.1176/appi.
ajp.2013.13060781). From the Department of Psychiatry, Weill Cornell
Medical College, New York; New York State Psychiatric Institute, New
York; and the Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School
of Medicine. Address correspondence to Dr. Milrod (bmilrod@med.
Dr. Milrod receives royalties from Taylor & Francis for an academic
book. Dr. Markowitz receives research funding support from NIMH
and salary support from New York State Psychiatric Institute; minor
book royalties from American Psychiatric Publishing, Basic Books,
and Oxford University Press; and an editorial stipend from Elsevier
Press; none of these constitutes a conict of interest with the current
article. Dr. Altemus has received payment for consultation from
Ironwood Pharmaceuticals and Corcept Pharmaceuticals; she has
also received research support from Fisher-Wallace Corporation. The
other authors report no nancial relationships with commercial
Supported in part by a fund in the New York Community Trust
established by DeWitt Wallace (Dr. Milrod), by NIMH grants R01
MH70918-01A2 (Dr. Milrod) and R01 MH-079078 (Dr. Markowitz), by
the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation (Dr. Milrod), and New
York State Psychiatric Institute (Dr. Markowitz).
The authors thank biostatistician Eva Petkova, Ph.D.
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10 AJP in Advance
    • "Stabilization of chemical alterations underlying social disturbances may have positive effects across disease types. The neuroprotective effect of oxytocin treatment may impact social interaction and social cognition performance not only in ASD (Bakermans-Kranenburg & van, 2013) but also in other disorders such as stroke (Karelina et al., 2011), genetic diseases (Francis et al., 2014), autism and seizures (Durand, Pampillo, Caruso, & Lasaga, 2008), Prader-Willi syndrome (Meziane et al., 2014), anxiety (Milrod et al., 2014), BPD (Stanley & Siever, 2010), depression and chronic stress (Durand et al., 2008), and notably bvFTD (Finger, 2011). While not yet approved, multiple pharmacological treatments could prove beneficial for social behavior in different conditions. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Multiple disorders once jointly conceived as ‘nervous diseases’ became segregated by the distinct institutional traditions forged in neurology and psychiatry. As a result, each field specialized in the study and treatment of a subset of such conditions. Here we propose new avenues for interdisciplinary interaction through a triangulation of both fields with social neuroscience. To this end, we review evidence from five relevant domains (facial emotion recognition, empathy, theory of mind, moral cognition, social context assessment), highlighting their common disturbances across neurological and psychiatric conditions and discussing their multiple pathophysiological mechanisms. Our proposal is anchored in multidimensional evidence, including behavioral, neurocognitive, and genetic findings. From a clinical perspective, this work paves the way for dimensional and transdiagnostic approaches, new pharmacological treatments, and educational innovations rooted in a combined neuropsychiatric training. Research-wise, it fosters new models of the social brain and a novel platform to explore the interplay of cognitive and social functions. Finally, we identify new challenges for this synergistic framework.
    Full-text · Article · Oct 2016
    • "Early experiences of maltreatment, such as sexual and physical abuse and emotional neglect, are implicated in the etiology of BPD (Bandelow et al., 2005; Gunderson et al., 2006; Zanarini et al., 2006; van Dijke et al., 2011; Keinänen et al., 2012; Frías et al., 2016). Adverse attachment experiences, especially relationships trauma, are considered to be risk factors for poor emotion-regulation, functional impairment of mentalization, separation anxiety, and fear (Bowlby, 1973; Milrod et al., 2014; Mosquera et al., 2014; Brüne et al., 2016). The concept of adult attachment concerns an individual's current representational state with respect to early attachment relationships and their associated modes of defense and affect regulation. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) are characterized by emotional instability, impaired emotion regulation and unresolved attachment patterns associated with abusive childhood experiences. We investigated the neural response during the activation of the attachment system in BPD patients compared to healthy controls using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Eleven female patients with BPD without posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 17 healthy female controls matched for age and education were telling stories in the scanner in response to the Adult Attachment Projective Picture System (AAP), an eight-picture set assessment of adult attachment. The picture set includes theoretically-derived attachment scenes, such as separation, death, threat and potential abuse. The picture presentation order is designed to gradually increase the activation of the attachment system. Each picture stimulus was presented for 2 min. Analyses examine group differences in attachment classifications and neural activation patterns over the course of the task. Unresolved attachment was associated with increasing amygdala activation over the course of the attachment task in patients as well as controls. Unresolved controls, but not patients, showed activation in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the rostral cingulate zone (RCZ). We interpret this as a neural signature of BPD patients’ inability to exert top-down control under conditions of attachment distress. These findings point to possible neural mechanisms for underlying affective dysregulation in BPD in the context of attachment trauma and fear.
    Full-text · Article · Aug 2016
    • "Consistent with this notion, meta-analyses confirm that both family-wide and child-specific environmental factors affect SA and SAD throughout childhood over and above genetic influences (Scaini, Ogliari, Eley, Zavos, & Battaglia, 2012). It has recently become clear that SAD is far from rare and without consequences; with 4% prevalence in population samples (Copeland, Angold, Shanahan, & Costello, 2014) and 7.6% in paediatric clinical samples (Ginsburg et al., 2014), childhood SAD has been identified as a possible gateway to both physical and psychiatric problems in adolescence and early adulthood (Battaglia et al., 1995; Copeland et al., 2014; Ginsburg et al., 2014; Klein, 1995; Kossowsky et al., 2013; Milrod et al., 2014; Shear, Jin, Ruscio, Walters, & Kessler, 2006 ). However , since childhood anxiety disorders can be transient and often remit spontaneously (Ginsburg et al., 2014 ), it is paramount to identify factors that maintain elevated anxiety profiles over time, and predict a likely evolution towards clinical chronic disorders. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Background Little is known about how children differ in the onset and evolution of separation anxiety (SA) symptoms during the preschool years, and how SA develops into separation anxiety disorder. In a large, representative population-based sample, we investigated the developmental trajectories of SA symptoms from infancy to school entry, their early associated risk factors, and their associations with teachers' ratings of SA in kindergarten.Methods Longitudinal assessment of SA trajectories and risk factors in a cohort of 1,933 families between the ages of 1.5 and 6 years.ResultsAnalyses revealed a best-fitting, 4-trajectory solution, including a prevailing, unaffected Low-Persistent group (60.2%), and three smaller groups of distinct developmental course: a High-Increasing (6.9%), a High-Decreasing (10.8%), and a Low-Increasing group (22.1%). The High-Increasing group remained high throughout the preschool years and was the only trajectory to predict teacher-assessed SA at age 6 years. Except for the High-Increasing, all trajectories showed substantial reduction in symptoms by age 6 years. The High-Increasing and High-Decreasing groups shared several early risk factors, but the former was uniquely associated with higher maternal depression, maternal smoking during pregnancy, and parental unemployment.Conclusions Most children with high SA profile at age 1.5 years are expected to progressively recover by age 4–5. High SA at age 1.5 that persists over time deserves special attention, and may predict separation anxiety disorder. A host of child perinatal, parental and family-contextual risk factors were associated with the onset and developmental course of SA across the preschool years.
    Article · Apr 2015
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