My husband is a big nature-loving guy. He often wakes up before sunrise and heads to the forest for a casual nine-mile hike, no big deal. So when he brought up going on an overnight backpacking trip, I was thrilled for him. Cut to the day he left for his trip: I spiraled into a full-blown panic attack, complete with shortness of breath, a racing heart, trembling, and intense fear. It was so bad I called my mom in tears.
While I'm no stranger to panic attacks, this was far from the first time my husband and I had spent time apart over the years, and it never triggered my anxiety before. But this time, things felt different, scarier, and there's one big reason — I'm pregnant with our first baby. Spending time apart from my husband for an extended period while pregnant made me feel vulnerable in a way I hadn't experienced before, which triggered fear and anxiety that lingered until he returned.
I later learned that feeling anxious when you're apart from your partner or go-to support person is a form of separation anxiety, and it's actually pretty common during pregnancy. In fact, a 2023 study found that nearly 46 percent of pregnant women experienced significant adult separation anxiety disorder symptoms, mostly in their third trimester.
So if this is something you can relate to, know that you're not alone. Keep reading to learn what experts want you to know about pregnancy separation anxiety, plus tips for coping with it.
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What is separation anxiety in pregnancy?
Pregnancy separation anxiety is a type of adult separation anxiety (ASA), explains Stephanie Hack, M.D., MPH, a board-certified OB/GYN. It occurs when an adult experiences intense anxiety when separated from a loved one or close attachment figure, most often a partner.
Physical symptoms of pregnancy separation anxiety can include headaches, stomachaches, disrupted sleep and nightmares, Dr. Hack says. These signs can overlap with other common pregnancy symptoms, but you might also feel uncontrollable worry or angst and have thoughts like "I can't live without my partner" or "I can't do things on my own," adds Emily Guarnotta, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist.
Like with my case, separation anxiety can also trigger panic attacks — acute episodes of severe anxiety with physical symptoms such as sweating, difficulty breathing and heart palpitations. All of these symptoms of pregnancy separation anxiety, Guarnotta says, can lead women to avoid leaving their partner's side.
Why is separation anxiety so common during pregnancy?
Transition periods can exacerbate separation anxiety, and pregnancy is without a doubt a life-changing transition. "Being pregnant also sets us up for higher levels of baseline anxiety, and being separated from a support can push one over the edge," says Sipra Laddha, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board.
The physical, emotional and hormonal changes women experience during pregnancy can be disorienting. That coupled with the stress of preparing for parenthood can make expectant moms more vulnerable to experiencing mood or anxiety disorders.
Women who experience anxiety during pregnancy are also more likely to experience anxiety postpartum as well. "These hormonal changes combined with sleep deprivation and the demands of caring for a newborn can contribute to developing postpartum separation anxiety," Guarnotta says.
Furthermore, social isolation during COVID lockdowns could have also contributed to separation anxiety, especially for women with pre-existing anxiety conditions, Dr. Hack and Guarnotta note. "People were fearful to reenter the world, which is not unfounded, considering the profound impact COVID had on the health of people around the world," Dr. Hack says.
How to cope with separation anxiety in pregnancy
Gradually ease into time apart
Expose yourself to what makes you anxious, such as spending time away from your support person, suggests Dr. Hack. The key is to do it gradually, starting with short periods and increasing the length of time as you feel more comfortable.
Most importantly, do not avoid what makes you anxious, as it only reinforces anxiety. Though it may give you some temporary relief to avoid a trigger, avoidance typically worsens overall anxiety levels in the long run, Dr. Laddha says.
Learn and practice deep breathing skills
Breathing deeply can help ease your symptoms when anxiety arises. "Deep breathing can get more oxygen into your body and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you recover from the fight-or-flight response," Guarnotta says. "To do this, take a four-second long inhale through your nose, hold, and then release the air through your mouth for six seconds."
Get help if symptoms persist
Lastly, seek support from a therapist if needed. Therapy can get to the root of the separation anxiety, Guarnotta says. Specifically, she recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can modify unhealthy beliefs contributing to separation anxiety. Getting support during pregnancy means you'll learn how to cope with separation anxiety if it occurs after birth as well.
If you're experiencing pregnancy separation anxiety, remember that you're not alone in your experience. Don't hesitate to reach out for support from loved ones or professionals when needed.
As for me, talking to my therapist and doubling down on self-care to soothe my nervous system has been a big help. I'm happy to report I'm entering my third trimester feeling much more empowered and at ease.
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