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What is Empty-Nest Syndrome? Symptoms, Causes And How To Cope

Empty-nest syndrome is characterised by a feeling of mixed emotions: happiness, pain, loneliness and worry when the last child leaves home for college or a new job.

The syndrome is not actually a clinical disorder (not mentioned in the list of psychological disorders) but can be emotionally challenging for parents to transit to a new situation i.e without their child around who had been their constant companionship for years. [1]

Empty-nest syndrome usually goes away on its own when parents start adjusting to the new situation. It can also reduce their workload and help them connect to a new hobby or improve their marriage. However, sometimes the condition can progress to depression, marital conflicts, alcoholism or psychological stress. Take a look at the details.

Symptoms Of Empty-Nest Syndrome

Here are some of the symptoms of empty-nest syndrome:

  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Mixed feelings of excitement and loss
  • Disruption in sleep patterns or nightmares
  • Loss of purpose in life
  • Worrying continuously for the child's health
  • A profound sense of loss

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Causes of Empty-Nest Syndrome

The main cause of the empty-nest syndrome is the current economic crisis that includes gender, cultural background, national and socio-demographic factors. Due to globalisation, urbanisation and need for a quality lifestyle, there's an increase in the migration of people to big and developed cities over the past decade.

The migrants are mainly young adults who probably move to cities for better education or better professional opportunity, while their parents are left behind in the originating country or place. To mention, if an older couple does not have any child (ren), they are not at risk of empty-nest syndrome. The condition mainly affects those older adults who have only one child or whose youngest child has left home, leaving behind extreme loss of sense of parenthood. [2]

Empty-Nest-Related Psychological Distress

A study has shown that empty-nest syndrome can cause white matter lesions and cognitive impairment in older adults of 60 years and over. The feeling of loneliness and other depressive symptoms mainly affect the mental state and wellbeing of the people.

Also, the syndrome is known to increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, cognitive impairment, hypertension, dementia and heart diseases in the elderly. [3]

White matter is mainly responsible for cognition. With an increase in depressive symptoms, the white matter tends to decrease, which increases the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. Also, long-term psychological distress tends to change the structure of the brain white matter. [4]

How To Cope

  • Seek out for psychotherapy to manage emotional symptoms through prescribed medications.
  • Stay in contact with the child through digital platforms such as phone calls, emails or texts.
  • Reach out for social support to avoid loneliness.
  • Make a habit of self-care such as exercising daily and eating a timely and healthy diet.
  • Perform activities that give you happiness such as travelling or indulging in your favourite hobbies.
  • Stay positive and also help your spouse cope with the empty-nest syndrome.