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At the Intersection Of Anxiety and Grief

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As you might know, anxiety can be inextricably connected to grief and is considered a normal part of the grieving process. For some, it can become a constant companion in the grieving process.

What is anxiety? Basically, it’s feeling a sense of worry, nervousness, unease and excessive apprehension. Honestly, it can just feel plain terrifying and awful, as though you’re going crazy with fear. Excessive anxiety can lead to panic attacks and even feeling as though you’ll die.

Woman with anxiety

My guess is that if you’re grieving, you already understand that anxiety is often a partner in grieving. After the death of a loved one, you might have thoughts like:

“Will I be okay? Will I get through this?” 

“Will I be able to financially support myself?”

“Will I lose my house?”

 “I’m so alone. Am I safe by myself? Will I always be alone?”

“Will I ever feel better?” 

“I was not like this before. Am I going crazy?”

“Since my parents died, I’m an orphan and alone in the world.”

Anxiety, depression, anger, a sense of guilt are all normal feelings in the grieving process.

Anxiety is a distressing emotion aroused by a sense of impending pain, danger, the unknown. Even having a belief or a thought that you may be in danger can create anxiety and fear. The same body chemistry is aroused.

Grief throws you into that unknown world. You may have many thoughts and feelings that take you to the past and to the future. In those places, you may encounter an age-old physical and psychological response known as the “Fight, Flight, Freeze” response, a very normal mind-body response to feeling a threat to your safety. It keeps you ready to recognize a real danger… or a perceived danger and to prepare for survival.  

When you’re in a stressful situation like grieving the loss of a loved one, you may find yourself not being mindful of the present and slipping back to the past or into the future. Thoughts can roll in like snowballs collecting unrealistic anticipations, expectations and forecasts of impending doom.

Anxiety and fear are potentially waiting for you in those places.

Anxiety is truly a different kind of fear. It can encompass feelings that are unidentifiable, a feeling of uneasiness, a feeling that something is wrong. Anxiety appears as an unsettled feeling, with some physiological aspects such as forgetfulness, rapid heartbeat, butterflies, a feeling of needing to run — but there is no explainable reason for these feelings. Anxiety is much about worry. It is the mind and body’s expression of worry.

Anxiety does not seem to have an identifiable cause; it is described as an unexplainable uneasiness of the mind, a feeling of impending doom. One thing is certain, these feelings are not comfortable and they make you want to move mentally and physically to a safe place.

I like to think of anxiety as a “shaker and a mover,” not always a bad thing. It can be a practical and useful emotion.

Anxiety helps us to prepare for danger but it also helps us to prepare for life; for example, anxiety moves us to study for exams, or to think about all the things we will need to prepare in case of loss. Anxiety helps us to stay aware of our general well-being.

While grieving, anxiety helps us to prepare for the new norm. Anxiety is identified with body and mind symptoms that are so uncomfortable it forces us to make decisions, to move in some direction.

There are some skills that will help to quell your anxious feelings and thoughts when we grieve. It is important to understand that our bodies produce stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol when we feel anxious and worried. If you have a way of interrupting negative thoughts and turning off those negative feelings, then you have a way of de-escalating anxiety:

  • Breathe: inhale through your nose and count to three, exhale through your mouth and count to three. Focus on your breathing and nothing else. Do this as many times as it takes to feel your anxiety begin to leave.
  • In your mind create a safe place for yourself — a room, a beach, a pleasant memory of a place you know. Stay in the moment and focus on your safe place. Use all your senses. What are the smells in your safe place, what are the colors, focus on the noises, are there flowers and foliage there? Who is with you in your safe place? Think of the noises around you and use self talk, “ I am okay. These are just feelings and are not dangerous.”
  • Take a class in mind/body experience and connection.
  • Join a yoga class.
  • Learn relaxation techniques such as Jacobson’s Relaxation… a head-to-toe experience.
  • Put a rubber band on your wrist and when you have negative thoughts or anxious feelings, snap the rubber band.
  • Reframe negative thoughts. Put a new frame on your negative picture, a frame that is positive and hopeful.
  • Self Talk: Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen?” Use positive thoughts, such as, “I’m okay.”  “I can do this.” “ No one dies from anxiety.”

Talk to your doctor and/or a therapist trained in the treatment of anxiety.

The relationship between anxiety and death is understandable when we consider that anxiety is intrinsically linked to our physiology.

When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, you are also grieving the loss of love, a changed life and your own identity. “Who am I now?”

Your very own survival feels threatened. You have experienced the death of a loved one and that magnifies your own mortality. The intense emotions that come with grief can also intensify your sense of danger and fear in general.

The good news is that your anxiety does not need to last forever.  There are ways to find peace, calm and safety again. You’re not going crazy… and you can get through your grief and anxiety and find yourself in a better place.

By Susan Rowen, M.A., MFT