How to Deal With Grief-Related Anxiety
When you suffer a significant loss in your life, you begin a grieving process, which is your physical and emotional reaction to the loss. Grief-related anxiety is one of the common symptoms of grieving, and it’s normal to experience it.
Once you know that the worst can happen at any moment, it’s difficult to convince yourself otherwise. Fortunately, there are strategies to deal with this kind of anxiety and learn to listen to it. In this article, we’ll explain how grief impacts anxiety. We’ll also offer some strategies to manage or cope with it.
In 2016, a study conducted by researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid (Spain), was published in the journal, Psicooncología investigación y clínica biopsicosocial en oncología (Psychooncology: Biopsychosocial Research in Oncology). It assessed the symptoms associated with grief in people who’d lost a loved one two months earlier. The results showed that 30.3 percent and 21.21 percent of the bereaved suffered from clinical depression and anxiety respectively.
It’s hardly surprising that grief provokes anxiety. In reality, when something happens in your life that was previously unthinkable, it’s normal to wonder who or what you’ll lose next. In fact, anxiety is actually a survival mechanism that triggers all of your alerts and puts your mind in hyper-vigilant mode. Therefore, it’s normal to feel afraid, confused, and helpless in the face of what might happen next.
Anxiety is activated in a dangerous situation. When you’ve experienced a traumatic, unexpected situation or a significant loss, it’s normal to think that it might happen again. This makes you feel anxious. So how does this anxiety manifest itself? As a matter of fact, it can happen in different ways.
- On a physical level.
- At a mental level.
- On an emotional level.
Why does grief-related anxiety occur?
Grief-related anxiety arises for different reasons, beyond the grief itself. It might be the result of a state of stress that you’ve been experiencing for a long time (chronic stress). It can also be related to post-traumatic stress disorder.
At other times grief-related anxiety is triggered when a stimulus, an image, a smell, a memory, or a particular external situation connects you with your loss.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
How to manage it
If you want to manage grief-related anxiety, don’t make the mistake of denying that you’re suffering from it or that the awful things you’ve experienced never happened. They did happen and you know it, you experienced them.
However, it doesn’t mean that these things will happen again. Nevertheless, making your mind understand this is no easy task. What can you do?
1. Connect with your breathing and the here and now
Focus on the fact that the terrible things that you fear so much aren’t happening right now, and that you’re okay at the moment. To connect with the here and now, it can be helpful to focus your attention on your conscious breathing.
Close your eyes, breathe in for five seconds, hold your breath for three seconds, and then breathe out for five seconds. Do it with your hand placed where you feel the anxiety and internal pressure, and the fear of losing control or everything falling apart at any moment.
With conscious breathing, you’ll notice how your heart rate gradually decreases and you start to feel better. Don’t rush, just experience these sensations calmly, as and when they appear.
Other helpful actions include defining a safe space around you, telling yourself that everything is okay, and trusting that your body will always be able to restore its balance.
2. Say what’s happening to you
Instead of trying to run away from what you’re feeling, identify it and give it a name. This can help you slow down the escalation of anxiety. In effect, try to verbalize your fear.
For example, say “I’m afraid that something bad is going to happen. I feel vulnerable and powerless”. Acknowledge your fear, and bring it down to earth. Make it something you can observe and manage.
“There is no grief like the grief that does not speak”.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-
3. Create your own mantra
Try and come up with an anchor phrase, a little mantra that helps you shed light on your anxiety. Then, try and create a more stable layer of thought on top of it.
Keep in mind that what you’re afraid of happening isn’t happening now. Look for thoughts that confirm this fact and create your mantra from there. For example, “Even though I’m scared, I’m safe right now,” or “There’s nothing bad happening at the moment”.
4. Look for a distracting task
If the previous strategies don’t work for you, try a distraction technique. For example, name objects, places, or animals that share a common characteristic. They might all start with the letter A, or be the color red.
Other options include doing a sudoku puzzle, a crossword puzzle, a word search, or anything that forces your mind to think about something else. You need to place your attention on another stimulus, one that’s more neutral and tolerable. In effect, you must distract your mind.
You can repeat this exercise as many times as you need, and find your own formula. Although it may seem pretty basic, it’s a good way to assume control and take your thoughts (and attention) elsewhere until you calm down. What you’re seeking is to soothe your sympathetic nervous system.
Some more strategies
Grief-related anxiety can cause a great deal of discomfort. We’ve talked about some ideas to handle it, although there are others such as:
- Playing sport.
- Externalizing your anxiety. Give it a name, color, or shape through drawing or writing.
- Identifying your anxiety triggers. Are they thoughts? Memories? Certain comments from others?
- Self-care: Make sure you get enough sleep and eat healthily etc.
Ask for professional help
If none of these strategies are of any help and you need to address and manage your anxiety, you can always contact a psychotherapist who’s an expert in dealing with grief to help you explore the subject in greater depth.
Finally, remember, there’s nothing wrong with you for experiencing grief-related anxiety. So, don’t feel guilty, and make sure you treat yourself with love. Be kind and compassionate with yourself, as you’re going through a really tough time. Give yourself permission to feel and with time and the necessary help, you’ll heal.
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Bellver, A., Gil-juliá, B., & Ballester, R. (2008). Duelo: evaluación, diagnóstico y tratamiento. Psicooncología, 5(1), 103-116.
- Romero, V. & Cruzado, J.A. (2016). Duelo, ansiedad y depresión en familiares de pacientes en una unidad de cuidados paliativos a los dos meses de la pérdida. Psicooncología: investigación y clínica biopsicosocial en oncología, 13(1), 23-37. Recuperado de https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=5512961
- Worden, J. W., Aparicio, Á., & Barberán, G. S. (2013). El tratamiento del duelo: asesoramiento psicológico y terapia. Barcelona: Paidós.