ANXIETY! It’s not just virus-related. Some Grievers face high anxiety every day.
By Jill S. Cohen, NYC family grief counselor
I thought it would be a good time to blog about grief-related anxiety since it seems that everyone, everywhere is experiencing a high level of anxiety about the coronavirus. Grievers and non-grievers alike are anxious these days.
But, consider that, for some, after experiencing the death of a loved one, anxiety is a full-time experience, with little relief in sight.
Renowned author and Los Angeles-based grief expert Claire Bidwell Smith has spoken and written at great length about grief and anxiety. She has even suggested that it could be considered an additional stage of grief.
For many, anxiety is a new part of their life. Prior to the death, they led calm, stable lives. Then came panic attacks and often debilitating anxiety after the death of a loved one.
It’s true that grief and anxiety are very much linked together. People experience anxiety after a loss because losing a loved one puts them in a very vulnerable place. Daily life is changed. One’s mortality is confronted with the realization that yes, we will die and so will our other loved ones at some point. And it proves that life is quite unpredictable.
Symptoms of anxiety can greatly affect our daily activities, our work life, our relationships, our friendships, and our parenting.
Part of the reason for the arrival of this grief-related anxiety is that grievers are under the assumption that they have to stop grieving so soon after the death and return to being their previous selves. This causes grievers to “stuff their feelings” way deep down inside. When they finally come up, they break open when we least expect them to. The feelings of depression, anger, sadness are overwhelming.
That’s when the importance of grieving and even reaching out for grief counseling comes in. In order for anxiety to lessen, the grief has to be opened up. And that means going through a deep processing of the grief. Then after the processing can come a sense of relief. It can feel like, “Wow, I really got it out,” or “I can breathe now.”
The griever can still be left with the anxiety that comes with wondering “when the other shoe will drop,” so to speak. What if I get sick, what if someone else gets sick, or worse still, dies. Most of us are afraid of losing someone they love, and living with fear creates anxiety.
Bidwell Smith suggests 10 ways to overcome this grief-related anxiety. These are adapted from her book, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, which I highly recommend.
1. Learn a little about how anxiety works. Anxiety is the mind’s response to a fearful situation. Death and loss automatically sets off our fear-responders, putting you on alert and heightening physical sensations. Reminding yourself that this is a normal reaction and that it is our body’s way of managing stress can help keep you calm.
2. Check in with your grief. Often, it’s the unprocessed grief that creates anxiety. Take some time to check in with yourself. Are there emotions or memories that you are avoiding out of fear or pain? If so, open yourself up to doing some work in these areas (on your own or with the support of a professional).
3. Make amends. One of the reasons we get stuck in our grief and anxiety is because there is something left unsaid, or something we feel guilty about following a loss. Finding ways to ease your guilt and even make amends with your lost loved one can help with that pervasive sense of unease that comes with anxiety.
4. Embrace resilience. Find ways to begin moving forward and healing. Sometimes we resist moving forward because it feels like we are letting go of our loved one. But we will never get over the loss of a loved one. Rather, we can build a meaningful life in their absence.
5. Write your way through. There is serious power in writing through your grief. Writing helps us explore our own process, release tension, and connect with our lost loved ones
6. Understand how your brain works. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a useful way to get a handle on grief-related anxiety. Understanding how our thoughts work, and learning new methods to quell pervasive, repetitive and catastrophic thoughts is a great way to managing your anxiety.
7. The power of meditation. Meditation may sound like a soft approach, but it’s one of the more surefire ways to combat anxiety. Freeing yourself from pervasive thoughts and immersing yourself in the present moment can work wonders on the anxious mind.
8. Explore your connection to your loved one. This one is integral to healthy grieving and helps quash anxiety in return. Finding ways to develop an internal or spiritual relationship with your loved one can bring you a greater sense of peace and compassion. Open up to the idea that your relationship is not over.
9. Get your affairs in order. Facing our own mortality and putting a few things in place for our own eventual deaths will help us feel less anxious about the inevitable.
10. Don’t go it alone. Grieving is a lonely business, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the reasons we get so anxious is because we don’t know how we’re supposed to do this. Reach out and find some support, either in a grief group, one-on-one therapy or with a friend who understands.
For more about the importance of grief counseling, please find the download HERE for a free resource guide about the benefits of grief counseling. And don’t forget to breathe! It’s a great way to start to calm your anxiety.