For me, anxiety and grief are inextricably intertwined. Bound to one another so completely, it almost feels as if anxiety is one of the unnamed stages of grief. I have yet to meet anyone affected by a significant loss, who hasn’t experienced some kind of anxiety. When we lose someone we love, especially a life partner, all the familiarity, security and comfort we have known is suddenly ripped away from us and we’re thrown into a world we didn’t ask to be in and one that we no longer recognise. As our life shatters, we are left exposed and vulnerable, ever mindful of our own mortality and how little control we have over our own future.
Whilst anxiety is a normal and expected part of the grieving process, burying and avoiding our fears will simply encourage them to escalate. Whilst there’s so much in life we simply cannot exert any control over, we have to recognise what does lie within our control and what we are capable of managing. And, when anxiety does surface, as it will for all of us during our grief journey, there are many different strategies we can draw on to help alleviate our overwhelm.
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or fear about things that are happening, or about to happen. Whilst everyone experiences anxiety from time to time in their life, during grief, as we lose our sense of safety and control, anxiety can feel pervasive and deeply uncomfortable and leave us feeling helpless and scared.
Symptoms of anxiety can vary from person to person, however common emotional signs include a sense of dread or distress, nervousness, catastrophising and feeling on edge. Anxiety can also manifest physically and include symptoms such as palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, blurred vision, headaches, nausea, trembling, sweating and tiredness.
When we feel anxious, it’s common to engage in avoidance behaviours in order to cope with our feelings. These might include avoiding social situations, cancelling plans with family and friends, refusing to leave the house or avoiding work. We might find ourselves becoming unusually attached to a person or object as a means of creating an environment in which we feel secure or we may engage in risky or self-destructive behaviour including excessive drinking or drug taking. Finally, we may mask our anxiety completely by appearing bubbly and larger than life, which often leads others to assume we are coping perfectly well.
Although these behaviours may appear to us to be necessary coping mechanisms, in reality they are short-term fixes, often exacerbating our symptoms and damaging our mental health. If we continue to pull back from the world around us, from the connections that we need in life – the ones that help us to heal and grow and build our new world, it will impact our wellbeing and slow our progress through grief.
There are plenty of things in life that we lack control over: other people’s actions, beliefs, thoughts and feelings; the passing of time; our own and other people’s mortality; the past and the future. However, whilst we cannot control these things, we can choose how we respond to them and in doing so we can start to take back some of our power and allay some of our longer-term worries.
For example, we can decide how we react to others. We can determine how we fill our days and pass our time. We can choose whether we learn from our past and use those lessons to shape our future. And likewise, whilst we can’t control our mortality, there are practical concerns that will emerge as a result of our death, that we can address whilst we are alive. We can determine whether our children or those we leave behind are financially supported by writing wills or taking out life insurance. We can ensure that our children will be placed into the care of people we know and trust by appointing guardians and we can lay out clear instructions on how we would like them to be brought up.
Or perhaps we’re worried about our health. Perhaps the passing of our loved one has shone a spotlight on our own wellbeing. It may be that we need to take a little more control over our diet or exercise more to improve our health. Or maybe we need to reach out and connect with others more often to help us to lift our emotional fog.
If we can face our anxieties head on and spend time figuring out what it is that is causing us to feel uneasy and apprehensive, we can start to put in place measures to prevent our worst-case scenarios from ever happening. We can start to quieten our minds and feel a little more in control.
Although thinking about our anxiety triggers and dealing with them in a practical way, is a positive step towards appeasing them, life is inherently unpredictable and often throws us unexpected challenges, which can cause our anxiety to resurface. During our grief journey, when our resilience is already low and we’re feeling raw and vulnerable, this can leave us panic stricken and could throw us off course. However, there are several tools and strategies that we can learn to implement that will help us better manage our anxiety in the moment.
When we feel anxious, reaching out to those around us - our friends and family or even our colleagues, can provide us with the comfort and reassurance we are seeking. At times we may struggle with the fact that the people we feel should be there for us, sometimes aren’t or perhaps aren’t there for us in the way we need and want them to be – and this can be hard to stomach. However, we can’t control other people’s behaviour or actions. Therefore, instead of withdrawing further from human connection, let’s go about finding our people. Let’s search for our tribe, those who have shared similar experiences to us, who won’t judge us, who’ll just get it and offer us the support and understanding we need. Let’s reach out to those who will nurture us and look out for us. Finding people who know and understand us can help us reconnect to our identity and discover who we are, where we fit in and even shed light on what our new purpose might be.
Although the passing of our loved one means they are physically no longer with us, the love we hold for them never dies. Learning how to navigate our loved one’s absence whilst living with the enduring love we feel for them can give rise to a whole slew of new anxieties and so working out how to maintain a connection with the person we’ve lost, how to secure those continuing bonds and maintain our relationship with them, is vital in helping us appease our fears. It might be that wearing one of their jumpers brings us closer to them. Perhaps it’s writing them a letter or going for a walk at their favourite spot or lighting a candle and talking to them. Or maybe, it’s just bringing out a photo of them and reminiscing. It can be anything and it’s likely to be unique to us, but by honouring our loved ones, we are pro-actively self-soothing and finding comfort.
When our loved one dies, we have a lot to deal with. We are trying to continue with the mundanity of everyday life (including taking on new responsibilities,) whilst at the same time dealing with the devastation and overwhelm that their passing has caused. And that’s excruciating - for grief is a full time job, with no days off. It’s constant, it’s heavy and it’s incredibly hard. Often, we impose a lot of pressure on ourselves to cope, so we deny how broken we feel, how exhausted we are and we take it all on. However, what we resist persists and ignoring our rising stress levels inevitably leaves us feeling completely overwhelmed. So, how can we deal with this anxiety, as it arises, in the moment? What practical tools can we deploy to bring it back down to manageable levels?
Arguably one of the hardest things to do, but undoubtedly one of the most important, is changing our internal dialogue and accepting that it’s ok to say ‘no,’ to push back and actively manage our time in a way that works best for us. It’s important to remember that thoughts are not facts. We have so many thoughts flying in and out of our minds all day and a staggering 80% of them contain some negativity and 95% of them are repetitive. It’s important to remember that these negative thoughts are just that. Thoughts, not facts. Once we start to question whether they are true, whether they are actually fact, we can start to change our narrative and tell ourselves a different, kinder story. We will realise that the world won’t fall apart if we take our foot off the gas and give ourselves a break. We’ll acknowledge that by putting ourselves first, we’ll be of more use to those around us. We’ll work out what’s best for us in that moment and make our peace with pushing back on our to-do list and on the demands other place on us and in doing so can create the space we need to just stop and breathe.
As uncomfortable as it may feel, often sitting with what’s making us stressed and writing down our how we’re feeling can help us to let go of negative thoughts, clear our minds and free ourselves from the heaviness we’re carrying. Journaling can help us express ourselves honestly, regain our perspective and even track our triggers. It needn’t take long – just 5 to 10 minutes at a time that works best for you could be pivotal in regaining your sense of control.
When we get stressed and anxious, one of the first things we notice is our breathing changes and becomes more shallow and rapid, as we’re unable to fill our lungs with the air they need. As soon as we start to feel our breathing alter, we need to try, consciously, to slow it down and take longer, deeper breaths – ones that really come down into our stomach and expand our diaphragm. Often placing a hand on our stomach as we breathe and making the exhalation slightly longer than the breath in can help, as can counting slowly and calmly.
When anxiety escalates, we can often spiral quite quickly. Our breathing can feel irregular and controlling our thoughts can feel impossible. Looking around and trying to distract ourselves from what’s going on using the 54321 technique can help. So next time you feel worries creeping into your mind and you start to notice yourself catastrophising, try finding five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. It’s a really effective way of breaking that vicious cycle of negativity and grounding us to our environment.
Binge watching a few episodes of our favourite series, listening to a podcast or just putting on some really loud music can also help to take our focus elsewhere, even if it’s just for a while.
When we feel anxious and stressed, often the first thing to get pushed to one side is our health and wellbeing, but resting and looking after our bodies is so important when trying to shore up our mental health. Lack of sleep can heighten tension and anxiety, so getting regular sleep is really important and if you’re struggling with this, exploring ways you can improve the quality and pattern of your sleep is key. It may be that you need to offload your anxieties into a journal or to someone before you lay your head down, or you may find guided meditation before bed helps you to dial down your anxiety and drift off into a more peaceful slumber. Whatever it is you need to do to get the shut-eye necessary to repair your body and calm your mind, make sure you prioritise this.
Eating the right foods and staying hydrated is also of paramount importance when mitigating our fight or flight response. Unhealthy food choices such as processed foods and excessive alcohol or caffeine intake tend to sustain our stress responses and leave us feeling more irritable, exhausted and on edge. Missing meals or eating late at night can also throw our metabolism off and cause weight gain. Take time therefore to nourish your body with a balanced diet. There are plenty of healthy, nutritious meal options out there, that don’t take too long to prepare.
Finally: exercise. I cannot stress enough the importance of exercise on your physical health and emotional wellbeing. Not only does it help to prevent heart disease, diabetes, several cancers and stroke, but exercise releases endorphins and boosts our serotonin – our ‘feel good’ or ‘happy’ hormone. Exercise needn’t be punishing, gruelling or expensive. A twenty minute power walk every day is a great place to start and as you feel more capable, you can slowly increase this. Getting out in nature if you can, whether that’s wandering down a country lane, climbing up a hill or just doing a few laps of your nearest green space, is such a quick and easy way of reconnecting with the world around you and it will do wonders for your mood.
Anxiety is difficult and lonely. It can leave us feeling exhausted, ill and defeated. But there are ways of managing it.
Learning to face our fears head on, being honest about our triggers and pro-actively confronting them is a great first step and will help us to reclaim our power. And on those occasions when anxiety does strike, when we feel it start to bubble up and overwhelm us, we must, in that moment, try to draw on tools and strategies that exist to help us. Dealing with anxiety is daunting, but by taking responsibility for our mental health, by achieving even the tiniest of wins, by making the smallest of steps in the battle against it, we’ll start to feel better, more in control and more capable of taking whatever life has to throw at us. It will transform us. It honestly will.
However, if you’re really struggling to manage your anxiety, if the tools and strategies in this blog are just not working for you, if you feel it’s all just getting on top of you – please contact your GP or find a therapist. Anxiety is scary and lonely, but help is out there, you just need to brave enough to reach out and ask for it. You don’t need to cope with it on your own. There are plenty of people out there who feel like you, who are walking the same path as you and who feel as overwhelmed. Know that they are there and want to support you. Find them, speak to them, share with them and learn from them. Remember we do not heal in isolation.