Grief & Anxiety: How to Cope with Anxiety Following a Loss
Grief is complex, and it can cause major life upheaval that disrupts everything. Not only is our day to day routine potentially impacted, but the loss of someone we love (whether it's a spouse, a parent, a pet, or a miscarried pregnancy) can disrupt everything that we think we know and believe about the world.
It's normal for many people to experience anxiety immediately following a loss. It's also normal to experience a delayed increase in anxiety symptoms several months after a loss.
Plenty of worrying thoughts can pop up. Who else could we lose? How will the death impact us and our lives? Were they okay, and did they suffer?
These thoughts can become consuming, even amongst people who have never experienced significant anxiety before. And right now, with COVID making everything feel more perilous, anxiety is already likely heightened.
In this post, we're going to take a close look at the relationship between grief and anxiety, including why grief sparks anxiety, how to recognize it, and some specific steps you can take to cope with anxiety in grief.
Why Anxiety Stems From Grief
Anxiety is common during grief. At least 25% of bereaved widows and widowers experience heightened anxiety following the loss of a spouse, for example.
When we lose someone close to us, there are a number of factors that can lead to an increase in anxiety, including the following:
- Fear of how your life will be impacted. If you lose a spouse, you may worry about your financial future, how you'll deal with loneliness, and how to handle tasks that your partner handled. If an aging parent passes, you may worry about the remaining parent and how you care for them. Experiencing a miscarriage may leave you wondering if you'll ever be able to start or expand your family.
- Fear of another loss. If you lose a parent, you may worry about losing the other parent. You may also see your grieving father struggling without your mother, and experience anxiety about losing your own spouse.
- Fear of our own mortality. If a friend, sibling, or someone our age passes away, it can rattle us. Facing our own mortality can be deeply uncomfortable and trigger anxiety.
- Experiencing trauma following the loss. Losing someone is a trauma in its own right, but sometimes the experience of the actual passing can be particularly traumatic. If someone finds a loved one after they suddenly pass or if there's a panicked rush to a hospital, for example, it could lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Recognizing Anxiety After Grief
Sometimes, anxiety presents itself in fairly obvious ways. You find yourself noticeably worrying, fearful of making decisions or the future. You may experience panic attacks, or tell-tale symptoms like sweating, heavy breathing, or a strong sense of unease.
It's important to know, however, that sometimes anxiety may present itself in more subtle ways, including the following:
- Insomnia, including trouble falling or staying asleep
- General restlessness or constantly looking for distractions
- Indigestion or nausea
- Struggling to relax
Some symptoms overlap with depression, which is also common to experience, especially for six months after a significant loss.
How to Cope with Anxiety While Grieving
While grief and anxiety often go hand in hand for many, it doesn't mean that you need to just accept the anxiety for what it is. While it is normal, there are steps you can take to experience relief from the symptoms of anxiety.
1. Focus On Simple Self Care
Both grief and anxiety can make it difficult to tackle even standard, simple tasks that you were knocking out of the park before the loss. Take it step by step, and go back to the basics of self-care. Starting to take care of yourself can help you to feel better faster.
Even if it feels overwhelming or selfish (it may be the former, but it's never the latter), prioritize getting enough sleep, eating well, and taking the time you need to recover. Accept help when you need it so that you can take a long bath or read a book with a cup of coffee.
Self-care can give you something positive to focus on, and it can help you establish a routine again.
2. Try to Get Some Exercise
Exercising may be the very last thing that you want to do, but it can help you burn off stress and manage both anxiety and depression.
Pick your favorite form of exercise and start there. A yoga or pilates class around other people could be helpful or soothing. Some prefer a run or boxing to burn off some stress.
Even a walk around your neighborhood can help you get out, get some fresh air, and start to feel better soon.
3. Reach Out to a Qualified Therapist
Grief counselors and therapists can help you manage anxiety and trauma while working through grief all at once. Sometimes even talking through a loss can be helpful, and you'll also learn new anxiety management techniques.
Many people resist seeking out therapy for the first time, but we strongly recommend that you get in touch with a therapist after significant loss. If you're worried about cost, look for practitioners that offer sliding-scale options or sponsorships.You ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist, or search through a database like this one.
4. Join a Grief Support Group
Grief support groups can be invaluable. Hearing that you aren't alone and meeting others who are working through the same thing can be incredibly valuable.
Feeling isolated during grief can be a major source of anxiety for some, so meeting people who relate to what you're experiencing can be an enormous help. In addition to standard support meetings, you might find a new walking or movie buddy who can keep you company.
You can ask your doctor or therapist about local support groups, or search online.
5. Wait Before Making Any Major Decisions
Anxiety can make us panic, and it can rush us to make decisions faster than we normally would. This can cause us to make decisions that we normally wouldn't make, or that we may regret later.
Anxiety and grief can both impact decision making in a negative way, so if you're able to wait before making any major, life-changing decisions for at least a few months, that may be best.
Take some time before quitting your job, selling your house, or giving a wedding ring to a family member unless it's something that needs to happen right away. There's always time for this later.
Coping with grief is hard enough, and when anxiety rears its ugly head, it can become even more challenging. Knowing how to recognize anxiety during grief can help you find new ways to move past it faster.
Whenever you're struggling with grief, depression, or anxiety following a loss, we always recommend reaching out to a qualified therapist. Find a therapist near you here.
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