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Coping with Anxiety After Loss

grief mental health Mar 29, 2023
Anxiety and Grief


by Kim Hanlon

Many people experience anxiety after loss, and for some it is their first experience with anxiety. This can be disconcerting for those who typically feel confident and calm- both for understanding these new sensations and also to feel unresourced to navigate them. Grief and anxiety each are difficult to move through even for those familiar with these experiences.

Read more to understand why anxiety is common in grief and to learn some tools to ease anxiety after loss.

Why anxiety can accompany grief

Every griever and every loss is unique. While there are many symptoms of grief, including anxiety, the cause may vary from one person to the next. For starters, many losses are traumatic and cause such disruption to our lives that we feel unmoored afterward. Perhaps reading about some potential causes will help you better understand this experience for yourself, and also validate these feelings.

  • Grief rocks our identity. Losing my brother resulted in such a shock to my system - going from a family of 4 to 3, from having one sibling to none, from having my confidante to not - my system had to integrate each of these shocks and heal from the pain. My identity as a daughter and a sister changed dramatically and sent ripple effects to my identity in other ways, as I then also found myself unsure of how to relate to friends or move through my grief. People who were caregivers for their deceased loved one may not know who they are outside their caregiver role.
  • Grief can blow up our daily schedule. There can also be the living nightmare of the daily routine glaringly highlighting your loss. Even the simple act of making coffee can be triggering for the widow whose partner always had it ready for her each morning. And again, that caregiver who previously had their days filled with helping their loved one may experience an emptiness in purpose and responsibility after their person dies.
  • Grief can leave us waiting for the “other shoe to drop”. Whether a loss is someone’s first major loss or following a series of other losses, that unmoored feeling can rob us of our trust in the larger order of life, and result in this sense of dread and vulnerability. It is exhausting to move forward feeling wary of what could happen next, and living with that sense that another loss is around the corner.
    We may feel out of control of our lives. It is true, there is much that is out of our control in life, but having a major loss can leave one wanting to grasp for control to minimize the sense of chaos in grief, or that anything can happen.
  • Grief impacts our ability to focus and impairs our memory. This can leave one further exhausted and worrying that they will forget something important. I have shared about how much energy I expended to focus at work after my brother died so as to avoid making a serious and costly error as a quality control associate in a biotech lab.
  • Grief can cause sleep disruptions, and whether someone can’t sleep or feels like they are now constantly sleeping - the effect of sleep deprivation or self-critique of needing so much sleep can both add to anxiety.

This list is not exhaustive, but begins to illustrate that there is no wonder that anxiety is a common symptom of grief. And heck, sometimes we feel anxious about the fact we don't know how to grieve, or that grief "should" look different

If you are experiencing restlessness, irritability, fatigue, excessive worry, new heartburn or headaches, or insomnia, it may indicate that you have anxiety. Naming these sensations as anxiety and as part of your grief can be helpful. We also list many other ways to ease the discomfort of anxiety. As you read our suggestions below, consider choosing one to try for a week, and see if you notice any shifts in how you feel.  

Meditation for anxiety

There are many types of meditation, here are two I enjoy:

  • Loving Kindness Meditation: Studies have shown that regular use of the Loving Kindness Meditation can help reduce anxiety. We love incorporating these into workshops, and feel profound calm whenever we use this meditation. While there are instructions for how to do this meditation on your own, we have also recorded our own version to help with grief anxiety. It can be helpful to have a recording to guide you through, especially if you are in the fog of grief.
  • Body Scan: A simple body scan can also be very effective. Find a comfortable position, either in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, or laying on a flat surface. Take a few slow breaths, just noticing how the air feels as it moves in and out of your nose, and fills your lungs. After a few breaths, move your attention to your head and notice any tension. Breathe into that space - your forehead, your jaw, anywhere you feel tension in your head. Move your focus to your neck and likewise breathe into the tension, avoiding any judgment or active release. Continue to move down your body, pausing on your shoulders, your back, your arms, your chest, and so on, until you get to your toes. After you have completed your scan, bring your attention back to your breath and take three slow, deep breaths. Notice any shifts in your body. Allow your breath to return to its normal state while bringing your attention back to the room around you.

Breathing through anxiety

Mindful breathing is another practice that has been shown to help anxiety. Try these:

  • Box breath: Inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, and pause for a count of 4. Continue for 5 repetitions (or more, if you would like)
  • Relaxation breathing: It is fascinating that you can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system or your body’s natural relaxation response with a simple breathing technique. This exercise has been very helpful for me this past week, and I appreciate how simple it is to fit into the day. I have been trying to tie it to my morning routine to help make it a regular habit as I brush my teeth.
    Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, pause, then exhale out your mouth for a count of 8. This breathing pattern stimulates your body’s relaxation response.

Mindfulness for Anxiety

I am a huge fan of practicing mindfulness and love how mindfulness can improve som many areas of one’s life. Plus, the word “practice” helps me remember that a) I don’t need to be perfect and b) the more I do it the more benefits I will see. Mindfulness can help us in our relationships as we learn to slow down and see things from another’s perspective or notice subtle cues we may have missed if not paying attention. It can also help us develop emotional intelligence as we use mindfulness to check in with our emotions, especially if we are in the habit of pushing through our feelings (and so many of us are!).
A couple of simple ways to add mindfulness to your day:

  • Leave your phone in your pocket as you walk your child to school and try to identify 5 colors as you walk - the pink blossoms on the tree, the green grass, the grey pavement, the rainbow jacket of another child walking by, the silver of the car at the stop sign.
  • Choose one routine task and add mindfulness to it for a week (or long-term if you find you like this after trying it out!). For example, when washing the dishes, narrate (likely in your head, but you can do it out loud if it helps and you aren’t embarrassed to talk to yourself ;) ) what you are doing as you wash. “Now I am picking up this glass. This is a favorite glass because my grandma gave it to me. I am rinsing it, and now I am scrubbing it with the brush. I notice the iridescence of the bubbles that form,a nd that there a many sizes of bubbles…” Honestly, my attention doesn’t stay on task long when I try this, but again, it is a practice and doesn’t need to be perfect. If you notice your attention drift, gently bring it back and move along.

Seek grief support to ease anxiety

It is possible to heal from the pain of grief caused by loss. I recently shared how healing my grief helped me in many ways, including in alleviating the intense anxiety I experienced after my brother Steven died. Using the Grief Recovery Method can be transformative, and there are other ways to heal grief as well. You can try our Emotional Inventory exercise, or ask your primary care physician for a therapy referral.

Ask for help

You don’t have to do this alone. Talk to your doctor. Ask a friend or your partner to help with things around the house. See if you can offload some responsibilities both at home or at work, temporarily.

On that note, evaluate if there are things you can do yourself to lighten your load. Can you budget for takeout or premade meals for a while? Or maybe you decide to buy a pack of disposable plates to lessen the amount of time you do chores. Some may find more time for sleep by shortening the time in the morning spent washing and drying their hair by using dry shampoo some days instead. 

Take care of yourself

While this is easier said than done when struggling after a loss, a balanced meal, adequate sleep, and some movement each day can do a lot for anxiety. A balanced meal can look like a piece of toast, a handful of baby carrots, and some pieces from a store bought roasted chicken. It is ok to keep it simple. And movement can be doing a lap around the block or dancing to your favorite music while tidying up. The little intentional acts such as these will add up and help you feel nourished even amidst a difficult time. If you feel judgmental of yourself for not having the energy to do a longer workout, try to hold compassion for yourself and let that lap around the block or 5 minutes of dancing be sufficient for today. Tomorrow is a new day. 

Grief is normal and natural

And unfortunately, sometimes anxiety can come with it. You are not alone if making decisions, concentrating, or connecting with others feel near impossible since you experienced your loss. Try to hold compassion for yourself, and schedule a complimentary consultation if you would like to learn more about how grief coaching or The Grief Recovery Method can help you heal your grief and ease anxiety in the process.

P.S. Learn how to identify a panic attack here.