Dealing with the sudden loss of a friend or loved one can feel a lot like recovering from an illness. In this respect, grief itself can cause a variety of mental and physiological responses. But by working to better understand grief and how you react to it, you’ll be able to manage your feelings much more effectively.
For many people, grief can make them feel anxious, sad, depressed, and disconnected. In addition, the grieving process itself can make you question your own mortality or that of other loved ones in your life. You may become fearful of leaving life unfinished, or of losing someone else that you love.
How we manage grief can be the foundation for a healthier relationship with the grieving process when we lose someone we love. Here, we’ll explore why anxiety develops after grief, and what you can do to cope during your time of bereavement.
Why Does Grief Cause Anxiety?
According to Gabrielle Ferrara, LCSW of the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy, grief often occurs in two primary ways. “Anticipatory grief, where we’re expecting a loss to occur or a relationship to end, can cause a great deal of anxiety,” she says. And after a loss occurs, there’s a lot of anxiety about the uncertainty surrounding the loss. “We might be faced with coming to terms with our own mortality, or our own potential for getting sick and passing away. And it’s the uncertainty surrounding the situation that can be very anxiety-inducing,” Ferrara states.
It’s also important to note that anxiety can often trigger overwhelming fear and worry. And even if you’re dealing with the anticipatory ending of a relationship or a loved one has been given only a few months to live, sometimes you may not realize that you’re experiencing anxiety or that it’s related to your grief. Additionally, anxiety is associated with several physical symptoms and can also lead to several health problems. A few common symptoms of anxiety are:
Lack of concentration
Racing or unwanted thoughts
Elevated blood pressure
Tightness in the chest
Increased heart rate
If you’re experiencing any of the related symptoms of anxiety, it’s highly recommended that you see a doctor to get a proper diagnosis. And if your anxiety is grief-related, seeking professional therapy can also offer solutions for coping with loss.
Can the Thought of Death Cause Anxiety?
Death itself presents the human mind with several unknown elements that are extremely difficult to fathom. After all, death is different for everyone, it’s shrouded in mystery, and nobody knows exactly what happens during the experience of death.
Is death painful? Is there another experience after the physical body dies? Is there a heaven? What will happen to those I leave behind? It doesn’t matter if you’re a person of faith, or if you believe that everything simply ends upon death, these questions are natural for all human beings to ask.
Believe it or not, just hearing the word “death” can cause heightened anxiety in human beings in general. According to Gabrielle Ferrara, “Just from an evolutionary standpoint, we don’t like to be confronted with the possibility of death. It’s something that we’re biologically conditioned to fear or to be anxious about,” she states.
As human beings, we naturally don’t like talking about death or loss, but this can also be counterproductive. “By shying away from those conversations, we’re indirectly creating anxiety or fear around death because we’re training our minds to affirm that this is not a topic we want to discuss,” Ferrara says.
How Severe Can Anxiety Due to Grief Become?
For some, dealing with grief can be emotionally draining. And it may feel as if you’re never able to recover or catch a breath. As human beings, we deal with things on a daily basis that may cause us stress or anxiety. But the fear that comes preceding or after death is usually so sudden that it leaves us feeling alone, or stranded – and these feelings are difficult to deal with.
According to Gabrielle, “Being human is tough and it doesn’t come with a manual. And when we’re dealing with loss, a feeling of helplessness can also become apparent because as much as we want to keep ourselves safe and our loved ones safe, the element of uncertainty is still omnipresent. And this alone can cause an upwelling of anxiety in our lives.”
Extreme anxiety left untreated or unacknowledged can also lead to debilitating mental health conditions such as severe depression. But through acceptance and acknowledging death, “We can begin to cope by accepting it and allowing it to be a part of our lives. We can allow death to be a passenger in the back seat. It doesn’t have to be driving the car, but we can learn to allow it to ride along with us without it taking over our lives,” according to Ferrara.
How Can Therapy Help to Alleviate Anxiety During Grief? Therapy can be very helpful in learning how to embrace both anxiety and grief. According to Gabrielle Ferrara, “By accepting grief as something that is there, but not allowing it to take over your life or become the largest factor of your existence, therapy can help to guide our efforts to cope,” she says.
Additionally, Ferrara also states that “We don’t necessarily have to have a goal of getting rid of grief. A lot of times, people come to therapy not wanting to feel anxious or sad anymore. And I usually challenge these types of thoughts by letting patients know that yes, we are going to feel these things. And when we try to push them away, they’re just going to come back stronger.”
Therapy can also offer plenty of tools and techniques for coping with grief such as:
Building coping skills
Offering a safe place of support
Engaging in grounding techniques (any sort of coping skill that keeps you in the present moment – getting in touch with your senses, with the environment around you, etc.)
In addition, according to Ferrara, “Grounding techniques can be very helpful for grief management because they bring you back to the present moment and to where you are right now instead of focusing on the past loss, or in thinking of an eventual loss in the future.”
Support groups are also highly beneficial for grief management because when we reach out to friends or loved ones, we often find the support and safety that we’re looking for to deal with such uncertainty in our lives.
It’s also important to remember that anxiety due to grief can present itself in many different ways. According to Gabrielle Ferrara, “It’s not always sadness or crying or the typical emotions or behaviors we associate with grief. It can be irritability, fatigue, or a feeling of numbness. And one expression of grief for one person may not be present in another,” she says.
This is why therapy can be extremely beneficial for grief management, and processing the emotions that come along during the grieving process.
Konstantin Lukin, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist psychologist and founder of Lukin Center for Psychotherapy in Ridgewood, Hoboken, Montclair, Jersey City, Englewood and Westfield. He has extensive clinical and research experience spanning individuals of all ages, in both inpatient and outpatient settings. He specializes in men’s issues, couple’s counseling, and relationship problems. His therapeutic approach focuses on providing support and practical feedback to help patients effectively address personal challenges. He integrates complementary modalities and techniques to offer a personalized approach tailored to each patient. He has been trained in cognitive-behavioral, dialectical behavior, schema-focused, and emotionally focused therapy, and has also been involved with research projects throughout his career, including two National Institute of Mental Health-funded studies. He is a member of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, New Jersey Psychological Association, Northeast Counties Association of Psychologists, New York State Psychological Association, The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, The New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, the International OCD Foundation, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACSB) and a regular contributor to Psychology Today.
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