Mourning the loss of a loved one often involves unpredictable waves of intense emotion. One of the many difficult feelings to grapple with is anxiety. This emotion is a natural part of the grieving process and represents activation of the body’s alarm (fight or flight) system.
Anxiety itself is made up of a combination of thoughts, physical effects, and behavioural responses. For example, anxiety about the anniversary of a deceased partner might consist of a feared inability to cope with this date (e.g., “I am going to fall apart”), racing heart, and avoiding conversations about the milestone.
Anniversaries are just one of the many potential anxiety triggers for the bereaved. The loss of a partner is always associated with significant changes. Experiencing change in everything from your daily routine to how you plan for the future is difficult to manage and people understandably become anxious. You may have to contend with distressing memories (e.g., when your partner dies in an accident) or become fearful of the grieving process itself (e.g., worrying that difficult emotions will take control of you). You might question previously-held beliefs about the world (e.g., good people are treated well or your purpose in life).
Soon after my wife died, I experienced anxiety when thinking about the future on my own. How will I make major decisions? Will I cope with my loneliness? What will it be like to come across happy couples enjoying life? Like many people, my anxiety slowly subsided as I began adjusting to my different life.
While anxiety is a normal part of grief, professional help should be sought when this issue starts to negatively affect your day-to-day life or the distress caused by this emotion becomes overwhelming. It is important to remember that a proportion of bereaved people can develop severe and ongoing anxiety issues. If in doubt, play it safe and talk through your situation with your GP or registered mental health professional (e.g., psychologist, grief counselor).
Assuming your anxiety has not reached a point where professional help is needed, there are some simple steps you can take to manage this emotion. The first is to ‘normalise’ anxiety. This difficult emotion is part of the deal when you are grieving. Telling yourself there is something wrong with you for experiencing a normal emotion does not help you to grieve in a helpful way. Telling yourself that you shouldn’t have anxiety is like saying you shouldn’t have two eyes. Many of my clients have experienced great relief by giving up the struggle to stamp out emotions that naturally occurs during bereavement.
Avoidance of painful emotions, people, and places is a common response to anxiety. It makes sense on the face of it; avoiding something that provokes anxiety often provides immediate relief. However, this relief is often temporary. Consider the long-term consequences of avoidance rather than focusing on short-term benefits. When you confront anxiety triggers in a planned way, you can increase confidence in your ability to cope. Often, the worst-case scenario created by your anxious brain is unlikely to occur. Even if this outcome does happen, most people can plan how they would cope with this situation. You can improve your ability to tolerate difficult situations by learning some of the many anxiety management techniques that are available (e.g., relaxation training, positive coping statements). There are some good online resources available, but remember that working with a professional is sometimes necessary.