What’s the relationship between grief and anxiety, and how does it affect us?
People with anxiety will no doubt have already wondered about this potential perfect storm of emotions — grief is bad enough given the sense of loss when someone or something is taken from you, but if you’re already an anxious person, it’s possible that one emotional state could compound another, right?
The relationship between grief and anxiety is a complicated one, and depending on the depth of your grief and the intensity of your anxiety, your experience can range from some really rough days to some really rough years if things are left untreated.
Whether you’re going through the grief process right now, watching someone else do it, or just want to prepare for a worst-case scenario, there are some things you need to understand about these two emotional states.
Let’s start with some common ground between them — just how are grief and anxiety related?
Grief is a natural emotional process that we go through when we experience the loss of a loved one. People can go through grief for many reasons, whether that be the literal death of a loved one, the end of an important friendship or relationship or another cause of “loss” associated with a relationship and its unexpected or undesirable end.
Grief can last as much as a year, but persistent grief can last longer without treatment.
Anxiety — a feeling of uncertainty or fear of the unknown or expected dangers in our lives — can be a symptom of grief in some cases. Grief can result in anxiety, as well as depression, insomnia, anger, guilt and physical illness.
So, anxiety can be a symptom of grief, but it can also be an exacerbating factor, also known as a complication. In other words, anxiety can make grief worse, and The National library of medicine lists anxiety as a complication of grief.
Unfortunately, what happens when grief gets “worse” is that it can take longer to overcome, or it can become too complicated to overcome without additional forms of support beyond what’s considered typical or normal. Complicated grief is essentially a grief plus another disorder, which can include depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
Anxiety plus grief goes by many names, including bereaved anxiety disorder or grief with comorbid anxiety disorders. Essentially, if you had or acquired anxiety before or during the grieving process, it can make the grieving process take longer or become more severe or challenging.
You can absolutely get anxiety from grief, at least as a symptom. Anxiety is a natural emotional reaction to the bereavement or grieving process, and while it’s not part of the five steps, it’s certainly a factor in the grieving process.
As for whether anxiety disorders can come from grief: it’s possible. Anxiety can be the result of worries about the future, and sudden life changes like the ones that result in grief (losing a loved one) can indeed cause anxiety disorders, similar to PTSD. If you lose someone close, it’s understandable that you might worry about losing another person you love.
Some grief therapists and experts even go as far as to argue that anxiety should actually be considered one of the stages of grief. In either case, anxiety and grief are something you don’t just ignore. And in most cases, they’re things you have to overcome.
If you’re experiencing both anxiety and grief, these are things you’ll want to have professional help working through. Emotional distress and the disorders that come from prolonged distress aren’t something you can just will away — they take support, and sometimes anxiety medication and changes to your lifestyle.
Maybe this one’s self explanatory, but before you can master grief-related anxiety, you have to understand them. That means taking the “denial” part of grief head on, and it means accepting anxiety is limiting your ability to function.
Next, it means learning more about those conditions so that you can understand your own behavior, emotions and feelings in more detail. A grief counselor or other professional can help you with that practice.
Both the grieving process and anxiety disorders can stretch us thin. Self care, accepting some limitations while you’re struggling, and generally allowing yourself the time and space to work through your emotions will strengthen your mental health more than you’d expect.
Managing the symptoms of anxiety and grief is key to getting through the worst of it. In the case of grief, you may do this by allowing yourself to cry, by spending more time with the people you love, by resting and by generally taking it easy.
The same goes for anxiety, where taking care of the physical symptoms might mean eating and exercising are key to maintaining your best health. Behavioral therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy can help.
Avoid mentally strenuous work and getting normal, scheduled sleep is the bare minimum for coping with mental health issues like grief and anxiety. Meditation, yoga, mindfulness exercises and other self care practices should be given space so that you can heal.
How are you doing this if not with support? Talking to a professional about your mental health struggles is key to your survival and success. If you’ve already been struggling, know this: if you don’t do it now, you’re just going to have to do it later.
Overcoming grief and anxiety starts with help, and there are plenty of ways to get it. You can talk to a trusted health care provider for their help and referrals to mental health professionals.
Above all, grief takes time. It’s a process to get through bereavement, and you still may be in the phase of learning about what you’re going through. If that’s the case, check out our resources on grief, depression and other mental health issues to learn more about your symptoms and treatment options.
Grief and anxiety don’t have to be permanent, but you don’t get better until you start the journey. Start it today.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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