Grief & Anxiety: what to do when the worst has already happened

Grief and anxiety go hand-in-hand.

Inside your grief, the whole world can feel like an unsafe place, one that requires constant vigilance: searching for early warning signs of trouble, guarding against more loss. It’s hard to believe in positive outcomes when the worst has already happened. And in this cultural and political climate, where more pain and loss reach our eyes and ears than ever before, your nervous system is on high alert all. the. time. It can feel like being anxious is logicial, which makes things even harder to control.

If you’re struggling with anxiety and grief, maybe you’ve tried to calm yourself down by thinking positive thoughts, by reminding yourself of the goodness all around you, asserting the typical safety of everyday life. But those things no longer work when you’ve already lived the unlikely. You don’t trust your instincts anymore. Terrible things are possible, and you have to be prepared. Anxiety, grief, and prior experience are a tricky combination. Constant vigilance can seem like the only route to take.

I used to struggle a lot with anxiety.

Driving home from grad school late at night, my tired brain would conjure all manner of horrible, horrible images: things I was helpless to stop from where I was, still hours away from home. I’d imagine I’d left the stove on 12 hours earlier, and the house had burned down. Maybe it was burning right now. Images of my animals suffering flashed in front of my eyes.

It was awful.

With a lot of self-work, insight, and just plain irritation with that pattern, I found ways to manage those fears. In fact, I became so good at redirecting those thoughts that I felt I’d completely moved on. I hadn’t had a freak out like that in well over a decade.

In the months before my partner drowned, I noticed those fears coming back. I would leave the house and begin to panic that the cats would escape, get stuck somewhere, and die cold and alone and afraid. Or that our dog would get hit by a car, and I wouldn’t be there to help. I started to worry whenever Matt was late calling. I’d spin off into imaginary negative fantasies instead of focusing on whatever was actually going on.

I caught myself in a fearful thought-spiral one day in early July. Out loud, I said STOP. Out loud, I said what I have told myself a thousand times, and have told clients over and over again: Worrying about what has not happened is not useful. If something bad does happen, you will deal with it then. It is highly unlikely that anything awful will happen. If it does, you will deal.

Seven days later, the highly unlikely did happen. And you know what? My fear sensors never made a sound. No panic. No anxiety that morning. Nothing. When I needed my acute sensitivity to all things dangerous and bad, it failed.

In the years following, my anxiety went through the roof. It didn’t matter that it had proven itself highly ineffective in predicting or preventing catastrophe. Anxiety is an addictive drug, made all the more powerful by knowing that unlikely shit does happen, and there is nothing you can do.

I tell you this story because I bet you can relate.

Anxiety is an addictive drug, made all the more powerful by knowing that unlikely shit does happen, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. So you'll need something more than positive thoughts to get you through. Click To Tweet

Freak accidents, out of order deaths, horrible, nightmare events — these things happen. To us. To me. To you. When anxiety steals into your mind and your heart, you can’t just quiet it down by telling your thoughts they’re illogical: Past reality trumps alleged logic. Add in the fact that those of us who have lost someone close are extra vigilant: We guard against more loss, more fear, more helplessness in the face of the randomness of life. It’s a small, hard way to live. Anxiety is exhausting.

So what can you do when that fear starts pumping through your body and your mind? How can you talk yourself off that cliff of anxiety that can’t be calmed by any ordinary means?

Here are some things that work for me:

• Acknowledge your fear. It may seem silly, but taking a moment to recognize that you are afraid can keep the feeling from escalating. You might even say, “I feel afraid something bad is going to happen and I’m totally powerless to stop it.” Tell yourself the truth about your situation, rather than try to push it away.

• Notice where the fear starts What part of your body reacts? For example, I can feel my diaphragm start to contract, to tense, pumping that anxiety adrenaline into my system. I call it the fear pump, and I see it like a set of old bellows, fanning the anxiety higher.

• Consciously turn your attention to that place. Again, it may seem silly, but by taking your mind out of its thought loop and turning it towards the physical locus of anxiety, you begin to shift the energy.

• Replace your fear thoughts with an anchor thought. An anchor thought is a mantra, a short phrase, or even a prayer from your chosen tradition. The word “mantra” can actually be translated as “mind protection,” and that is what we’re doing here: using an anchor thought to protect your mind from a ravenous fear. I often use the phrase “right now” to anchor myself in the current reality. Most of the time, what I’m afraid of is not currently happening, and this pushes me to focus on that truth, rather than the fear.

• Breathe, and repeat. You may have to do this over and over again within the span of a few minutes. That’s okay. It’s normal. Just keep practicing. Like any other skill, it will get easier the more often you use it.

• Do what needs doing, but don’t go nuts. If you have anxiety over specific things, see if you can identify ways you can lessen the risk of those things happening. Do practical, realistic things, like changing the batteries in your smoke alarms, locking your doors at night, and wearing your bike helmet. Address your fears in concrete ways, but don’t let your fears keep you captive.

Remember that calming your anxiety is not one bit related to whether something unexpected happens or not. Calming your anxiety is about only that: calming your anxiety. That roaring train of fear prevents you from being present to what is, and it most definitely keeps you from enjoying what is here in this moment. Following these steps can get you off that train before it takes you too far.

These grief-specific tips (and more) are in my book, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief & Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. You’ll find more tools and exercises for managing your anxiety in my new grief journal, How to Carry What Can’t be Fixed. Grief is not an ordinary time, and ordinary tools you might use to calm anxiety, reduce stress, or connect with others don’t always apply. Check out the book to learn more about surviving intense grief. And if you’re feeling like no one else understands, come join the next session of the Writing Your Grief course – no advice, no platitudes, just love and encouragement for the life you have to live. Find the next open dates, and claim your place, at this link.


How about you? How has anxiety shown up in your grief and your life? What are some ways you’ve found to manage your anxiety? What do you wish would change? Let us know in the comments.