It’s no surprise that levels of anxiety are surging right now. Repeated waves of COVID-19, and the lockdowns they bring in their wake, make this an incredibly difficult time for our mental health. There are many contributing factors to anxiety – with our lifestyle, environment, genetics, and even hormonal imbalances all having their part to play.
What’s not always acknowledged for its role in anxiety, however, is grief.
Discussions about grief tend to focus on the feelings of sadness, loss and desolation that can follow the death of a loved one. What they rarely touch upon is how anxiety and grief are intrinsically bound up with one another. Even someone who has previously enjoyed low-levels of anxiety can be hit with a sudden unexpected tsunami of worry as they come to terms with their loss. In fact, many grief counsellors suggest that anxiety should be included as one of the stages of grief that we all have to go through.
Why do anxiety and grief so often go hand in hand? There are many reasons behind this, of course, and it’s impossible to cover them all, but the following points are some of the most important.
- Bereavement is the most stressful event we will ever experience. Anxiety is exacerbated by stressful life events. These can be any number of things, with both marriage and divorce scoring highly as a potential stressor. Beating them all on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory is the death of a spouse, with the death of a close family member a little further behind.
- The death of a loved one reminds us that we are mortal. When we lose someone we love, we’re reminded just how little control we have over our lives. We’re all going to die at some point, and this realisation hits particularly hard after our first significant bereavement. How we come to terms with the fact of our own mortality will play a key role in the future quality of our lives.
- We fear more loss. As well as bringing our own mortality into focus, grief reminds us that we may lose other people who are close to us. If we lose one parent, we may then be excessively anxious about losing the other. Intense anxiety may make it difficult to enjoy what time we have left with those we love.
- Trauma teaches us to be anxious. Traumatic events can lead to what’s known as classical conditioning. If the news of our loved one’s death came in a phone call, then every time the phone rings we may fear the worst.
- We may be anxious about our ability to cope. How will we manage without our loved one? We may fear that we won’t be able to take care of the practical and emotional challenges that we may face now that we’re on our own. In a particularly challenging year like 2020, these worries become even more pressing.
- You fear the intensity of emotions that grief can bring. Grief is a deeply unpleasant state to be in, and it can be overwhelming. Going through it, however, is vital if we’re to move forward in life. Many people, particularly if it’s their first experience of grief, work hard to push it away and move on. This creates anxiety around their own emotional responses.
- You begin to overestimate the risk of negative life events. Before a significant loss, you might have had a generally benevolent view of life. Bereavement, particularly when you’ve lost someone who was relatively young or who died in tragic circumstances, can radically unsettle that world view. You may now overcompensate by overestimating the risk of accidents, serious illness or early death, leading to increased levels of anxiety.
Grief, whenever it comes, is a complex and, to a degree, mysterious state. It’s unavoidable for most of us, and how we respond to it can determine the future course of our lives as the pain starts to heal. Understanding the role our anxiety plays can be a valuable part of the grieving process. It can help us to accept, then begin to move through the painful emotions we are experiencing.