What is it like to experience anxiety after losing a loved one?

What does anxiety look like? That’s a tricky one. It can be broad, generalized anxiety – a low-grade feeling of unease that something minor is going to go wrong, or it can be acute – I’m going to get in a car crash next time I’m behind the wheel. It feels different for different people, and it comes up for different reasons, so it’s hard to pin down.

In my experience, typically anxiety shows up in one of two ways: a tightness and overall contraction in my chest and back, or a constricted almost choking feeling in my throat. Energetically, it makes sense for me personally because most of my future-focused catastrophising is based on whether everyone else I love will die (the lungs are energetically associated with grief) or whether my failure to speak up about something will cause harm (throat chakra, hello there).

The one common thread, no matter who you are or how it shows up in your body, is that it happens when you’re focused on the future, rather than the present. 

Why is anxiety such a universal experience?

In some ways, anxiety is actually helpful. Our brains evolved to constantly be scanning for threats to our survival, which requires focusing on potential future outcomes at any given moment. The only thing is, our brains can’t tell the difference between actual threats and made-up threats, so it just responds the same way to both. While only about 18% of the US population has a diagnosed anxiety disorder, we all experience anxiety from time to time.
 
So while anxiety is a universal experience, after we lose a loved one those catastrophising future thoughts are all the more common. We’ve experienced the worst thing possible, and our brains want to make sure we’ll survive the next bad thing, so it’s hyper-vigilant.
 
We can break the cycle by learning to recognize which thoughts are causing our anxiety, letting them play out, and then coming back to the present moment. This is especially useful when it comes to experiencing anxiety after losing a loved one, because the last thing we want to do is squander the time we have here by worrying about a future we can’t control.

3 SIMPLE steps you can take to address anxiety after losing a loved one

I was hiking with my husband a few weeks ago, and was enjoying just taking in the sights and sounds of nature – the crunch of the dirt under our sneakers, the birds chirping overhead, the rustling of squirrels and the glow of sunlight filtering through the trees. I remember laughing about something my husband said, and I looked at him standing in the sun. Everything’s perfect, I thought. And at the exact same moment, it was like a tidal wave of panic crashed into me – it’s a little too perfect, and something bad is going to happen.

This genre of thought is fairly common, and it’s an even more intense form of anxiety after losing a loved one. When I work with coaching clients who are having difficulty addressing this type experience, here’s what we practice:

First, take a moment to notice what’s showing up in your body. Like we did in the beginning of this article, how is the anxiety showing up for you? What does it feel like, where does it start and stop? Does it have a color, a temperature? Is it moving or is it stuck? This might seem weird at first, but the Cognitive Behavioral Coaching that I practice has ample evidence-based results indicating that this type of basic mindfulness practice is hugely beneficial for clients facing anxious thoughts and feelings.

Once you’ve noticed where the anxiety is in your body, you might have even noticed it shifted, or felt more distant. Even if that wasn’t the case, that’s totally okay! The next thing you want to do is take a look at the thought that sparked the feeling. Say it to yourself in your head, and notice if you can take a step back from it and look at it objectively. Is it true? Is it helpful? If it’s not objectively true, and it’s likely not helpful if it’s creating anxiety, is there a neutral thought you can practice alongside it? 

That’s not to say try to drown out the original thought with a pseudo-spiritual affirmation that feels completely inauthentic – in fact, don’t even touch the original thought. Just take the information you have, and notice if you can identify an additional thought. Think of them as buddies, while you work on building a bridge to a more helpful thought. In the case of my anxiety spiral in the forest, the first thought was Something bad is going to happen. An unrealistic “avoidance thought” would be Everything is actually perfect and nothing bad will ever happen again. My brain knows that’s not true, and it rejects it. A neutral thought is I’m here now, and it’s a beautiful hike. I know that that much is true – I can see it.

Finally, come back to the moment you’re in. My favorite trick is to actively try to listen for the farthest-away thing you can hear. Especially when I’m outside, this is a great one. In fact, when faced with this a few weeks ago, I asked my husband to stop walking, and we sat quietly for a few minutes to practice hearing as far as we could, with our eyes closed (he’s used to my unusual requests by now 😉 ). First, my breathing. Then the babbling creek next to us, then other hikers coming down the hill. Farther, birds chirping. Farthest, the dull whir of a plane overhead.

Maybe you’re not out in the woods when panic sets in for you – maybe your anxiety after losing a loved one manifests when you’re home alone, and the weight of your loss and fear about the future feels especially heavy. In that moment, after you’ve described your anxious feelings and identified your thoughts (and maybe more neutral ones), just take a moment to notice the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe, or the feeling of the chair supporting you, or your feet on the floor. Take it all in, and let your experience of anxiety flow through. It won’t feel great but it won’t last forever, and it’s much less disruptive in the long run than bottling it up.

Don’t let future-focused anxiety after losing a loved one rob you of your present now

Addressing anxiety after losing a loved one is so important because arguably more than others who haven’t experienced a loss, we recognize how temporary and precious life really is. The only moment we’re ever in is the moment we’re in right now, so all of the energy we put into anxiously spiraling about the future literally robs us of the only thing that is real – this exact moment.
 
If I hadn’t stopped to let my anxiety fully process before finishing my hike, I would have continued to focus on that feeling of dread, I would have been distracted and not listening to my husband (because I would have been anxiously coming up with strategies to mitigate future potential catastrophes I was making up in my head), and I would have missed the actual experience of peaceful togetherness on our hike.
 
And then, could you imagine if some disaster had actually occurred? What if we had gotten into an accident and we died (one of my invented catastrophes)? What if that was going to be my last hike with him? Would I have wanted to have spent it obsessing about how I might avert such a disaster, only to find that I couldn’t change a thing in the end? I chose not to obsess. I chose to let the anxiety come and go, and get back to enjoying our hike.
 
All we can control is our response to the exact moment we’re in – how we experience it and relate to it. Even though feeling hard emotions is, well, hard, it’s much harder in the long run to suffer through endless anxious thoughts without addressing them, and then realizing we gave all our precious time away to hypothetical catastrophes and missed our actual lives. 
 
Remember to be exactly where you are, right now.