Today we are going to explore how the aftermath of deep loss can give rise to increased anxiety. For purposes of this post, when I use the word anxiety I’m referring to a persistent, excessive and ongoing sense of worry and fear. Anxiety can take many forms. Today, I am mostly referring to a generalized state of anxiety. There are also many different factors that contribute to anxiety and in next week’s post I will explore some practical tips to help with anxiety. Lastly, you do not have to have experienced a significant loss to have anxiety. There are plenty of people who have severe anxiety and have never experienced a significant loss or death.
A note before you read any of my blog posts: There’s only one thing I know for sure about grief: it’s different for everyone. It is my deepest intention to honor and respect where everyone is in their own grief process. It is likely that not all my posts about grief will resonate with where you are at in your journey. I write from the vantage point of someone with 20+ years since my loss and my writings may encompass a large expanse of territory covering my experience over the years, from the early days to now. Please always honor where you are at in your journey.
Let’s get started…
Last week, while at the gym (most of my ah-ha moments happen when I’m at the gym) a significant realization struck me as I was busy mulling over my “worry of week”. I became aware that while the content of my worries are always changing from one thing to another, the presence of anxiety is always the same. It’s as if there’s an “anxiety machine” inside of me that constantly looks for things to worry about, even when everything is going relatively well in my life. You see, my mind loves to look for problems to solve. Loves to look for what is going WRONG in my life. I’ve begun to think that my mind LIKES having something to worry about. And I know I’m not alone in this. Considering the statistics on the prevalence of anxiety in our world today (anxiety is the most common mental diagnosis in the US), there are many of us living with this constant, underlying current of dissatisfaction and fear. Anxiety is exhausting, isn’t it? It’s painful. It’s relentless. The list of worries is NEVERENDING. Anxiety sees to it that we are never satisfied with the here and now.
You might be wondering by this point, so what does a history of loss have to do with anxiety?
Before my brothers died (click here to read more about my experience of grief and loss), I was not an anxious person (I wasn’t a particularly happy person but that’s another story). I was pretty much the opposite of a worrier. I lived with a pretty carefree attitude. Granted, I had less responsibilities than I do now but the change is pretty significant. I see my life in terms of B.D. (Before the Deaths) and A.D. (After the Deaths) B.D. Angela would go to the beach at night, all by herself. She would go hiking in remote places with just her dog as a companion and camp without a tent. She would fly panic-free in airplanes. She would sleep with the windows open at night. She didn’t spend everyday thinking of her to-do list. She wasn’t thinking about what it would be like to lose what she loves most.
But, as the years went by between myself and my loss, and the more I began to find happiness again and build a world around that happiness, and start to feel secure again in life, the more I began to worry that it could all be taken away.
Here is where a history of deep loss may be fueling your anxiety. The illusion is that if you stay vigilant enough in trying to control everything, you can avoid pain and loss. We all know this is not true. Sure, we do what we can to increase the odds of getting life to work the way we want it to. We can eat healthy, wear our seatbelts, go to the doctor, study hard to pass a test, wear sunscreen, you know the things I’m talking about. But, if we want to truly enjoy life, at some point we need to let go of the constant need to control, predict, plan and obsessively think about all that we have to do to keep our life’s micro-universe spinning perfectly on its axis.
Putting It Into Practice
Let’s look at how we can begin to turn the control dial of the anxiety machine down so we can enjoy life a little more when it is going well and also not feel completely overwhelmed when life does present challenges.
What if you stepped behind the content of your worry and got in touch with the bottom line of ALL your worries. Kinda like Dorothy and her friends pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. What is the wizard who is controlling your anxiety really afraid of? For myself, the root of most of my anxiety revolves around personal failure and death, either of loved ones or myself. Because I have known the pain of loss, I really don’t want to go through that level of pain again. The fact is worry and anxiety actually do nothing to lessen the blow of loss. No matter how much you worry, life will still be hard when bad things happen. But, here’s the other thing to consider; it may not be as bad as you’re thinking. And it could actually be worse than what you’re thinking, but in any case…the point is, anxiety is not a good preparation tool and it is causing you to suffer RIGHT NOW. Isn’t the point of anxiety to avoid painful outcomes?
So, how do you reconcile going forward in life with this knowledge that life includes pain and loss? How can we possibly live with an open, loving and trusting heart despite this knowledge of the darker side of life? How can you trust life again after knowing first hand that bad things happen? I believe the answer is in developing a practice of presence.
Being fully present with the life you have right now in front of you, you can begin to rest in those breaks between painful experiences. You can do this by focusing on little things that are going right, that bring you love or peace or respite. Noticing gratitude for even the smallest of things. You can also cultivate a sense of Big Trust. Trust that you will take care of yourself no matter what happens. You will deal with that worse thing when/if it is here. It will be hard. But you have done hard things before and found your way through somehow. If it’s hard to trust yourself, try trusting some kind of higher purpose of your life. You may not know the purpose of your life as you go through a loss, but trust that you will find it again. We will all experience loss. For whatever reason, we are meant to survive it.
Bad things may happen. Correction, bad things will happen. Change, death and loss are all a given in this life. And life goes on around it, like the rushing water of a river finds its way around huge boulders and continues on its journey to the sea. Over the years since my brothers’ deaths, I found that the most meaningful way I can honor their lives is by living my life fully, and doing whatever I’m supposed to do in my short time here. I want to live and love and enjoy what this beautiful life has to offer, even if that means accepting (not liking!) that loss and pain come with the package. Anxiety may always be my constant companion. But I know why it’s here. It wants to protect me from pain. Instead of letting anxiety lead the way I can take hold of its hand and remind it that I want to enjoy this life a little before I have to die. And I can be the one in charge. Take the back seat anxiety, I got the wheel!
The human spirit is very strong, you see. Even if we resent life for taking away something we love, we wake up (sometimes begrudgingly) another day and face life again. It’s just something built into us. Survive. Live. Go on. Life insists that we persist. For many years, I carried a deep resentment towards life for making me live with this knowledge of loss. I would resent that there seemed to be many people oblivious to this darker side of life. They seemed so happy. It felt so unfair. I know now that this knowledge also brings some gifts. A.D. Angela lives with greater love, gratitude, compassion, purpose and presence. I suppose I appreciate more in life because I know what it’s like to lose something I really love. The fact is everyone will know loss eventually. Old age and death are unavoidable even under the best circumstances. I know it’s kinda corny but long before all that weird stuff came out about Mel Gibson my favorite movie of all-time was Braveheart. There’s a powerful line where Gibson as he is facing his death says, “Every man dies, not every man really lives”.
So I’ll leave you with that thought today. How do you want to truly live? Even if it feels like one small thing you do right now. Can you rally the willingness give your anxiety the day off and decide instead to be present and do what makes your heart happy right now in this moment? Maybe for you it will be just getting out of bed. Or smiling at a stranger. Calling a friend. Telling someone you’re sorry. Being fully present with a loved one. Letting yourself finally cry for something you’ve been holding in for years. Looking up at the stars tonight. I encourage you to listen to what your own heart and intuition is telling you. How can you truly live today?
If you are ready to take the step towards beginning grief counseling, please contact me and I am happy to offer a free 15 minute consultation to address any questions you may have about the counseling process or to book your first session.
Previous blog post: 10 Ways to Remember Someone Who Has Died