Anxiety and Grief

When grieving our fears and worries can compound our anxiety and grief. Anxiety is a healthy, natural response and is part of the fight or flight stress response to potential dangers. It is healthy for us to become anxious and jump out of the way of an on-coming vehicle when we are crossing the road. It is not healthy to become fearful of every passing vehicle. In the case of unhealthy or problem anxiety our brains misinterpret and exaggerate minor circumstances and events into major disasters.

Anxiety can be the drippy tap worry that just does not turn off. It can be one of the most self damaging activities that we get caught up in. We can then make this worse by worrying about worrying itself. The brains communication system is not working effectively. The thinking area of the brain is unable to balance and control the emotional brain, resulting in an overload of fearful messages.

Unhealthy anxiety occurs if our response is exaggerated or is unrealistic in relation to the actual danger present. Research suggests that more women than men appear to suffer with anxiety disorders.

Anxiety is treatable and manageable with a range of anxiety management and anxiety self help treatment strategies available. One of the most difficult aspects in managing anxiety is that people are reluctant to report it to their health professional for appropriate diagnosis and treatment. See also Managing Stress

Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety occurs as a desperate need for action or for something to change in order to resolve a life situation. The autonomic nervous system works overtime, heart rate and blood pressure may go up, sweating may become profuse and muscles tense up.

Other symptoms of anxiety and grief can be:

  • Unable to relax
  • Unable to sleep
  • Feelings of fear without necessarily knowing why
  • Sense of panic
  • Sense of losing control or going mad
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Uncontrolled worries
  • Irritability
  • Fear of embarrassment in front of others
  • Flash backs of a traumatic event

Forms of Anxiety

The five major forms of anxiety are:

1. Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)

A fear of being around other people, of being embarrassed or judged, of speaking publicly, of being in groups or making new acquaintances. Social anxiety is said to be one of the most common forms of chronic anxiety.

Typical Symptoms of SAD

  • Symptoms may range from normal nervousness to chronic debilitating social anxiety
  • Anxious thoughts plus the physical stress response symptoms
  • Avoidance of social events and meeting new people
  • Avoidance of criticism or of being the centre of attention

2. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome can develop after exposure to a severe trauma such as an assault, a major accident, an experience of war or a traumatic and tragic death.

Typical Symptoms of PTSD

  1. A sense of continued replays of the event
  2. Emotional withdrawal and avoidance of life
  3. State of anxiousness and easily startled

3. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generally an unrealistic and excessive worry about most things, big and small. It has been suggested that people are at a greater risk of developing GAD after a stressful life event.

Typical Symptoms of GAD 

  • Restless, irritable, unfocused and weary
  • Racing heart beat, sweating, muscular and joint aches and pains, headaches, difficulty sleeping

4. Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are often triggered more by the fear of panic and losing control than by the fear of a specific situation. An overload of stressors and compounding feelings of inadequacy or being able to handle events.

Typical Symptoms of Panic Attacks 

  • Intense stress response
  • Trembling, dizziness, fainting
  • Hot/cold flushes
  • Difficulty breathing

5. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Fear based obsessive thoughts and rituals. Jack Nicholson, in the movie As good as it gets, portrays OCD by his obsession with germs, cleanliness, locking his front door and avoiding walking on cracks in the footpath.

Typical Symptoms of OCD

  • Obsessive thoughts such as a constant worry about germs
  • Establishing rituals and compulsive behaviours such as washing hands many times throughout the day

Causes of Anxiety

Anxiety disorders can occur from a combination of interacting risk factors. The brain is always involved in the root cause of any anxiety. Causes of anxiety may be:

  • A brain chemistry imbalance
  • Childhood or significant life trauma. The traumatic death of a loved one may be one of many potential risk factors contributing to anxiety.
  • Genetic inheritance and susceptibility to anxiety
  • Compounding stressors

Healing for Anxiety

Many studies have proven that anxiety management strategies used by mental health specialists and anxiety self help strategies employed by the individual can be effective in managing anxiety and grief.

Note: See a mental health professional if you believe that you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.

A variety and combination of anxiety management treatment strategies have been proven to be effective for many people suffering with anxiety. Anxiety management strategies focus on ending the sense of helplessness and maintaining good health by:

  • Changing irrational thinking, beliefs and perceptions of self and of the world. This can be approached by a variety of self help and therapist assisted strategies.
  • Re-balancing the brains bio chemistry. A number of prescribed medications have been found to be effective for the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Help with healing for anxiety and grief can come from psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors and general practitioners, mental health therapists and professionals, therapy run groups as well as self help groups and organisations. Books, literature and web site information can help to undertake some of the many strategies for anxiety self help.

The combination of approaches and strategies depend on the severity of the anxiety and individual personal preference. Some common treatments used for anxiety management and healing are:

1. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Anxiety is generally accompanied by patterns of negative and fearful beliefs, thoughts and behaviour patterns. A therapist (in individual therapy or group sessions) can help to replace negative beliefs, fears and thoughts with more positive and realistic ones and to develop more rational responses and behaviours.

2. Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Management

We have all heard the expression, feel the fear and do it anyway. Exposure therapy is learning to directly face and tolerate the cause of the specific anxiety. Jumping in the deep end, exposure therapy may not suit all situations or all people. Give exposure therapy a lot of consideration and talk it over with a therapist before jumping in. It may be worthwhile to approach exposure therapy with a support person or therapist who you trust. Start by taking small steps to face some of your least anxiety provoking situations and then build on your success as your toleration to the anxiety triggers grow.

Personal Comment

A lifelong fear of heights was overcome as a consequence of a trek through Nepal. However, I somehow feel that the overall motivator to cross those perilous chasms on the rickety swing bridges, and scramble along the edges of sheer drops, was more a fear of humiliation in front of my fellow trekkers (symptom of social anxiety disorder SAD) than it was of courage and determination to address my fear of heights.

Personal Comment: contributed by Jan H. Sydney

3. Mindfulness, Relaxation and Meditation for Anxiety Management

Anxiety and grief are based on what has happened in the past and on our fears and worries for the futuremindfulnessrelaxation, and meditation can help us to release yesterdays hurts and tomorrow fears. We can learn to be present in the moment and to let go of our resistance to what is, or what could be. Progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation and deep breathing are especially helpful for anxiety and balancing the feeling of panic.

Benefits of Relaxation
When we meditate and relax, we calm down our sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the stress response flight or fight. We also build up our parasympathetic nervous system which slows down our pounding hearts and rising blood pressure, slows down the production of the stress hormones and helps to relax tense muscles.

4. Medication for Anxiety Management

A number of effective medications can be prescribed for specific forms of anxiety. Psychiatrists, Mental Health Professionals and General Practitioners may prescribe medications as part of a treatment plan in conjunction with other treatment strategies.

5. Complementary Medicine for Anxiety Management

People wishing for a natural alternative to conventional medicines may consult with alternative health professionals such as Herbalists, Homeopaths and Naturopaths for natural and traditional remedies.

6. Diet and Exercise

Eating a healthy diet and participating in regular exercise influences all aspects of life. A nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle habits can contribute significantly to anxiety management and prevention. Some foods in particular to avoid are caffeine, nicotine, stimulant drugs, salt, sugar and refined foods.



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This Way Up is part of the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression (CRUfAD). CRUfAD is a joint facility of St Vincent's Hospital and the University of New South Wales established to reduce the impact of anxiety and depressive disorders on individuals.

Anxiety Treatment Australia 

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) 


Davidson, Jonathan MD and Dreher, H; The Anxiety Book, Riverhead Books New York 2003