We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We also set analytics cookies that help us make improvements by measuring how you use the site.
For more detailed information about the cookies we use, see our Terms and Conditions page.
Here are some simple and practical tips on how to cope with anxiety, especially when it is combined with grief.
November 21, 2023
Grieving often brings with it a rollercoaster of emotions, unpredictable in their number, sequence and intensity, with examples going from numbness and anger, to guilt, pain and unbearable sadness and loneliness. On top of that, however, some people find that all sorts of unwelcome thoughts take the opportunity to crowd in. Our secure world, where we know who is part of it and how we operate, has suddenly been up-ended. When all certainties are swept away, anything can happen - especially, we imagine, anything bad. And so our overactive thoughts set to work, unleashed to imagine the worst...
How will I cope alone? What other unbearable disasters are lying in wait? What illness, money problems, accidents or other deaths will strike? What if I can’t do my job and lose it? How will I look after the children? What will I do if I break down and get emotional in public - or cry when I see a friend? That would be just awful. I can’t even bear to leave the house in case I meet anyone or in case something really bad happens. The world no longer feels safe.
What is happening to me?
This is the world of anxiety, where our brain’s response to perceived danger is activated. This was originally a defence mechanism to prepare us to fight or flee from immediate danger to life – handy if we meet a sabre-toothed tiger, but less so when watching the news or going shopping!
In anxiety, this reaction spirals out of control and threatens to overwhelm us with both mental and physical symptoms all too familiar to sufferers, such as a feeling of nervousness or being ‘on the edge’, trembling, nausea, sweating, a racing heartbeat, tight chest, hyperventilation and - worst of all - panic attacks, when sufferers can truly believe they are having a heart attack and at risk of dying.
How can I cope?
If you’re suffering from anxiety, what can you do to combat it? In the long term, if problems are persistent or severe, it is probably best to seek professional help through your GP. But meantime, below are some tips to try for yourself. The aim is to calm down the activated threat response in the brain which causes these extremely uncomfortable panicky feelings. As the effects of anxiety are largely felt in the body, you can feel some direct benefit from working with breathing and physical movement well as general mind-calming techniques.
1. Breathing: the important thing with breathing exercises is not to overdo it. An important technique is to make the exhale longer than the inhale, which helps calm the over-active brain.
E.g. try taking a deep fairly slow breath through your nose, then breathing out more slowly through your mouth as if blowing up a balloon. Do this 3 times
Or try “4,7,8 breathing”. Breathe in for the count of 4, hold your breath for 7, and breathe out slowly, with a whoosh sound, for a count of 8. Start with up to 4 cycles of this. It is a practice, not a sudden solution, and for best results should be done twice a day.
It is also apparently useful to help you fall asleep. (This technique is described in many places online).
2. Exercise and Nature: get yourself moving - walking, swimming, running, skipping - anything which raises the heart-rate temporarily a bit, to help reset it!
Try to go out every day if possible, even for a short time, (possibly in a garden if you have one) as being close to nature can be very calming and restorative
Even if you can’t get out regularly, it’s worth setting up a quiet corner indoors with some plants where you can relax and absorb the under-rated benefits of ‘green energy’
3. ‘Reality-check’ your thoughts to see if they are facts or just your opinion (a bit like fake news!), e.g. My friend didn’t answer my text, so she’s not speaking to me.
4. Wellbeing: look after yourself and try to get enough sleep (for help, visit the Sleep Foundation's website). Also, you could try some yoga or a mindfulness or relaxation app. Colouring or doing a jigsaw or puzzle or craft activity can also be helpful.
5. Eat a healthy diet: avoid overdoing carbs and sugar, leading to sugar spikes and crashes, which can feel very much like anxiety.
6. Avoid too much caffeine, which can raise the heart rate further.
7. Try not to rely on substances as coping strategies: alcohol (itself a depressant), or cigarettes, or drugs – or indeed gambling…. Stop, and see if you can use one of the other techniques instead.
8. Restrict your exposure to bad news and in any case, only access news from a trusted source such as responsible TV/radio or newspapers. Also, in general, keep your screen time to reasonable levels – and avoid it before bed and during the night.
9. Talk to someone you trust- our brains are wired to be comforted with other people.
10. Accept that everyone feels worried, sad or anxious sometimes – gently let it come and let it go (breathe it in, and breathe it out)
11.Don’t fall into the Avoidance Trap of steering clear from anything that might act as a trigger and cause you to remember sad feelings, in the mistaken belief it will help you avoid pain. All it will do is exhaust you and make you feel you’re trapped with more and more restrictions, which becomes suffocating. Try leaning into the feelings of pain or sadness, a little at a time. Remember, grief and love are like reverse sides of the same coin, so in a way, grief is a tribute to the love you shared.
12. Plan ahead for specific moments: E.g. if you go out socially, have an exit strategy (if possible involving a reliable friend). Likewise, have a little line of response ready so you can trot it out automatically when you meet someone and find their well-meant condolences distressing – e.g. “Thanks for asking...Don’t worry I just get a bit tearful sometimes but I’m getting there...” (Or if you don’t want to have this conversation in the street, suggest going for a quick cuppa, again with an exit strategy - but also remember there’s nothing wrong with tears!)
For more tips on wellbeing, look up the Scottish Government website Clear Your Head
For information on how to cope with anxiety and panic attacks, look up nhsinform.scot
If feeling distressed, phone the Samaritans on 116 123 (available 24/7); or phone Breathing Space on 0800 83 85 87 (evenings and weekends).
For support with a bereavement, contact Cruse Scotland via our free helpline (0808 802 6161). Find out more about the other bereavement services we offer.
Thank you to Cruse Scotland volunteer, Graham Stevenson for writing this article.