Coping with Anxiety

Have you said or thought any of the following recently?

“I’m losing control…I’m cracking up…I can’t cope…I’ve got to get out…Everything bothers me…I can’t stop my heart from beating…I can’t breathe…All my muscles ache…My palms are constantly sweaty…I’m jumpy and I can’t get rid of the “butterflies in my stomach.”

You are more than likely experiencing symptoms of anxiety. Below are three tools to better help you handle the anxiety you are feeling:

Living with or caring for a person with a serious illness is an inherently stressful undertaking that affects both individuals and families. It is an extremely rare person who does not experience some form of worry and concern about his or her loved one’s medical condition and physical decline. The classic sign of anxiety is tension – both physical and emotional. Anxiety comes upon us when our bodies and minds respond to threatening and frightening occurrences. While much anxiety is often unpleasant and uncomfortable, it is important to remember that it is our body’s normal response to perceived danger.

However, when anxiety becomes severe, persistent, and unrelenting, it can become disabling and interfere with our ability to perform normal activities and tasks. Please consider speaking to one of your hospice professionals about the anxiety you are experiencing. Sometimes this simple act of sharing can have an enormous impact when you hear from an objective, non-judgmental observer that your feelings are a normal and understandable reaction to a highly stressful situation. Sometimes, if the anxiety is more severe, medications can help you get over a difficult stretch.

Two Exercises

Below are two exercises that can help you relax. They often work in just a few minutes.

Abdominal Breathing

Abdominal breathing is the one of the most effective ways to relax quickly. By breathing with your diaphragm, you will immediately signal your autonomic nervous system to relax. Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Take some slow, deep breaths into the belly. It’s helpful, but not essential, to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. If you are doing abdominal breathing correctly, the lower hand should move as much or more than the hand on your chest. Continue this slow, deep breathing for a couple of minutes, imagining the breath calming your body and clearing your mind. When you are practicing relaxation, choose an image that conveys peace and comfort. For example, think about a favorite spot in nature or a favorite vacation place. Some patients have told me that they think upon a reassuring scripture verse that they have memorized. Every time you do the abdominal breathing, call up that image or verse as you become relaxed. Let all of the qualities of that symbol fill your awareness. Practice calling up that image at various points during your day.

Changing Your Thoughts with Positive Self-Talk

The way we talk to ourselves about a situation greatly affects our coping ability. Each of us “talks” to ourselves about a variety of situations and we offer unheard commentaries on an ongoing basis. This is called “self talk”. “Self talk” can be either positive or negative. If we can learn to increase our positive self-talk when we feel anxious, our ability to cope will be greatly enhanced. Here are two examples of this change in thinking:

Instead of, “Oh no – here it comes again – what’s the matter with me?”, consider saying, “I’m experiencing anxiety symptoms. I’ll be ok”.

Instead of, “I’m weak for not being able to handle this situation”, substitute the following, “It takes courage for me to face this problem”.

Abraham Lincoln seemed to understand the importance of self-talk. In an address on September 30, 1859, Lincoln told the audience, “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!

Practice Your Lines

Like an actor in a movie, it helps to learn your lines before the big scene. Practice saying these statements before anxiety strikes. Then, when the real thing occurs, you will know your lines and can start changing your verbal response to your feelings. The following statements are useful lines to say to yourself when facing anxiety-provoking situations.

Symptoms of Grief

Grief constitutes the emotions triggered by the onset of bereavement.

Each of us responds in different ways.


Shock is often the first reaction to loss. The way one may not feel pain immediately after a serious accident, you may feel yourself in a haze as your mind anesthetizes you against overwhelming sense of loss. You may continue your life on “automatic” and wonder why you feel nothing. This natural defense mechanism can carry you through those first few days when there is so much that needs to be done, so little time in which to do it, and even less to come to grips with your loss.


Anger is a powerful reaction to being abandoned. It’s OK to resent your loved one for leaving, to feel angry with God for taking your loved one away, and to criticize doctors and even yourself for not doing more to prolong the lost life. Loss is always unjust, and we all look for someone to blame. If you feel angry, allow yourself to and realize that it will fade. Try, though, not to let bitterness be consuming. It can be a powerful devil. Hospice counseling can help.


Guilt is a common emotion when you are confronted with the death of a loved one. You just know that if only you’d done things differently, that person would still be at your side. Many, especially when the departed was ill for a long time before passing away, express guilt about being relieved that the ordeal finally has come to an end. The best antidote for relief-based feelings of guilt is to remember that death released the one you loved from suffering.

Despair and Anxiety

Despair and anxiety can be overwhelming. Our partner shouldered half of the burden of our life together. Now we’re alone. How can we get through each day and each of the first few months of bereavement without the love, support and knowledge of the one who’s passed away? Take tasks one step at a time. Do the little things first that your spouse used to do … like feeding a pet or setting the thermostat. These small successes will build upon each other, and you’ll regain your confidence. Be shameless yet gracious in taking advantage of offers of help from your friends. They want to give and you need help. Talking with them about your feelings and your challenges is fine tonic for dispelling despair and anxiety.

Changes in behavior will occur as we work through grief and bereavement. You may become irritable or manically joyous as you attempt to compensate for feeling bad. Common, too, are feelings of depression and detachment. Sleeplessness may lead to fatigue and a sense of physical weakness. One may over- or under-eat or drink more than normal. Uncertainty about the future may cause some to hoard and others to overspend. It’s important to stay in touch with your friends and family, and when they ask “How are you doing?” be candid!

Sadness and loneliness accompany grief and they always will. We long for our loved one’s companionship, conversation, laughter and, yes, even disagreements. A patina of sadness and yearning will always tinge memories of her or him. That’s to be expected. Withdrawal only makes longing for the departed more intense. Spend time with family and friends and find new things to do together. The sadness will be ever present, but loneliness will fade as you continue to pursue life’s dreams.

Learn more about grief and support here.

The capacity to grieve is as much of a part of us as the capacity to love.

The first year of bereavement brings raw pain, disbelief, the agony of reality and many other deep emotions…emotions many of us have never experienced or at least not to the same depth. The time period after the first year is usually not quite as pain filled as all the “firsts” were. Although we may be a little better, often we are not as nearly healed as we would like. It helps to understand the next period and to learn some skills for coping. It is most helpful if we lower our expectations of ourselves, work on our grief and hold onto HOPE. Remember grief is different for everyone. It is like finger-prints or snowflakes…no two people are alike in their grief. With that in mind, remember do not compare yourself to others and their grieving patterns.

Some of the following observations may help:

  • Beware of becoming critical of yourself due to unrealistic expectations.
  • A different level of reality may hit you. We usually no longer deny the death, but now face the reality and it’s long term implications.
  • It may be the time to struggle with new life patterns. If your previous style of grieving has not been helpful, we must be willing to try new approaches such as: become more active in a support group, find telephone friends, read about grief, do the grief work and HOLD ONTO HOPE!
  • It is vital to find a friend with who you can talk. This is the one significant factor that prevents people from sliding into deep depression. You can find such help in a support group.
  • You may not cry as often as you did at first, but when you do, realize that it is therapeutic. Don’t fight the tears. As the author Jean G. Jones says in Time Out for Grief, “Cry when you have to—laugh when you can.”
  • Physical symptoms may become more acute so have a check up.
  • Insufficient sleep plagues many bereaved. It may be helpful to give up all caffeine and alcohol. Physical exercise helps you relax and to make you sleepy.
  • Your grief may seem “out of control.” You may at times feel like you are “going crazy.” This is common because grief work just takes time.
  • Be aware of lowered self esteem. You may not like the “person that you have become.” You often hear “Time will heal.” Time does soften the hurt a bit, but mainly it is what we do with the time: read, talk, struggle with phases, get help, get stuck in a phase, etc.
  • PRIDE may be one of your greatest stumbling blocks. You may think that you should be doing so much better and may not want to acknowledge that you need help.
  • Loneliness may seem to engulf you as your look ahead to life without your loved one. Find new friends and connect with friends from the past.
  • We should carefully consider the phase of grief. One or more phases may be giving us trouble, such as anger or guilt. If so, recognize the phase and work on it. Don’t ignore it!
  • Other events in your life may also e adding to your grief (trouble with your spouse, children, work, other family, etc.) Realize this happens to many and you are not alone.
  • If you feel guilty, it must be acknowledged and dealt with. Really look at the “if onlys” that keep going through your mind. Realize that in reality you did the best that you could do at the time.
  • WHY? If that question continues to haunt you, ask it again until you can come to terms with it. You may never know why. It may remain a mystery that you have to choose to let go.
  • Deal with your anger if you have it and haven’t already. Acknowledging it is the first step.
  • Don’t expect too much of your family for a while. Remember that they are probably grieving too.
  • Set realistic, reachable goals for the future.

Remember: You may have lost a large part of yourself. You have a loss of identity. You may have lost some self-confidence. You may have lost a chosen lifestyle. You may have lost a sense of security.

“My grief is like a river, I have to let it flow, but I myself determine just where the banks will go. Some days the current takes me in waves of guilt and pain, but there are always quiet pools where I can rest again. I crash on rocks of anger; my faith seems faint indeed, but there are other swimmers who know that what I need Are loving hands to hold me when the waters are too swift, and someone kind to listen when I just seem to drift. Grief’s river is a process of relinquishing the past. By swimming in hope’s channels, I’ll reach the shore at last.” – Cinthia G. Kelley

Why does the grieving process last so long?

It is often difficult for the family, friends, and colleagues of a loved one to understand why the grieving process lasts so long. They want to see us happy again and getting on with our life. It is important to be aware of the many kinds and levels of loss that can accompany the death of a loved one. This awareness may help us and others who care about us to be more patient and gentle to us and to others during the grieving process.

Grief Coping Strategies

  1. Seek comfort and help from others
  2. Take care of yourself physically and emotionally
  3. Maintain connections with the deceased— visit the grave, write letters, look at photos
  4. Exercise, get a new pet, develop a new hobby such as coloring, cooking, hiking