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Coping with Bereavement Anxiety

My anxiety has been so bad recently. My auntie died a few months ago and it’s made me worry constantly, and I worry that my friends might suddenly die too. I know it’s irrational and dramatic but I can’t stop thinking it.

DOM, 22

Hello Dom!

I’m so sorry for your loss. The death of your aunt has clearly had a big impact.

Though your anxieties may feel irrational to you, anxiety often actually stems from a really productive place. The way our modern world is organised is not compatible with our monkey-brain chemistry, and this is why anxiety is such a huge problem for 21st Century people. Anxiety is, in evolutionary terms, a good thing – for a caveman, worrying about dying is a pretty good way to avoid dying, as it will stop them from doing reckless and dangerous things which could lead to an untimely demise. 

The anxieties of the humans who came before us were much simpler, quicker, and easier to solve than the ones we deal with now, but the biological function of stress has not had the chance to catch up. Basically, we’re still running on an old operating system. The way our bodies deal with stress is called the acute stress response (‘fight or flight’), and it is extremely effective when your biggest concerns are running away from mountain lions or hitting other cavemen on the head. Unfortunately, it’s not quite so helpful when it comes to modern life, as it’s designed to work in short bursts, but nowadays we have stressors that last days, months, and even years before being resolved.

Your brain is trying its very best to protect you. It’s not always super effective at doing so, but that is the original and simplest motivation for anxiety. If you anticipate the worst possible outcome (for example, the sudden death of someone you love) it won’t be such a shock to the system if it does happen. Because we no longer have to worry about dark caves and big animals coming to make us their dinner, our fears have been displaced onto other stress triggers.

In your case, the loss of your aunt has brought up lots of thoughts and feelings about death, and your brain is doing what it does best, which is to think ahead, analyse possible threats to your well being, and let you know about them. This is all to make the very long-winded point that you’re not being irrational or dramatic at all. You just care about your friends!

I’ve found it hugely helpful to characterise my anxiety as a separate thing to myself. In my mind, it’s this little blob of nerves and worries, and it’s just telling me what to look out for. The blob gets it wrong sometimes, like when it tells me that I might get hit by a car while I’m sitting in my living room, but sometimes it gets it right, like when it tells me that walking down a dark alleyway is a bad idea. While you feel your very valid frustrations, don’t forget that anxiety has kept you alive and gotten you this far. 

You might find that talking to someone about your grief helps to alleviate your fears about your friends. The anxiety you have about losing them could simply be an expression of your grief for your aunt, in which case you should try to face the grief head on. You may also benefit from an intensely physical form of exercise, as this could help to get rid of the adrenaline and stress generated by your anxiety in a healthy way. 

Lastly, I would recommend talking to your friends about how much you care and worry for them. The feelings you’re struggling with, while frustrating and complex, are also a very sweet expression of how much you love your pals. I’m sure you’ll find that they have the exact same concerns about you sometimes.

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Maja Anushka

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January 2022
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