The Astronaut That Lost Her Air Supply: Anxiety & Grief

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Bumper to bumper traffic on 95, that’s where it first happened. Actually, looking back it probably happened before that but I just wasn’t self aware enough to recognize it. I was in school for social work at the time so I had a pretty good idea of what was happening. I diagnosed myself right there in the car: anxiety.  I felt like the air was being sucked from my car. My heart was beating out of my chest. My eye sight went a little hazy and then came back into focus. I rolled the windows down to try and get some air. The noise from the traffic and the city surrounding me made everything worse. I rolled my windows back up. I had this irrational urge to put my car in park, get out and walk the remaining 3 miles to get to school. The feeling of being trapped, with no control was suffocating me in many ways. I was in the middle of a traffic jam with cars surrounding me, in the middle of a city full of people and I still felt like an astronaut floating in space alone that had lost her access to air supply.

This happened during a time when most things in my life were out of control. My brother had been diagnosed with leukemia and was living in a hospital nearby instead of at home where he belonged. Our family unit and routine had been re-organized, sitting in a hospital room day in and day out; not knowing what the fate of your loved one will be, takes an emotional toll in a very short period of time.

The anxiety I was feeling was normal, and I was very aware of that. But coping with the anxiety was a larger task for me. The amount of change that happened in such a short time frame stunned my system. My body was in a perpetual cycle of fight or flight and I had no understanding of how to turn this off. My best friend had died from a chronic illness five years prior to my brother getting diagnosed with leukemia. My past history of trauma related to losing my best friend had created a space where my brothers illness was now a dangerous threat to me, kicking my nervous system into high gear to protect me.

My anxiety worsened throughout the time my brother was sick, and especially increased after he died. I relied on outside things to help alleviate my discomfort, shopping, running, alcohol, picking up extra bartending shifts and taking extra credits at school. These things helped me minimally in the short term but they all had consequences in the long term.

Anxiety can play a large role in our grieving process and it’s important for us to acknowledge when it’s happening. Physical symptoms can be some of our first warning signs that can warn us of our heightened emotional state. Some symptoms of anxiety can include:

  • heart palpitations
  • difficulty relaxing
  • irritability/ feeling on edge
  • dizziness/nausea
  • GI distress
  • headaches
  • shakiness/trembling
  • intrusive thoughts
  • nightmares

Lots of anxiety symptoms can cross over with symptoms of grief and other symptoms of life stressors. Finding things that help us relax when we are in an anxious space is so important and I KNOW is much easier said than done. Coping with anxiety was a big struggle for me throughout the losses I experienced.  I found breathing techniques/meditation along with regular exercise to be most helpful for me. I still utilize these techniques regularly when I am feeling my anxiety kick in.

I want to reiterate that experiencing anxiety during and after (no matter how long after) a loss IS completely normal, but we can pay a heavy price leaving anxiety to build up over time. There are lots of ways to cope with anxiety and because it is a biological response our bodies naturally have built in; there is proven science behind what is helpful and what is not when it comes to coping with anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy with a professional can be especially helpful when it comes to identifying triggers and unhelpful thought patterns in relation to anxiety. If you aren’t interested or ready to go to therapy there are lots of other helpful apps and social media sites that can help and support you in your experience with anxious distress.

Come back next week for a quick crash course on the most helpful breathing technique I’ve found and how I apply it daily to help alleviate my own anxiety!

Thanks for reading and #grieveon!



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