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Time to talk about mental health

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This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. So we took the opportunity to talk to WAY Widowed and Young member Dr. Jason Spendelow, a Clinical and Coaching Psychologist, about how to cope with one of the issues many people feel after losing a loved one: anxiety...

"Mourning the loss of a loved one often involves unpredictable waves of intense emotion. One of the many difficult feelings to grapple with is anxiety. This emotion is a natural part of the grieving process and represents activation of the body's alarm (fight or flight) system.

Anxiety itself is made up of a combination of thoughts, physical effects, and behavioural responses. For example, anxiety about the anniversary of a deceased partner might consist of a feared inability to cope with this date (e.g., "I am going to fall apart"), racing heart, and avoiding conversations about the milestone.

Anniversaries are just one of the many potential anxiety triggers for the bereaved. The loss of a partner is always associated with significant changes. Experiencing change in everything from your daily routine to how you plan for the future is difficult to manage and people understandably become anxious.

You may have to contend with distressing memories (e.g., if your partner died in an accident) or become fearful of the grieving process itself (e.g., worrying that difficult emotions will take control of you). You might question previously-held beliefs about the world or your purpose in life.

Soon after my wife died, I experienced anxiety when thinking about the future on my own. How will I make major decisions? Will I cope with my loneliness? What will it be like to come across happy couples enjoying life? Like many people, my anxiety slowly subsided as I began adjusting to my different life.

While anxiety is a normal part of grief, professional help should be sought when this issue starts to negatively affect your day-to-day life, or the distress caused by this emotion becomes overwhelming. It is important to remember that a proportion of bereaved people can develop severe and on-going anxiety issues. If in doubt, play it safe and talk through your situation with your GP or registered mental health professional (e.g., psychologist, grief counsellor).

Assuming your anxiety has not reached a point where professional help is needed, there are some simple steps you can take to manage this emotion. The first is to 'normalise' anxiety. This difficult emotion is part of the deal when you are grieving. Telling yourself there is something wrong with you for experiencing a normal emotion does not help you to grieve in a helpful way. Telling yourself that you shouldn't have anxiety is like saying you shouldn't have two eyes. Many of my clients have experienced great relief by giving up the struggle to stamp out emotions that naturally occurs during bereavement.

Avoidance of painful emotions, people, and places is a common response to anxiety. It makes sense on the face of it; avoiding something that provokes anxiety often provides immediate relief. However, this relief is often temporary. Consider the long -term consequences of avoidance, rather than focusing on short-term benefits.

When you confront anxiety triggers in a planned way, you can increase confidence in your ability to cope. Often, the worst-case scenario created by your anxious brain is unlikely to occur. Even if this outcome does happen, most people can plan how they would cope with this situation. You can improve your ability to tolerate difficult situations by learning some of the many anxiety management techniques that are available. Two examples are relaxation training and positive coping statements."

Further information on these, and other techniques can be found through the links below:

- Mind

- Get Self Help

Dr Jason Spendelow is a Clinical and Coaching Psychologist who works with people in-person and online to manage a wide range of psychological difficulties, including loss and bereavement. www.jasonspendelow.com