Understanding and coping with grief attacks

Strategies for understanding and coping with grief panic attacks after a loss

Grief can surface and resurface in unexpected ways. You can be feeling relatively fine and then a little sign can trigger a memory that causes an extreme sense of panic and anxiety. These situations are called “grief attacks.” If you’re struggling with unmanageable grief attacks during bereavement, this guide can help you understand what grief panic attacks are and how to cope with them.

What are grief attacks?

Dr. Robert Neimeyer, clinical psychologist and professor of Psychology at the University of Memphis, characterizes grief attacks as reminders that you’re trying to integrate the reality of the death of a loved one into the ongoing story of your life.
Grief attacks can range in type and severity, Neimeyer says, from very profound and unsettling, like a night terror, to a small wave of nostalgia that is tinged with sadness. Whether they’re minor or severe, grief attacks are often filled with anxiety. While anxiety is not one of the stages of grief, Neimeyer says the entire bereavement process can be connected with anxiety because you’re realizing that someone who has anchored your sense of self is no longer there.
“Grief is all about attachment, that is, our loving bonds or significant bonds, even if they’re of mixed quality, positive and negative, they’re all about the rupture of these bonds that tie us to significant other people,” Neimeyer said. “We experience profound separation distress, separation anxiety, in the aftermath of loss, especially when someone has been a kind of secure base for us in our lives, providing a kind of care and connection that really anchors our sense of who we are. Then that person’s absence is profoundly unsettling, and trying to rewrite the story of our life without them is a very profound challenge.”

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While grief-related anxiety attacks can happen with any loss, Neimeyer says they’re more likely to occur “more vividly or intrusively” following an unnatural death. A violent death, a sudden loss, the death of a child, or other forms of tragic loss may be excluded from your consciousness for a while, Neimeyer says, but then they bubble up when your defenses are down.

Neimeyer emphasizes that grief anxiety attacks are a normal part of coping with grief, even if they occur for years after the loss. Fortunately, they typically decrease in severity and frequency with time.

What triggers grief attacks?

Grief attacks are often triggered by events that remind you of your loved one, such as birthdays, holidays, or anniversaries. But they can also be triggered by sounds, smells, or feelings, like “associations that arise in conversations, overhearing their favorite song on the radio, or smelling their perfume,” Neimeyer says.

Grief support is available in more ways than ever

How do you cope with grief attacks?

According to Neimeyer, the best strategies for coping with grief attacks are those that allow you to achieve a sense of control over your emotions. Grief panic attacks can be an integral part of coming to terms with a loss, so it’s important not to hide from them or push them away. Instead, Neimeyer suggests trying to control the way grief attacks occur, such as allotting time into your schedule to sit with your grief. That way, you can prevent grief attacks from blindsiding you at inconvenient or distressing times. He also suggests:

Grief journaling

Take a few minutes to write thoughts about your loss at a time of day that feels right for you. Neimeyer suggests listening to reflective music beforehand to safely prepare for writing about death and then unwinding after a writing session with an activity you enjoy, like going for a run or chatting with friends.

Grief meditation

Meditation can be a way to quiet your mind and improve your outlook, but it can also be a way to sit with your thoughts and emotions and come to terms with them over time. Neimeyer suggests trying forms of gratitude meditation that lead you to reflect on what you have in your life.

Have an internal dialogue with your loved one

Speaking to the person you’re missing or “consulting them in spirit” may bring you some solace, Neimeyer says. Try telling them how you’re feeling or any thoughts you wish you could’ve said before they passed. It’s okay to talk it out — in your head or out loud.

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When to seek help

If you’re avoiding social interactions, abusing substances, having suicidal thoughts, or struggling to live your life normally after a loss, the next step may be to seek professional grief support in the form of psychotherapy. While Neimeyer says grief counseling is a productive way to cope with bereavement, he emphasizes that medications, like anti-depressants, have been scientifically proven ineffective in treating grief itself. While grief is often accompanied by depression, the process itself is not a form of depression, so it shouldn’t be treated as such.
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