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Unexpressed grief becomes anxiety

Unexpressed grief becomes anxiety

Many of the clients I work with report experiencing some sort of anxiety in their lives, which makes sense, as anxiety is considered to be a fairly normal part of living in this world. Normal or not, most people want less of it. Clinicians use specific markers to determine a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder (there are several types). An anxiety disorder basically means that you have more of it than is considered normal.

Anxiety is physiological, emotional, and cognitive (body, heart, mind)

Anxiety is conventionally viewed as a cognitive or “thought” disorder, but I have suggested elsewhere that anxiety is simultaneously rooted in the body, and that it can be approached through the body via nervous system self-regulation (and co-regulation) techniques. It’s also worth adding that anxiety is emotional as well as cognitive and physiological, and I believe that emotion needs to be met on its own terms (more on that another time; much to say, including why do we continue to mislabel emotional health as “mental health”? Why don’t we address emotional health for what it is, directly? So strange, and yet entirely consistent with a head-centric culture that minimizes feeling and heart-intelligence.)

Anxiety… Grief in disguise?

Here I want to make a proposition – not a definitive or universal claim about anxiety – but rather a part of the picture or piece of the puzzle: Anxiety can be a result of unexpressed grief. Unexpressed grief can become anxiety. Unexpressed grief can be carried in the body, in the heart (the metaphorical or “feeling” heart), and in the mind (mentally, as thoughts), and over time this unexpressed grief comes to take the shape of what we call “anxiety”. In other words, anxiety might be grief in disguise.

We might not instinctively think of grief and anxiety side by side. Many of us don’t tend to think of grief much at all. Instead, depression gets most of the attention, probably because it fits more snugly into categorical and diagnostic parameters. Grief, not so much. For a while the experts worked with a model that tried to fit grief into tidy stages, but that project was largely discarded. Grief is too unwieldy. Too wild. Untameable. Also, grief is distinctly feeling. Depression, on the other hand, can be squeezed into the “mental health” box. Here’s an interesting insight about another difference between grief and depression: Depression disconnects us from life. Grief connects us to life.

Grief connects us to life

Grief doesn’t connect us to the parts of life we favour or prefer, but it very much connects us to an essential and unescapable (and, come to think about it, anxiety-provoking) part of life: Loss.

Grief is loss. Pretty simple equation. We grieve what we lose. We don’t grieve everything we lose, but when we grieve it is because we have lost something; something we cared about, something we loved. So here we can see that grief is distinctly connected to love. No love, no grief. No grief, no love. We grieve the loss of people we love, relationships we love, even an identity or idea or fantasy or way of life that we have loved and lost.

Grief demands expression

Grief is expressed through the body, somatically, through an action, most notably through weeping (for some reason I prefer “weeping” over “crying” in this case; there’s a different kind of connotation or significance, and language matters), but also through shaking or trembling, writhing, wailing, screaming, fists pounding, contortions of the body, even vomiting.

When we treat grief with the reverence and attention it deserves, it can also be expressed through language, through writing or journaling, through poetry, through talking or conversation. In more traditional cultures, grief is expressed through songs, through prayer, and through ritual or ceremony. When we lack these kinds of expression grief can turn into violence, self harm, hatred, substance abuse and harmful excesses. Denied or repressed, grief can also become depression, or, as I am proposing here, anxiety.

Some writers, leaders, and activists – Francis Weller and Stephen Jenkinson come to mind – suggest that grief must be expressed within the container of community, in the company of others, in order to be properly metabolized. Other thinkers on the subject, like Thomas Moore, take a more private introspective approach (Moore was a monk after all).

Grief is an ongoing initiation

In my professional life I have witnessed how grief, expressed or unexpressed, plays a role in how relationships unfold. In my personal life – I am now in my fiftieth year – I have discovered firsthand the inescapable hand of grief. The longer we live, the more we lose; the more we lose, the more we are put in touch with the grief energy. Grief is an ongoing initiation; we are initiated into the realm of grief through time and through aging. Grief comes with age, and it ages us. It comes with maturity, and it matures us.

As a slight aside, I want to offer another idea about grief while we’re on the subject, just to make things even more interesting: Grief is not the opposite of joy. In fact, grief and joy are neighbours. They’re not really even antagonistic neighbours. They might have a somewhat uneasy relationship, but ultimately they affirm each other.

Back to my original proposition… Unexpressed grief becomes anxiety. I share this idea because many people are perplexed by their anxiety. They struggle to know the cause or the source, to understand it. I invite you to give this idea some consideration. Entertain it. Investigate it. I offer it here humbly, that it might support you on your journey.

All My Best,
Justice Schanfarber

(Read the comments on this post on facebook – click here. I especially like the idea offered by one reader that grief must be “tended”.)

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