Anxiety after pet loss

People often talk about the emotions of grief as being sadness, guilt, anger and denial but anxiety after pet loss is also a common response. You’re not alone if it’s something you’ve been experiencing since losing a precious pet.

What is anxiety?

The National Health Service defines anxiety as “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, which can be mild or severe”.

Anxiety causes a range of physical and mental symptoms that can include:

  • Feeling restless or worried (or as if something terrible is about to happen)
  • Trouble concentrating or sleeping
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Panic attacks

Only you know how anxiety affects you but, whatever your symptoms, it can be very distressing.

What causes anxiety?

Like all of our feelings, including guilt and anger, anxiety plays an important role in keeping us safe.

The best way to describe anxiety is as an internal alarm system that makes us hyperalert to danger. Anxiety achieves this by giving us a boost of adrenaline designed to raise our heart rate and send more oxygen to our limbs so that we’re better able to run away if we need to.

You’ve probably heard this described as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Thanks to anxiety, we’re able to fight off a threat if we must or run for our lives in the opposite direction. It also makes us hypervigilant about spotting threats in the first place.

The challenges of anxiety

One of the problems with anxiety is that our body often triggers the fight or flight response when we’re just going about our daily business.

Research shows that some people are more prone to anxiety than others. Genetics, a chemical imbalance of serotonin and noradrenaline, health issues, past trauma and other factors can all provide a catalyst for anxiety-related disorders.

However, we also know that anxiety is a common response to a recent traumatic event, such as the loss of a much-loved pet or human family member. This is usually referred to as ‘situational anxiety’ because it can be pinned down to a specific change of situation as the trigger.

In many ways, anxiety is a logical reaction to bereavement. Something terrible has happened, something that has knocked you for six both mentally and physically. Your body recognises this and, out of pure instinct, primes itself to tackle or escape the threat.

Of course, the frustration is that the death of a loved one isn’t something we can beat or outrun.

This is where anxiety becomes redundant, only our body doesn’t know that.

Anxiety and complicated grief

When researching this blog, the general advice was that anxiety is typical within the first six months of bereavement. Over time, you will hopefully find that your adrenaline levels reduce and you can begin finding a new ‘normal’ for life without your pet.

Some experts say that if you’re experiencing anxiety more than six months after your loss or your anxiety has become severe enough to negatively affect your life, then you may be suffering from complicated grief.

Sadly, anxiety and complicated grief can be intertwined. Research shows that people who are prone to anxiety are more likely to suffer from complicated grief after a bereavement. Equally, people who suffer from complicated grief are more likely to develop anxiety or an anxiety-related disorder.

This is only one school of thought. Other experts say that the six-month mark is often when anxiety first appears. Typically because it takes this long to really acknowledge the permanence of a bereavement and then begin processing it.

Anxiety lives in the future

Certainly, many people say that they felt they were coping with their loss when their anxiety suddenly kicked in.

There are a few reasons for this.

One of the main reasons is that the time immediately after a loss is typically very busy, not least with practical issues such as speaking to the vet about what will be done with your pet’s remains. You may also receive visits from friends and family or need to spend time focusing on your remaining pets or other family members and their grief.

It can take weeks or even months for the reality of a loss to sink in – this is when anxiety rears its head.

The death of a pet can spark all sorts of thoughts about the future.

We might think about our own mortality or how we’re going to cope without our pet. We could start worrying about our other animals or loved ones. It may serve us to pre-empt potential accidents or circumstances similar to those we associate with our pet’s death. We may picture the future alone or decide that we won’t ever be able to have another pet because of the pain of losing them.

In this way, anxiety is very much an emotion that lives in the future. It has the function of preparing us for an emergency that hasn’t happened yet. This makes it incredibly hard to manage because we’re dealing with things that may never come to pass or, in the case of mortality, something we can’t ever prevent.

Coping with anxiety after pet loss

Bereavement is a very personal journey with no set timeline.

The six-month mark referred to for complicated grief is just perhaps a sensible point to reflect on how you are coping with your loss.

If your feelings of grief, sadness, anger or anxiety are impacting on your ability to work, eat, sleep, concentrate or spend time with your loved ones then you may need support.

The following tips may also help you cope:

  1. Remind yourself that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that there is no time limit on your feelings.
  2. Learn a little about anxiety. You may find it helpful to understand why you’re experiencing specific symptoms, e.g. changes in adrenaline, etc. as this can help you to be objective about the sensations and thoughts you’re experiencing.
  3. Examine your grief. Are you aware of blocking particular thoughts or feelings when they come to you? Anxiety can be a bit like pressure boiling up from suppressed emotions.
  4. Make amends. Guilt is one of the toughest emotions associated with grief. You may feel you betrayed your pet by having them put to sleep or that you neglected them by not being able to stop an accident. It isn’t too late to talk (or write) to your pet asking for their forgiveness. We’re not saying you’ve done anything that needs to be forgiven but we know that guilt can make it feel like you have.
  5. Explore your relationship with your pet. After a pet dies, it’s natural to focus on the circumstances of their death but your time together was about so much more. Write down some of your favourite memories, the times your pet made you laugh, the places you went together, the peaceful moments – these can help to lessen the feelings of anxiety. Also, it can be helpful to see the relationship as continuing, even if you don’t have any religious beliefs. Your pet may be gone but the love you feel for them is alive and strong within you.
  6. Even though you may not feel like it, prioritise healthy, nourishing meals.
  7. Try to give yourself time to sleep. If sleep is eluding you, try to give yourself plenty of downtime during which you can rest. This might mean binge-watching your favourite TV programme or listening to music – whatever works for you.
  8. Anxiety can make you want to retreat from the world. As tough as it is, please do try to reach out to your support system and let those close to you know how you’re feeling. Anxiety may tell you that you’re bothering others but you’re not. Remember, like depression, anxiety lies.
  9. It can be helpful to set boundaries with your friends and family. Let them know whether or not you want to talk about your loss.
  10. Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand how it feels to lose a pet. If you are struggling to get support from your loved ones, reach out to a support group instead. The Ralph Site’s Facebook group is an online community of people who understand pet loss grief.
  11. Reach out to a pet bereavement counsellor or therapist.
  12. If your anxiety is affecting the quality of your life, you may temporarily need to take medication that helps to control the symptoms so that you can focus on the points above. Please contact your GP.

Your anxiety will get better

As a society, we’re taught to push away our thoughts, fears and questions about death. After a pet dies or goes missing, we feel we’re expected to file away the loss and carry on. Anxiety has other ideas. It wants us to face our loss head-on.

If you need support, please reach out for it. Many of us need help when we’re grieving and that’s part of the human experience.

The good news is that, in most cases, anxiety brought on by a situational cause such as a bereavement will diminish over time.

It often takes a combination of cognitive behaviour therapy, self-care and grief processing to move forward but move forward you will.

You may find that the more you allow yourself to grieve and to explore the impact of your loss, the more you will see an improvement in your anxious thoughts and feelings.

Until that time, know that you’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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