Anxiety: A Part of Life

Have you ever felt tightness in your chest or stomach, had difficulty breathing or just generally an uncomfortable kind of being “revved” up with no where to go?  Excessive worry or “what if?” Concern about what people will think, how you will look, need to feel in control?  Anxiety is a normal part of life and expresses itself in a multitude of ways, different for everyone.  While we are all familiar with anxiety prior to an exam or meeting a new boss or date, it can also be in unexpected places and for no apparent reason.

So, what do we do about this?  Anxiety doesn’t need to put a choke hold on your life preventing you from exploring new and exciting things, or even just having greater enjoyment from one’s normal daily activities.   We might want to see how our thoughts are contributing to our worried feelings, how we might catastrophize about an outcome, think in a black and white way, “mind reading” what we think others are thinking about us.  Identifying our way of thinking will allow us to look at what the truth actually is compared to some of these thoughts which leads to a more balanced view of our experience.

Noticing our breath or changing our breathing is another way to address the anxiety that can feel so uncomfortable.  Deep, what we call “diaphragmatic” breathing, is always helpful just as taking a moment to just notice our breath can have a calming effect.  They strategies move us out of our heads and those circling thoughts and connect us with our bodies.

Another approach, which actually might sound counterintuitive to some, is to stop trying to “manage” or “fight” these fears or worries or even panic, which can leave you feeling frustrated and powerless.  Rather, step back, notice and accept these feelings and thoughts and just allow them to be there as they come and ultimately leave, like the waves we love to watch on the ocean.  This more mindful approach to anxiety and acceptance of what we feel, who we are and what we experience ultimately allows is more freedom to be present with ourselves and those around us.  Interestingly, this acceptance just seems to give us more room to be who we are and when we do, we actually might feel less anxious.

Whatever the approach, we cannot forget that anxiety is a part of life and if you feel you are suffering, you are not alone.  We are not helpless either.  We can exercise – I know, you want to roll your eyes, but do you have any idea what a wonderful mood manager regular exercise can be?  So, with exercise, healthy eating, identification of negative thinking patterns, building a supportive life as well as building a life that fits with how you want it to be as well as increasing your capacity for acceptance and mindfulness and some of that suffering may well dissipate so that it doesn’t show up quite so much in your life.



Forsyth, John P. & Eifert, Georg H. (2007).  The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety.  New York:  New Harbinger

Paterson, Randy J. (2002).  Your Depression Map.  Oakland:  New Harbinger


Life Transitions and Retirement Anxiety

Life transitions are never easy. One of the biggest transitions is the movement from work life to retirement.

In thinking about retirement, people often ask: What’s going to give me meaning? How am I going to navigate life with potentially less money, less daily structure, less social contact, and possibly less purpose? What will I find to fulfill me and bring me joy?

“What is my identity?” is inevitably the question that comes up and the sense of anxiety arises because this can be a scary proposition. For many people I’ve seen, their anticipation for retirement is filled with angst; however once they make the decision and do it, and are asked how it’s going, they reply: “I love it”.

People’s angst about retirement can be unique based on their different situations in life. For example:

1) As a single person who is self employed without a formal pension, there may be more uncertainty in the way of financial and family support; however, many are independent and resilient to change. Regardless of how strong we are, feelings of anxiety are still to be expected as the existential question arises: “Now what am I going to do with my life?”

2) A married person with a formal pension and a family, they may have a lot of personal support and stability; however the decision to retire may take a while because it is frightening to change one’s role in the family. Is one partner now always at home, taking on roles and responsibilities from others? Is there interference or friction from this change? Sometimes several people have to change their lives in order to accommodate someone’s transition to retirement.

3) Successful person high up in an organization with a lot of status and esteem in their career who doesn’t have money problems but has anxiety about who she will be once she retires. This is really anxiety around personal identity: Who will she be when she retires and is this change going to be a loss of some personal quality?

4) And then there is the person who has been at their job for decades and is counting the minutes to retirement. They know exactly what they’ll do and are just waiting for their life to begin.

Anxiety is normal and professionals can help you manage it and make the transition smoothly. Retirement can, and should, be a great time of opportunity in your life.



Bateson, Mary Catherine (2010).  Composing a Further Life:  The Age of Active Wisdom.  New York:  Knopf

Higginbottom, Susan F., Barling, Julian, Kelloway, E. Kevin (1993).  Linking Retirement Experiences and Marital Satisfaction:  A Mediational Model.  Psychology and Aging.  4, 508-516.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara (2009).  The Third Chapter:  Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50.  New York:  Sarah Crichton Books.


Life after Loss: Healthy Grieving

It doesn’t matter how you look at it, grieving hurts and anyone who has suffered the death of a loved one or the loss of a relationship, knows this.  It can hurt so much, we wonder if we will ever stop feeling this way.  Fortunately, the answer to this question is an emphatic yes!  However, there is no easy way through the process.  It is difficult but it can be managed well.  To manage it well is to experience healthy grief or “good” grief, whereas to manage it poorly, or not at all, is to leave it unresolved with the ensuing consequences.

Few people are prepared for the loss of a loved one, whether it is sudden or anticipated.  In addition, it is important to remember that as humans, we are all different so each person’s response to loss will be different also.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve and no one mourns exactly like you.  Gender differences in the grief process highlight this fact.  Unfortunately, when it comes right down to it, we want people to grieve the way we do.  We want to know that we are doing it “right”.  So when others have their own process, we are confused about what we are supposed to do and how to support them.  When there is the tragic loss of a child, couples frequently don’t know how to help each other or understand what the other is going through, which unfortunately then creates other problems.

So, what expectations about grieving should you have?  Therese Rando, Ph.D., a bereavement specialist and author of numerous studies and books on loss and survival puts forth the following realistic expectations for the grief process:  First, grief is not short term; it will, in all likelihood, take longer than one expects.  In addition, it involves many changes and is continuously developing.  Grieving also takes more emotional energy than one might ever have imagined thus fatigue is often present.  Grief shows itself in all spheres of your life; not only the psychological but the social and physical also.  People also grieve for not only what they have lost already, but also for what is lost for the future – the plans, hopes and dreams and the needs that will go unmet because of the loss.  Thus grief is not just for the death or loss alone, it is also for many things both symbolic and tangible; for example, the loss of one’s role and identity as a wife or husband, or mother or father, girlfriend, boyfriend, son, daughter, etc.

Emotions are another area where expectations are often unrealistic.  Emotions that one might expect throughout the process may be combinations of anger and depression, whether irritability, annoyance or intolerance, or anger and guilt.  Sometimes, one may feel a lack of concern or not feel the loss at all and you will wonder if you cared enough.  At other times, there may be sharp upsurges of grief that occur with no warning and you wonder if you are going crazy.  Memory and concentration may be troublesome as well as decision making.  Furthermore, it is not unrealistic to experience upsurges of grief around certain dates and anniversaries.  Whether it is certain special holidays or family times, or dates that were just special to you, anniversary grief is common and should be expected.

Our society often has unrealistic expectations about our mourning and so at times responds inappropriately.  People often report this as troubling.   Society as a whole does not hold the same expectations as noted above, it expects the process to be short term and that everything is back to “normal” is just a week or so.  In addition, our society often minimizes the significance of the loss of a pet.  It isn’t insignificant.  Our pets are special members of our family.   In our culture, people seem so uncomfortable with the natural process of loss and try to avoid it at all costs.  I have frequently heard from people that one of the most difficult things they encounter after the loss of a loved one is how people avoid it when all that is needed is nothing more than even a brief acknowledgement of the loss.

Grief is painful to both the body and soul but in order to grieve in a healthy way, it is important not to fight it or hide it away.  Give yourself permission to hurt.  For those who usually control their feelings a lot, this is particularly important.   Recognize that it is a natural process and your body and soul knows just what to do if you allow them to do their jobs.  Actively share the experience with trusted family and friends or write in a journal.  In this way, the healing comes.  If you attempt to avoid or deny the pain and grief, or deny the loss then problems may ensue.  While the motivation for this may be an attempt to avoid letting go of your lost loved one, which is perfectly understandable, additional problems may arise leading to unresolved grief.

In summary, there is no way around the pain of loss, but there is a way through it.  Be compassionate with yourself and others, understand that we are all different and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.  Find the best way for yourself so that you can accept your loss and move into your future remembering the wonderful memories of your past.

Susan Higginbottom, Ph.D., R. Psych.

Source: How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies by Therese A. Rando, Ph.D.,  (Bantom Books, 1991)