Question from a reader: I was wondering if anyone else has experienced panic attacks following the death of a loved one? My mom passed away just over a year ago, and I’ve found that since then I have become prone to getting significant anxiety/panic attacks. I’ve always been a bit of an anxious person, but I never experienced any severe attacks until after my mom’s death. These attacks occur intermittently and most often happen while I’m trying to sleep. I’m home from work today because I had one last night, I didn’t get to sleep until around 3-4am, so I called my boss and told him I was sick. I feel kind of guilty about it, but I didn’t want to be driving around all day feeling like this.  I was just wondering if anyone else has experienced these types of episodes? My doctor prescribed me some Ativan, which thankfully I have only had to take once since he gave them to me a month ago (I took 1/2 of one last night).  It seems to help in a minor way, but the last thing I want is to develop a dependency on them.

My response: These certainly sound like symptoms of a panic attack to me, but the first thing I would recommend is that you make an appointment with your primary care physician as soon as possible, in order to rule out any other physical causes for your symptoms.

That said, in the normal course of grief, I can assure you that anxiety attacks are not at all unusual.  The death of a parent is a significant loss that can shake your sense of safety and predictability in this world, and raise awareness of your own mortality as well.

Since these attacks happen most often when you’re trying to sleep, you might consider trying relaxation tapes or guided imagery CDs before you go to sleep at night, as a way to help you replace disturbing thoughts and images with more peaceful, relaxing ones. There are many Web sites devoted to this simple but very healing approach, and many online and corner bookstores carry some excellent pre-recorded programs produced by highly skilled professionals that you can use in the privacy of your own bedroom.

Our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups members often recommend guided imagery to one another as an effective (and inexpensive!) tool to manage anxiety.   As one widow recently wrote, “A guided imagery CD by Belleruth Naparstek does the trick for me. She has a very soothing voice and I find myself so focused on it that I am able to calm myself down. I also use it on nights that I’m having trouble falling asleep. When [my husband] first died I couldn’t sleep at all. My doctor gave me a prescription but I hated that ‘hangover’ feeling I’d have the next day. The CD does the trick, and no side effects!”

You might begin by doing some reading about guided imagery by Belleruth Naparstek, a respected expert in the field: What is Guided Imagery? In addition, you can find some terrific music and relaxation tools online (for free!)  Here are two examples on YouTube:

Rainforest Relaxation

Relaxing Music

Another highly effective tool for coping with anxiety is learning how to breathe.  When we are anxious, we tend to hold our breath or breathe in a very shallow manner, which is not helpful since the best air exchange occurs at the lower lobes of our lungs. Another of our online members who faithfully practices healthy breathing describes her method this way:

Every morning and every night I recline back in my chair and place my hands on my belly and breathe in deeply so I see my belly raising my hands. Slow deep breaths – and on the inhale I tell myself I am breathing in goodness and calm, and on the exhale I tell myself I am breathing out the fear and doubts. The other thing that I find helpful is to think on the five senses when I feel panic, as it helps me to stay present and in the moment. What do I hear? What can I see? What can I touch? What can I smell? What can I taste? I find that when I take time to think on answering these five questions, more often than not it will stop the panic from developing into a full-blown panic attack.”

If you’d like to learn more about healthy, conscious breathing (including specific guided exercises), here is a website dedicated to promoting this simple method of relaxation:  Do As One.

Over the last twenty years, researchers and clinicians have developed a number of useful tools for coping with anxiety. Such tools are highly effective, practical, efficient, fast-acting and accessible, and work well by themselves and in conjunction with other forms of therapy.

In addition to Guided Imagery, these new therapies include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Thought Field Therapy (TFT), Emotional Freedom Technique(EFT), Tapas Acupressure Technique (TAT), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PET), Trauma Incident Reduction (TIR), Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), Visual Kinesthetic Dissociation (VKD), and Somatic Experiencing (SE), among others. All those choices may seem overwhelming, but I encourage you to read more about them, most especially about the potent tool of guided imagery. A good place to start is on the Alternative Healing page of my Grief Healing Web site, where you will find links to many helpful resources. See these especially:

Panic Attacks, at http://healthjourney…ail.aspx?id=360

Columns and Articles by Belleruth Naparstek, at http://belleruthnaparstek.com/recent-articles/index.php

Emotional Freedom Techniques, at http://www.griefhealingblog.com/2010/03/using-emotional-freedom-techniques-eft.html
Guided Imagery or Visualization, at http://www.holistic-…ded-imagery.htm

Healing Affirmations, at http://www.beliefnet…ory_2680_1.html

Belleruth Naparstek’s Guided Imagery Center, at http://www.healthjourneys.com

© 2011 by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

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Marty Tousley

As both a bereaved parent and a bereaved daughter herself, Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC has focused her practice on issues of grief, loss and transition for more than 40 years. She joined Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, AZ as a Bereavement Counselor in 1996, and for ten years served as moderator for its innovative online grief support forums. She obtained sole ownership of the Grief Healing Discussion Groups in October, 2013, where she continues to serve as moderator. A frequent contributor to health care journals, newsletters, books and magazines, she is the author of Finding Your Way through Grief: A Guide for the First Year: Second Edition, The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet, and Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping. She has written a number of booklets for Hospice of the Valley including Explaining the Funeral /Memorial Service to Your Children and Helping Another in Grief, as well as monthly columns, e-books and online e-mail courses for Self-Healing Expressions, addressing various aspects of grief and loss. With her special interest in grief and the human-animal bond, Marty facilitated a pet loss support group for bereaved animal lovers in Phoenix for 15 years, and now serves as consultant to the Pet Loss Support Group at Hospice of the Valley and to the Ontario Pet Loss Support Group in Ontario, Canada. Her work in pet loss and bereavement has been featured in the pages of Phoenix Magazine, The Arizona Republic, The East Valley Tribune, Arizona Veterinary News, Hospice Horizons, The Forum (ADEC Newsletter), The AAB Newsletter, Dog Fancy Magazine, Cat Fancy Magazine, Woof Magazine and Pet Life Magazine. Marty’s Grief Healing website and blog offer information, comfort and support to anyone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of a loved one, whether a person or a cherished companion animal. She is certified as a Fellow in Thanatology (Death, Dying and Bereavement) by the Association for Death Education and Counseling, as a Distance Credentialed Counselor by the Center for Credentialing and Education, and as a Clinical Specialist in Adult Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing Practice by the American Nurses Association. Marty and her husband Michael have two grown sons and four grandchildren. They spend their winters in Scottsdale, AZ and Sarasota, FL, and enjoy their summers in Traverse City, MI. Marty welcomes reader questions and comments, and can be contacted at tousleym@aol.com or through her Web sites, at GriefHealing.com, GriefHealingBlog.com, and GriefHealingDiscussionGroups.com.

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