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Imagined Grief Has Real Effects
There I sat one morning, crying. Nothing had happened yet. The day was still ahead of me, same as the day before. The to do list sitting on my computer. The cat snuggled up on my lap. Me trying to wake up at 5 AM. But this morning a few tears flowed even though "nothing" had happened...yet.
While anticipatory grief refers to grieving before an event is finalized, such as getting a cancer diagnosis or other terminal illness, we can even experience bouts of grief based on what we think the answer to a test result might be. Our brains interpret what we believe as a real event. If are thinking that this might really happen, we start processing as if it already has. Much like when watching TV, your brain doesn't know it's fake or artificial. The emotions you experience are very real.
For me that morning, it was waiting on a diagnosis for my father. I’m still waiting as I write this. No matter, the stress is real in any case. Learning to cope effectively with these kind of events is the reality of our modern age. So much of what we experience is "artificial." I'm not sure that's even the right word since we are in uncharted waters. Gone are the days when two months later a letter came in the mail that your spouse died on the battlefield. Now at every newsflash your heart quakes with worry, was that near his/her posting? Gone are the days when you went on with life, frequently thinking about your children, hoping they were doing well across the country as they started a new life for themselves. Now, we obsessively check Facebook and worry when our texts are not returned in a few minutes. We don't have to wait for news to come by pony or even postal truck, now we are connected to the entire world 24/7.
Stressors are at an all-time high in our artificial world. It’s artificial in the sense that the event hasn’t happened yet, we are being bombarded by information that may or may not be relevant or real. Millions of us watch a fake, make up world on fictional television. Even our social interactions on social media is partly artificial because we don’t express exactly what is going on but rather share cherry picked pictures and ideas.
Our brains and bodies have to adapt to whole new world in this fast modern digital age. So how can we cope? How can we take back control from the flood of information that changes our perception of reality, even if reality hasn’t changed? Step back. Give yourself time away from all the banter, the electronics, the world. Spend a few minutes in a natural, real environment. Walk the dog in a park, do some gardening, bake some cookies, have tea with a neighbor, take up sewing, the list is just about endless. Do something outside in nature adds some other health benefits, but there’s a lot you can do even in your own home. Brainstorm what would be helpful for you. The only parameters, you need to enjoy it, it must be something in the moment and physical or tangible.
What about those moments of sadness, worry, or stress when we are just thinking of what might be? Well, those emotions are real even if the event isn’t. Embrace it for a moment, then work on your thoughts. Deal with any distortions you might be having. Make sure you’re not catastrophizing, making it bigger than it is in this moment, or overgeneralizing, i.e. this one event ruins my entire life (a future event can't take away your past). Right now you’re worried and you have every right to feel stressed and concerned. Whether the test results are for you or for family member. Or maybe you’re at dissipating grief for some other reason in any case embrace the moment and move through it. For more on anticipatory grief check out my previous blog article.