Anxiety and Older Adults: Overcoming Worry and Fear

Janet Johnson-Yosgott,Agency on Aging \ Area 4 Health Promotion Instructor

Anxiety is a natural response to many life stressors, such as meeting new people, speaking in public, or getting lost in an unfamiliar environment. But when those feelings of nervousness become overwhelming and make everyday life more difficult, it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Feelings of excessive nervousness or fear and physical responses to those feelings – such as chest pains, headaches or gastrointestinal problems can also be symptoms of anxiety.  A study found that between 3% and 14% of older adults meet the criteria for a diagnosable anxiety disorder. An even greater percentage have symptoms of anxiety that may not amount to the diagnosis of a disorder, but still significantly impact functioning.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is believed to be the most common anxiety disorder among older adults. People who have GAD find themselves constantly worrying about many things. They fear the worst in every situation, even if that fear is unfounded. Adults suffering from GAD may feel like they’re always on edge and in a high state of alert. They may understand that their nervousness is excessive but feel a lack of control over their emotions. Generalized Anxiety Disorder tends to be more common among older women compared to older men, particularly in the event of divorce, separation, or the loss of a spouse or partner.

Too many older adults neglect to seek help for their anxiety due to shame and a lack of understanding about mental illness. That’s why it’s important to know that an anxiety disorder is not something you can control or will away. It’s considered a chronic health condition that requires medical treatment, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. Anxiety disorders are generally treated using talk therapy, medication, or a combination of both.

Seeking medical intervention should be a priority if your anxiety exceeds typical, everyday worries. But there are also lifestyle practices you can adopt to make your anxiety more manageable:

  • Talk it out: Oftentimes, sharing our feelings and experiences can help us feel less anxious. Consider joining an online or in-person support group for those with anxiety disorders, or talk with a trusted friend, family member, or spiritual leader.
  • Manage your stress: Meditation, yoga, mindfulness, deep breathing, and other stress management techniques can help relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety and make you feel more relaxed.
  • Avoid stimulants: Certain substances can worsen anxiety disorder symptoms. These include caffeine, nicotine, over-the-counter cold medications, alcohol, and certain herbal supplements.
  • Get plenty of sleep: A study by University of California, Berkeley researchers showed that sleeplessness can increase anxiety by up to 30% the next day. Older adults should aim to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.

Severe anxiety is not a normal part of aging—and you don’t have to accept living with it. If excessive worry is keeping you from a happy and productive life, talk to your doctor. Today’s anxiety treatments are safe and effective and can help you feel like yourself again.

To learn more about anxiety from the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, click on the article.

To take an anxiety screening, click on the following link.