These days, it seems like we have a lot to worry about! The coronavirus outbreak, politics, the stock market, all added to our usual worries about health, money, perhaps the problems of other family members … we can all be excused for being fretful. But chronic worrying might be a sign of an anxiety disorder, and this problem is especially common among older adults.
How can we distinguish between normal concern and an anxiety disorder? The National Institute of Mental Health describes it this way: “Anxiety is an uneasy feeling that something may harm you or a loved one. This feeling can be normal and sometimes helpful. If you’re starting a new job or taking a test, it might make you more alert and ready for action. But sometimes anxiety can linger or become overwhelming. When it gets in the way of good health and peace of mind, it’s called an anxiety disorder.”
If you notice that a senior is feeling anxious much of the time, encourage them to seek an evaluation right away. A medication review might be the first step; some medications can make us feel anxious. Anxiety also might be caused by an illness, even being the first noticeable symptom of a heart condition, hormonal disorder, inflammatory illness or neurological problem.
Yet more often, it’s not an illness that leads to anxiety, but the other way around! Anxiety disorders raise the level of stress hormones in the body, robbing older adults of healthy sleep, harming their relationships, and raising their risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, dementia, stroke, digestive problems, and even osteoporosis. The good news is that anxiety disorders are treatable. Treatments include:
Psychotherapy — Cognitive behavioral therapy with a trained mental health professional can help your loved one understand the roots of their anxiety, and learn new thinking patterns to manage it. (Note: During this period of social distancing, many therapists are conducting online sessions with clients.)
Medications — While medication shouldn’t be the first choice of treatment for older patients, several classes of drugs can be effective.
Lifestyle changes — Exercise, stress management techniques, meditation, getting more sleep, improving diet, and limiting alcohol and caffeine may all lower your loved one’s feelings of anxiety.
What if your loved one resists getting treatment? Dr. David Somers from the National Institute of Mental Health shared the following tips:
- Ask questions. Start by asking how your loved one is feeling. A common answer is, “I’m fine,” Dr. Sommers says, so be prepared to follow up. You might ask whether they’re sure because you’ve noticed that they’re withdrawn, sleeping a lot, or agitated, for example.
- Listen. Sometimes all your loved one needs is for someone to listen. Be mindful of interrupting and resist playing the role of a medical professional. Be aware of your body language, listen, and be encouraging.
- Normalize their experience. Everyone has experienced some anxiety. Share with your loved one that there have been times you’ve been anxious and that you understand how difficult it can be. Recognizing their feelings is important. Be careful not to minimize them.
- Provide resources. Prepare a list of resources to offer your loved one. This might include the names and numbers of a physician, therapist, or community health clinic that they can reach out to if they’re ready to talk to a professional.
- Follow up. This piece is important, Dr. Sommers says. Touch base with your loved one every day or two after your conversation to see how they’re doing. Ask whether they’ve contacted a professional for help, and encourage them to do so if they haven’t.
Source: IlluminAge AgeWise with information from the National Institute of Mental Health