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Anxiety & Aging: How To Meet The Challenge

We all experience anxiety in the face of stressful and certainly life-changing events like moving from a beloved home or losing a loved one. But anxiety disorders go much deeper. You feel persistent, excessive and disabling fear and worry that gets progressively worse—not better—if you don’t seek treatment. Between 3 and 14 percent of older adults in any given year deal with an anxiety disorder. Though some doctors and older adults tend to view anxiety and fear as normal given the circumstances of aging, developing an anxiety disorder late in life is not a normal part of aging.

What’s more, it can negatively impact quality of life that may already be strained by other health conditions. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), anxiety disorders commonly occur at the same time as other illnesses, like depression, heart disease and diabetes. In some cases, these other illnesses need to be treated before a person will respond to treatment for the anxiety disorder.

Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to mental illnesses, but that shouldn’t keep anyone from talking to their doctor and getting the help they need—talking to a therapist, medication or both are often extremely effective.

To provide information to help understand the various types of anxiety disorders, risk factors and treatment options, NIHSeniorHealth, the health and wellness website for older adults from the NIH, has added a new topic about anxiety disorders. Here is some of the in-depth information you will find to help you recognize a problem and get beneficial treatment.

Recognizing Anxiety Disorders

There are different types of anxiety disorders. Although they share some characteristics, each is slightly different and may respond to different treatments.

Generalized anxiety disorder: GAD is when you become very worried about things like your health, money and family issues, even if you don’t have any problems. You may be very anxious about just getting through the day.

Social phobia: This fear of being judged by others or of being embarrassed can get in the way of doing everyday things such as running errands or meeting with friends. You may know that there’s no need for you to be so afraid, but you just can't control the fear.

Panic disorder: This causes sudden, unexplained attacks of terror and heart pounding. You may feel a sense of unreality or impending doom or have a fear of losing control. Panic attacks can occur at any time.

Post-traumatic stress disorder: This develops after undergoing a terrifying ordeal like an accident or an act of violence. It can occur in you if you or a loved one was harmed, or if you witnessed a harmful event.

Obsessive compulsive disorder: OCD is the uncontrollable need to check things over and over, or have certain thoughts or perform certain routines over and over. Both the thoughts and rituals of OCD cause distress and get in the way of daily life. The repeated, upsetting thoughts of OCD are called obsessions. To try to control them, people with OCD repeat rituals or behaviors, called compulsions.

Specific phobias: A phobia is an intense, extreme fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. Common ones are closed-in places, heights, escalators, tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, dogs and the sight of blood.

Getting Help

Most disorders can be treated with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both. Antidepressants are increasingly recommended to treat anxiety disorders in older adults, most often GAD and panic disorder. The newest and most popular types of antidepressant medications are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), like Celexa and Prozac, and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), like Effexor and Cymbalta. All types of antidepressants typically need to be taken for at least three to four weeks, and sometimes longer, to feel the full benefit. You will probably be told to keep taking the medication for a set amount of time, even once you are feeling better, to prevent the anxiety from returning.

Psychotherapy involves talking with a trained mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counselor, to discover what caused the anxiety disorder and how to deal with its symptoms. Getting at the root cause of your anxiety may be more effective than treating it only with drugs. One type of psychotherapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is very beneficial for treating anxiety disorders. The cognitive part helps people change the thinking patterns that support their fears, and the behavioral part helps people change the way they react to anxiety-provoking situations. CBT can help people with social phobia learn how to overcome the belief that others are always watching and judging them. When you are ready to confront your fears, you will learn how to use techniques to desensitize yourself to situations that trigger your anxieties.

Remember that effective help is available and there’s no reason to accept life with an anxiety disorder, no matter what your age.