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Anxiety In Elderly: Causes And Symptoms In Older Adults

As we age, it’s normal to feel a little more anxious or nervous. However, when these feelings start to interfere with our daily lives, it could be an anxiety disorder. Mood swings and debilitating worry are important signs to watch out for.

As we age, our risk of developing a mental health condition increases. This is especially true if we have a family history of mental illness.

Anxiety is actually one of the most common mental health conditions in older adults.

I know a little about anxiety disorders, my late husband suffered from it for decades.

It’s a terrible illness. The mind races constantly, you never feel at ease or relaxed and you can experience a myriad of physical symptoms.

You can be scared of things that generally wouldn’t bother you. It’s a terrible way to live.

And it’s difficult for family members to know what to do to help.

As many as one in five seniors experience mental health issues not associated with aging. This increased risk of depression and anxiety is why it’s so important to invest in emotional well-being, as well as physical well-being as a part of senior care.

I do believe we are at the stage in medical science where issues such as depression and anxiety are now considered more “medical issues” vs. “psychological issues”.

This is good because it will then promote research into the physical causes and hopefully into more effective treatment.

What Is Anxiety?

You might think that you have experienced anxiety. Maybe you felt nervous about a dinner party or about downsizing to a smaller home. That’s normal for many people.

But anxiety, a real anxiety disorder, is more than just the occasional case of nerves.

It’s a condition that can take over your life and make it hard for you to do the things you love. It reduces your quality of life.

Someone with severe anxiety can begin ruminating about a “possible event”.

I remember an elderly patient of mine who couldn’t stop worrying that she was going to experience cognitive decline as her mother did.

She spoke about it constantly and it interfered with her daily tasks and therapy.

What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

Anxiety symptoms are different for everyone, but there are some common experiences that people often describe.

Many people say that anxiety is a constant feeling of unease, worry, and fear.

It can be hard to concentrate or relax, and you may feel like your thoughts are racing all the time.

You may also experience physical symptoms like a pounding heart, sweating, or tension headaches.

For some people, anxiety can be paralyzing and make it difficult to even leave the house.

These feelings are more than just the occasional case of nerves.

They’re constant, and they can really interfere with your life.

My late husband suffered from all of these symptoms when anxiety would rear its ugly head.

It was difficult for me to know how to help him although medication and counseling did help somewhat.

The Difference Between Anxiety And Panic Attacks

Anxiety and panic attacks can be very similar, especially in the elderly. Both can cause a person to feel short of breath, have a racing heart, and feel like they are going to faint or die.

However, there are some key differences between anxiety and panic attacks.

Anxiety is usually more of a generalized feeling of worry or unease. I

t can be caused by a specific event, such as a doctor’s appointment, or it can be more general, such as worrying about your health.

Anxiety can also be chronic, meaning it lasts for a long time.

Panic attacks, on the other hand, are usually more sudden and intense. They can feel like a heart attack or being suffocated.

And they often come with a sense of impending doom.

Panic attacks can be so severe that they cause people to avoid situations where they might have another one.

If you’re experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, it’s important to talk to your doctor. There are treatments that can help.

Anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

It’s not uncommon for elderly people to suffer from anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

OCD can be a debilitating condition, characterized by intrusive and unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) that are carried out in an attempt to relieve the anxiety caused by the obsessions.

Older people with OCD may obsess about cleanliness and contamination, leading them to engage in repetitive hand-washing or cleaning rituals.

They may also have persistent worries about their safety or the safety of their loved ones, and may compulsively check door locks or electrical appliances.

OCD can make everyday activities very difficult and time-consuming and can lead to social isolation and depression.

The Most Common Cause Of Anxiety In The Elderly?

There are many possible causes of anxiety in the elderly, but one of the most common is the fear of becoming isolated or forgotten.

Many older adults experience a feeling of loneliness and isolation as they age. This can lead to feelings of anxiety and insecurity.

Additionally, some older adults may start to feel anxious about their health and whether they will be able to take care of themselves.

This can lead to a fear of being helpless or disabled and becoming isolated from friends and family.

Other common causes of anxiety in the elderly include changes in appearance, such as wrinkles or thinning hair, physical limitations, retirement, and death or illness of a loved one.

Most major life changes can cause anxiety in seniors.

How Does Anxiety Affect The Elderly?

According to, “Anxiety disorders in older adults are fairly common, affecting 10% to 20% of people.

That translates to millions of seniors living with these symptoms that can become debilitating.

It can literally prevent seniors from…

  • meeting with their friends and family
  • eating healthy
  • taking their medication
  • getting outdoors
  • sleeping well
  • working
  • taking care of their personal hygiene
  • caring for their home
  • paying their bills
  • and most other tasks of daily living

Anxiety can literally keep you in bed for days (especially when it’s coupled with depression). As I said, it’s a terrible illness.

My experience in working with older adults as an Occupational Therapist has been that the mindset of many seniors, as it relates to issues such as anxiety and depression, is that “it’s just a part of getting old” or they may be reluctant to admit they are feeling this way because they don’t want to be perceived as weak.

This is particularly true for men who have been socialized to believe that emotions are a sign of weakness. It can be difficult for them to express what they are feeling, even to their doctor.

And trying to get some seniors into counseling can seem impossible! But it’s important to remember that anxiety and depression are real medical conditions that need to be treated.

If you are an elderly adult experiencing anxiety or depression, please know that you are not alone and there is help available. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and ask for a referral to a mental health professional.

There are also many helpful self-care strategies that can lessen the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Below are some examples:

  • Exercise: Physical activity can help reduce stress and improve mood. Just be sure to check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program.
  • Relaxation techniques: Deep breathing, meditation, and visualization can all help to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation.
  • Healthy diet: Eating a healthy diet can help improve energy levels and mood. Be sure to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein in your diet.
  • Staying connected: Isolation can worsen anxiety and depression. Staying connected with family and friends can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Like depression, anxiety disorders are often unrecognized and undertreated in older adults. Anxiety can worsen an older adult’s physical health, decrease their ability to perform daily activities, and decrease feelings of well-being.

Overall, the symptoms of anxiety can greatly impact an elderly person’s life and that of their family and friends as well.

So, it’s extremely important to speak to your doctor about what you are experiencing and get the medical and psychological help that can give you back your life.

What Are The Symptoms Of Anxiety In The Elderly?

I mentioned above what anxiety can feel like for some seniors and of course, every individual is different. Here’s a more comprehensive list of some of the most common symptoms of anxiety that the elderly experience.

  • feeling restless, wound up, or on edge
  • easily fatigued
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feeling irritable
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • sweating
  • headaches
  • muscle tension
  • stomach upset
  • muscle aches and pains
  • dizziness
  • difficulty sleeping
  • trembling or shaking
  • racing thoughts
  • unable to make decisions
  • catastrophizing (when you can only think of the worst that can happen)
  • heart palpitations

Believe me, some of these symptoms can make you feel like you are having a heart attack or maybe a stroke! And just thinking about that can only make you feel more anxious, naturally.

Again, if you have these symptoms, please consult with your physician for a full medical checkup. If it turns out that they are the result of anxiety, then you can certainly begin to get treated for that issue.

It’s a medical condition that requires treatment so don’t put it off.

What Causes Sudden Anxiety In The Elderly?

There are many different things that can cause sudden anxiety in elderly people. It could be something as simple as a change in routine or environment, or it could be something more serious like an underlying health condition.

Some of the most common causes of sudden anxiety in elderly people include:

  • A change in routine: If you’re used to a certain routine and that routine is suddenly disrupted, it can cause anxiety. For example, if you’re used to walking every day and suddenly can’t because you’ve injured yourself, it can be anxiety-inducing.
  • A change in environment: If you’re suddenly placed in a new and unfamiliar environment, it can trigger anxiety. For example, if you move to a new house or city, it can be overwhelming and cause anxiety.
  • An underlying health condition: If you have an underlying health condition that’s causing anxiety, it’s important to get it treated. For example, if you have an anxiety disorder or depression, it’s important to get treatment.
  • Stressful life events: If you’re going through a stressful life event, it can trigger anxiety. For example, if you’re going through a divorce or dealing with the death of a loved one, it can be very difficult and cause anxiety.
  • Genetic factors: If you have a family history of anxiety, you may be more likely to experience anxiety yourself.

Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone experiences at times. However, people with anxiety disorders feel anxious most of the time, and their anxiety interferes with daily activities such as work, school, and relationships.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States. There are many different types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and specific phobias.

The types of anxiety that people face may also vary with age. For example, phobias are more common in children, panic disorder is more common in middle-aged adults, and older adults are more likely to experience generalized anxiety disorder.

Women are more likely than men to experience anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders often run in families, but it is not known exactly how they are passed down from generation to generation.

Does Anxiety Get Worse With Age?

Generally speaking, anxiety is not a normal part of aging. But, if you have been an anxious person for most of your life, then anxiety can be exacerbated as you age. At least that has been my personal experience.

I call it the “more so disease”. However you are when you’re younger, you’re only more so when you’re older. Of course, this isn’t true for every human being but it seems to be true for the majority.

So, I would say that for some elderly adults, anxiety gets worse as they age. This may be due to physical changes, life experiences, or both. Other people find that anxiety improves with age. This may be due to increased wisdom and self-awareness.

Anxiety is the most prevalent mental health disorder. People of all ages and backgrounds experience anxious thoughts, and those affected by the disorder sometimes wonder if they’ll always struggle with anxiety. No one wants to face this challenge into their senior years, so this is a very common concern.

There are many factors that can affect how anxiety changes with age. These include:

  • Physical changes: As we age, our bodies go through changes. We may not be able to do things that we could do when we were younger. This can lead to anxiety about our abilities and our health.
  • Life experiences: We may have more life experiences as we age. This can lead to anxiety about things that have happened in the past or that might happen in the future.
  • Changes in the brain: The brain changes as we age. This can affect how we process information and respond to stress.

The bottom line is that you do have the opportunity to control or decrease any anxiety that you may have. It just depends on what you do to take care of it. Medical and counseling interventions can certainly help.

What Helps The Elderly With Anxiety?

The best way to deal with anxiety in the elderly is to try and understand what might be causing it. It could be something as simple as a change in routine or diet, or it could be something more serious.

If you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety, there are a few things that you can do to help them or yourself.

  • It’s real: First, it is important to understand that anxiety is a real and serious medical problem. Just knowing and acknowledging this can help people to feel less alone and more understood.
  • Identify your triggers: What brings on your anxiety? Once you know what sets off your anxiety, you can begin to avoid or manage those triggers.
  • Get regular exercise: Exercise can help reduce stress and improve your mood.
  • Eat a healthy diet: Eating a healthy diet can help you feel better and reduce stress.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine: Alcohol and caffeine can make anxiety worse. If you’re struggling with anxiety, it’s best to avoid or limit these substances.
  • Get plenty of sleep: Getting enough sleep can help you feel rested and less anxious.
  • Take breaks during the day: If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a few minutes to yourself to relax and rejuvenate.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: There are many different relaxation techniques that can help ease anxious thoughts. Try deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation.
  • Talk to someone: Talking to a trusted friend or family member can help you feel better and may help reduce your anxiety.
  • See a therapist: If your anxiety is severe, you may benefit from seeing a therapist who can help you manage your symptoms.
  • See a doctor: There are medications that can help to ease the symptoms and help you to better control your anxiety.

Read some more information about how you can help your elderly loved ones suffering from anxiety.

Medication For Anxiety

Medication will not cure anxiety disorders but will keep them under control while the person receives therapy.

Medication must be prescribed by physicians, often psychiatrists or geriatric psychiatrists, who can also offer therapy or work as a team with psychologists, social workers, or counselors who provide therapy.

There’s no one way to experience anxiety. For some, it might be a response to a traumatic event. Others may feel anxious all the time, even when nothing specific is happening.

And still others may only feel anxious in certain situations, like during a social interaction or when they’re under stress. No matter how anxiety manifests, it can be a difficult and debilitating condition.

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