Anxiety disorders are a common health issue in the United States with more than 18 million people affected. It is the number one psychiatric disorder diagnosed in women and number two in men. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only ¼ of people suffering receive treatment.
“How a person copes with anxiety is what makes the difference between positive anxiety and anxiety disorders,” says Sam Stanton, MD
, McFarland Clinic Family Medicine
. “Positive anxiety is adaptive, meaning you recognize a bad experience and change your behavior.”
Everyone experiences anxiety. For instance, it’s normal to feel worried or stressed after failing a test or before becoming a parent for the first time. These outside sources of anxiety can change as you age.
“Anxiety disorders are characterized by feelings of fear, worry, apprehension, or dread that are excessive or disproportional to the problems or situations that are feared,” says Dr. Stanton.
Inside sources of anxiety, like negative thoughts or patterns of thinking, often stay the same. Whether internal or external, changes can be particularly difficult no matter your age.
Getting older itself can result in increased anxiety when thinking of a potential loss of independence, loneliness, health issues, finances, legacy and mortality.
“Diagnosing anxiety can be difficult because the symptoms can mask or are confused with other health problems,” says Dr. Stanton. “2-7% of the elderly (65+) have general anxiety disorder.”
Physical symptoms of anxiety can include fatigue, chest pains, headaches, irritability, sweating, nausea, muscle tension and feeling out of breath.
5-6% of the elderly suffer from phobias, which is an intense, irrational fear of a place, thing or event.
“Phobias are often associated with a specific event, such as a fear of public places because of limited mobility or a fear of falling,” says Dr. Stanton.
Social phobias can also affect the elderly. Those with social phobias are overwhelmingly anxious and self-conscious in ever day social situations.
“Elderly adults with social phobias are often perceived as having dementia. However, patients are typically aware their fear is disproportionate but don’t know how to make changes to help,” says Dr. Stanton.
The first step in getting help for anxiety is talking with your primary care provider.
“During the appointment, we will review a patient’s basic health. I want to know how you have been sleeping and eating, any medication changes, transient stress factors and any concerns for underlying medical conditions,” says Dr. Stanton.
Your provider can help come up with a treatment plan based on the severity and level of urgency of your symptoms.
“I like to start with addressing the things you can control, like stress management techniques, exercise and avoiding things that can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety,” says Dr. Stanton. “This can also include counseling and using medications.”
Patients need to allow time for non-pharmacologic treatment to work. Medications can provide immediate stress relief and helps therapy work but are not a permanent solution.
“One of the easiest ways to stave off anxiety is to stay socially active and engaged,” says Dr. Stanton.
If you suspect a loved one is experiencing anxiety be calm and reassuring. Acknowledge their fears but do not play along with them. Encourage them to engage in social activities and offer assistance in getting them help from a physician or mental health professional.
To learn more about anxiety disorders, check out the following online resources: