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Anxiety problems among older adults is common, but often not recognized, according to CAMH. As we grow older, there can be a tendency to worry about the future – our health, our finances, caregiving responsibilities, whether we can age in place at home, and relationships with family and friends. It’s normal, but up to a point. For someone with an anxiety disorder, those worries and fears replay over and over, and have a negative impact on every-day life.

Rewind back to how you felt the day before a job interview for a position you really wanted. You probably thought about what you should wear, what you should say, how much money you’d be offered and what it might mean if you get the job. Your body likely had a physical response.

Your heartbeat quickened, your muscles knotted, your breathing grew shallow, and you may have had a restless sleep the night before. Though unpleasant, that’s garden-variety anxiety. It happens for a specific reason. Imagine having an anxiety disorder and those thoughts and feeling are omnipresent, disrupting how you how you relate to other people and the world around you.

Worrying can have a negative impact on emotional and physical health. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Helga Weber.

Common anxiety disorders

There are more than seven types of anxiety. A common one is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It affects one person out of 20. It is characterized by pervasive and uncontrollable worry. Someone with GAD may fret constantly. They worry when things are going bad or going well (wondering when it will end). GAD imbeds a recording of worries in your mind, even though you may not be fully conscious of it. It’s like putting on the television while you read the newspaper. You hear it, but you may not be listening to every word, yet the music is still there.

For someone with society anxiety, being around strangers, family and colleagues may bring on fears about being judged, making mistakes, or being embarrassed by something that they or another person may do. A feeling of distress sets in and it’s not much fun to be at the party. The response could be avoidance (no longer go to social events), or drugs, alcohol or food may soothe About 13 per cent of us will experience an episode of society anxiety at some point in our lives.

In fact, for Canadians, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concerns. But despite them being so prevalent, they’re not well understood. Anxiety gets thrown into the same lump as stress and depression all too often. Anxiety is different. If you or someone in your life were depressed, you’d probably recognize its symptoms readily. Sadness, hopelessness and lethargy serve as red flags for a common problem that we can recognize.

Social anxiety may lead to isolation and loneliness. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, mineeshin.

With anxiety, the effect is quite different. It has a sense of speed where the mind is rarely still. It’s tricky to see the signs outwardly. If a person constantly worries and sees tense, it may be chalked up to just a personality trait that he or she was born with. It may not be seen as a psychological problem that needs to be addressed. It may be why people with an anxiety disorder typically wait more than 10 years before seeking help.

Anxiety isn’t visible. It flies under the radar and doesn’t get noticed, as much as some other psychological disorders. People can become very good at masking it. Our genetics play a part to some degree as a cause of anxiety, but it’s not the primary source. We come hardwired to some degree by genetics as to how strongly we will react to things compared to others. But the other important factor is learned anxiety that comes as a result of parenting. Moms and dads can teach kids to worry early on by telling them things like “don’t pat strange dogs or they might bite you;” or “you could drown if you play near the water.”

Why we worry

Of course, moms especially want to protect you from potential dangers in the world, but her focusing on them can breed fear in a child. The seeds of an anxiety disorder are sown early on. By the time you reach adulthood, you may have already learned to anticipate bad things that could happen. You grow up to be a person who is cautious and afraid to take risks. And those “what if” fear-filled mantra repeats until it’s a well-entrenched pattern of thinking. You can blame society, too. We live such fast-paced lives that it’s difficult to stop long enough to do a status check on your physical and mental state.

Treatments for anxiety aim at disrupting, and eventually breaking, that patterns by throwing in a speed bump, and a detour sign or two, so you don’t continue further down that familiar path to anxiety. The experts on the subject don’t agree on what forms these disruptions should take. The Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada advocates cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). This is a process of examining the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviour that is best guided by a mental health professional, like a psychologist.

It’s a multi-faceted approach that looks at how a person has been conditioned over the years to react in a way that is out of synch with what’s really going on. The other possibility is prescription drugs. They may be more readily available than mental health professionals and there’s no time commitment involved, unlike therapy sessions.

The good news is that anxiety is treatable and controllable. People need to realize that of all the mental health disorders, anxiety is one of the
easiest to treat.

Claire Maisonneuve, director of the Alpine Counselling Clinic in Vancouver, helps anxious clients by using a combination of talk therapy and relaxation exercises that focuses on deep breathing. “When we feel anxious, our breathing becomes more shallow, our bodies feel tight and uncomfortable,” she says. “Just by focusing on slow deep breaths, it helps people connect with what’s going on in their bodies. Once you tap into that, you are better able to examine your thoughts. If you can change your them, you can change how you feel.”

Family gatherings can be triggered for anxiety. We aspire to a warm fuzzy experience that exists mostly in movies. Maisonneuve suggests getting objective feedback to keep anxiety in check by discussing your expectations with friends or family you trust. They may be able to tell you that planning a complicated menu just doesn’t matter all that much. If hanging out at cocktail parties or with the relatives is making you fret, take charge and decided what’s going to work for you. “Don’t try to fulfill the needs of other people,” she advises. “This puts more pressure on you. You may want to put a time limit on how long you will stay.”

The good news is that anxiety is treatable and controllable. People need to realize that of all the mental health disorders, anxiety is one of the easiest to treat. With treatment, it is realistic to expect to see improvement in three months with some effort. There’s no cure, but anxiety can be put on the back burner. And that means being able to live without fear ruling your mind.

Just breathe…

Maisonneuve calls deep breathing, “ the most powerful and cost effective treatment” for anxiety. Though it’s so simple, most of us aren’t very good at it. She offers some basic tips to ease its effects:

• Lie down on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, about hip distance apart

• Put your hands on your belly or to the side.

• Breathe through you nose for both inhaling and exhaling.

• Bring awareness to your belly and slowly inhale and take the breath into your belly and feel it rise. Imagine you have a balloon that is inflating there as you inhale and deflate as you exhale.

• Keep the breath moving slow and into the lower part of the body.

• Count to prevent your mind from wandering. Inhale and exhale for the same length of time. This is key to regulating your emotions.

• Practise 15 minutes daily.