Anxiety is more than just nerves

Anxiety in older adults is very prevalent yet this older population may see it as ‘just nerves’ or being a ‘nervous Nelly’. The fact is that high anxiety is not a character trait but rather a mental illness that can be controlled with medication. If left unchecked, anxiety can effect physical as well as mental health.

What is Anxiety anyway?

Until the 70’s or even 80’s, anxiety was thought of as a part of someone’s personality and there was nothing you could do to change that. We now know that anxiety can be clinically defined as, “a mental condition characterized by excessive apprehensiveness about real or perceived threats, typically leading to¬†avoidance behaviors and often to physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and muscle tension.”

We have all felt anxious at one time or another; before a big test, giving a speech, or doing something involving a degree of danger. Clinical anxiety interferes with our lives and is more than momentary. Extreme anxiety can prevent us from living our lives and cause physical symptoms.

Why are the Elderly Anxious?

Maybe a better question would be, “Why aren’t some elderly people not anxious?” Fear of falling, getting a terminal or chronic illness, losing close friends are real concerns. However, living your life in fear of disaster and just sitting at home, either to avoid disaster or waiting for something bad to happen, while doing nothing is a real problem.

Some older adults may have been anxious all of their and they grew old without their condition being diagnosed. Since mental health was not discussed decades ago, many mental health issues were explained not as an illness but as quirkiness. They were told by parents and maybe by spouses that they had a nervous personality and they see anxiety as part of who they are – not a problem that can be solved.

Why is Controlling Anxiety Important but Hard to Diagnose?

Aside from anxiety preventing people from living to their full potential, there are serious health repercussions. Studies have found that uncontrolled  anxiety can lead to cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia and even death. Conversely, controlling anxiety can improve life expectancy and quality.

Someone with anxiety disorder may go to a health professional with a problem caused by anxiety, unaware of the root cause. Too often medical professionals may not realize that anxiety is causing aches and pains, heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms are found in common ailments also. With five minutes or less to see each patient, it is no wonder this condition is under diagnosed by medical professionals.

How to Spot Anxiety in the Elderly

Having someone who knows the elderly person well will help discover a change over weeks that may be anxiety. Symptoms such as sleeplessness, aching body parts, trouble catching your breath can be caused by many things. The best course is to schedule an appointment with a primary care physician and mention the possibility of anxiety.

Everyone needs to think of anxiety as a real illness that is treatable. The only way to distinguish anxiety from other illnesses is to visit your health care practitioner.