Controlling anxiety in seniors is not easy, especially if you don’t have prior experience. This article is your one-stop guide to learn everything about reducing anxiety in seniors.
Anxiety disorders have become a common mental health problem due to a highly stressful lifestyle. People think that anxiety issues decrease with age, which is valid to some extent. Still, according to various researches, nine percent of the seniors in the USA have anxiety issues.
Anxiety disorders in seniors are a more common form of mental health problem as compared to depression. Caregivers often find it challenging to deal with the anxiety in seniors, especially if you are starting.
In this article, we hope to share a guide for new caregivers to reduce anxiety in seniors. Before we discuss the different ways to reduce anxiety, we need to understand the different types of anxiety disorders.
What Is Anxiety?
In simplest words, anxiety disorder creates extreme emotions like worry, fear, dread, or apprehension that are either disproportional or excessive compared to the situation or problems in front of you.
For instance, a widow patient may suffer way more anxiety as compared to a normal grieving person. There are many kinds of anxiety disorders (I will discuss them in the next section).
Why Is Anxiety in Seniors Difficult To Treat?
Seniors suffering from anxiety disorders usually don’t get treatment because of several reasons.
- Seniors tend not to acknowledge or recognize their anxiety symptoms.
- Even when they successfully recognize their symptoms, they are usually reluctant to address their condition to others, especially an unknown physician.
- The seniors also don’t seek help since they may have suffered anxiety symptoms many times and believe that these feelings are natural.
- Older adults and even physicians are sometimes unable to diagnose anxiety that may be occurring due to prescription drug use or other patient medical conditions.
Chronic or complicated grief usually comes with constant anxiety. Most people don’t give much attention to anxiety disorders, but they can result in disability, cognitive impairment, poor physical health, and overall poor quality of life.
Therefore it’s essential to treat anxiety disorder at the earliest. Certain symptoms can help caregivers to identify anxiety disorders in older adults. For example:
- Difficulty sweating, breathing, and nausea
- Shakiness and panicky feeling
- Chest pain and digestion problems
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy.
- Vision problems
- Irrational thoughts
- Confusion and headaches
- Muscle soreness, tension, and fatigue
- Changes in eating habits, weight, and appetite
- Avoidance of places, activities, people, and thoughts triggering anxiousness
- Inability to sleep
- Compulsive behavior and obsessive thoughts
- Isolation and withdrawal from social gatherings
Types Of Anxiety Disorder In Seniors
Specific phobia is an irrational fear of a thing, place, thing, or even events that pose almost no threat in reality. Examples of phobias are escalators, heights, tunnels, closed-in spaces, highway driving, spiders, and flying.
The fear of public places or being alone is called Agoraphobia. Types of phobias more common in seniors are a disaster to family, fear of death, or dental procedures.
Thinking of facing these things or situations can trigger a panic attack or severe anxiety. Some symptoms include heart palpitations, chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, or nausea. One of the most common specific phobias among the elderly is fear of falling.
Social Phobia/Anxiety Disorder
Social phobia is self-consciousness and overwhelming anxiety felt by a person in regular social situations. Often, seniors feel persistent, intense fear of being judged by people because of doing things that can cause embarrassment.
A common reason seniors feel ashamed and suffer from social phobias is embarrassment about recognizing people or their names. They are also often insecure about their appearance due to illness, wrinkles, and loose skin.
Seniors with anxiety disorders also find it hard to make friends. When you have a social phobia, you may become part of social gatherings, but you will feel anxious before the event, uncomfortable during it, and worry about being judged afterward.
Some physical symptoms of social phobia are heavy sweating, blushing, nausea, trembling, or speaking difficulty.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
People suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) go through frequent worries without any valid reasons behind those worries. Some general GAD worries in seniors include money issues, health issues, possible disasters, or family problems.
Seniors with GAD find it difficult to relax, sleep, concentrate, and they get startled easily. The most common symptoms are chest pains, fatigue, muscle tension, headaches, difficulty swallowing, muscle aches, twitching, trembling, sweating, irritability, lightheadedness, feeling out of breath, or going to the bathroom too frequently.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD occurs in seniors after they face a traumatic event involving physical harm or its threat to themselves, their loved ones, or even strangers. Traumatic experiences like abuse, mugging, car accidents, natural disasters, physical harassment, or even an experience of war can result in PTSD.
The symptoms of PTSD can develop years after the incident too. Some seniors are experiencing PTSD because of the trauma they experienced almost 30 years or even more. The event can relate to some new disability, like the individual getting confined to a wheelchair. Some specific triggers can also develop PTSD, for instance, news coverage reviving old memories.
It is found that seniors with PTSD get startled quickly and become emotionally numb with individuals they used to be close with. They lose affection and also interest in things they used to enjoy.
It’s tough to handle people with PTSD as they can be aggressive, irritable, or violent. PTSD usually occurs in flashbacks, in which the trauma’s memories occur during nightmares or even the day. During those flashbacks, a PTSD patient feels that the traumatic event is happening again.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is not as common in seniors as some of the other anxiety disorders. However, some seniors experience constant and upsetting thoughts that they cope with by performing specific rituals like touching things in a specific manner, frequently checking things, or counting things.
The most common fear in seniors in this condition is harm to loved ones. Some seniors suffering from OCD are occupied with symmetry and order, while others collect or hoard unnecessary items.
Seniors with panic disorder experience unexpected attacks of terror, also called panic attacks, resulting in chest pain, pounding heart, weakness, sweatiness, dizziness, faintness, or nausea.
Panic attacks can even occur during sleep. You can expect a panic attack to last around ten minutes, but some signs may stay for longer. Just Like OCD, panic disorder is also not so common among seniors. But a senior with panic disorder may refuse to be left alone.
Seniors often relate the experience of a panic attack with a stroke or heart attack.
Ways You Can Ease Anxiety In Seniors
A caregiver or a family member can find it pretty difficult to reduce anxiety in seniors, especially if they don’t have any experience looking after older people.
The following methods will help you to reduce anxiety in seniors.
#1 Breathing Exercises
Training effective yet simple breathing exercises to seniors is a great way to deal with anxiety. Deep breathing has explicitly proved to be an excellent way to control the physiological traits of anxiety.
Deep breathing increases the intake of carbon dioxide in the blood, which as a result, soothes the brain parts responsible for seniors’ anxiety. The parasympathetic nervous system also gets activated by deep breathing, helping the seniors to relax.
You need to make sure that seniors practice the breathing exercises regularly and slowly make it a habit of being effective. The patient should do the breathing so that their stomach expands while inhaling and deflates while exhaling.
A famous breathing technique is to inhale for four seconds, hold for the same amount of time, and then exhale for four seconds. Another technique is to inhale for seven seconds and exhale out for 11 seconds.
Spending some time performing mindfulness practices each day affects the overall stress and anxiety levels. The practice of focusing entirely on the present moment and forgetting about the future or past is called mindfulness.
As a caregiver, it will be great for you to perform the practices with the seniors to encourage them. Practicing mindfulness helps a person observe their feelings and thoughts without judgment. Encourage the seniors to acknowledge any anxious thoughts entering their minds while performing mindfulness activities.
It’s great to combine deep breathing with mindfulness. Focusing on your breath, especially the way the body reacts while exhaling and inhaling. The mindful exercise will help seniors cope with stress and anxiety.
#3 Physical Activity
Non-activity plays a big role in the deteriorating mental health of seniors, which makes regular physical activity important for them. Besides, physical activities are among the best ways to improve mental health irrespective of age. Some great exercise options for seniors are:
- Chair yoga
- Hiking or walking
- Water aerobics or swimming
- Bodyweight exercises
In addition to these exercises, there are even more online resources for seniors to find different workout routines. But always remember to consult with a doctor first before you provide a workout routine.
#4 Diet Changes
The right type of nutrition is not only critical for physical health but also mental health. The food you eat is responsible for fueling your brain; therefore, you need to make sure that the senior you are taking off is getting the right amount of healthy fats, protein, and carbohydrates; it will help them control their anxious thoughts.
The Senior’s diet should be full of healthy foods at all meals. Always make sure in case they’re eating snacks it’s in moderation.
Some eating substances can directly increase anxiety. For instance, nicotine and caffeine are stimulants that are known to instigate nervousness and make you jittery. Never let seniors smoke cigarettes or consume too much caffeine.
#5 Social Interaction
Most seniors usually stay in their homes and barely go outside. Limited mobility and staying in the same place make seniors feel lonely. As a caregiver, you need to help seniors cope with social isolation to reduce the anxiety generated from being alone.
Try to communicate with them and have discussions with them to keep them occupied and ensure they spend enough time with their family. Regularly meeting with your family members like grandchildren, children, siblings, or other family members can serve as a great antidote for stressful thoughts.
If the seniors can’t meet their friends or family in person, you should help them video chat with them. You can also take them to any local community for seniors so they can interact more with people of their age.
Many seniors feel anxious when they don’t have a structured routine. Lack of routine is especially prevalent in seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s. When a person Follows a specific routine, there’s more predictability in your life hence less anxiety and stress.
Try to make a weekly or daily routine for older adults. For instance, you could take them to a local senior community center every Tuesday or schedule a meeting with their family members on Saturday. An example of a daily routine would involve eating every day at the same time or calling a friend every evening.
#7 Sleep Hygiene
When elderly adults don’t get enough sleep, their anxious feelings worsen. Anxiety itself makes it challenging to sleep. You can improve the sleeping habits and environment of seniors in the following ways:
- Install a white noise machine so the distracting sounds fade away.
- Make them sleep and wake up every day at the same time.
- Don’t let them consume caffeine during the afternoon.
- Let them listen to music or read a book before going to bed.
- Install a medical alert system so they can contact you easily whenever required during the night.
#8 Relaxing Hobbies
Finding a calming activity like an interesting hobby can help them relax and distract them from anxious thoughts. Every person has their distinct interests, so try to find the ones loved by the seniors you care for.
Some popular habits are drawing, reading, listening to music, or gardening among seniors.
#9 Take Them To A Doctor
Mental health issues like anxiety disorder can be symptoms of some existing physical health problems. For instance, nutritional deficiencies, hyperthyroidism, Lyme disease, and many other medical issues are anxiety-related.
Some specific type of medications also develops anxiety disorders in seniors. Taking seniors to the doctors is not a bad idea and will help you recognize and address the physical health problem that is probably causing the anxious behavior. Treating the physical health issue may eliminate or at least reduce the anxiety problems.
When most of the ways I mentioned do not help reduce anxiety, therapy is probably the best way to treat anxiety disorders. Meeting a counselor and getting professional help for seniors suffering from anxiety should be the first thing you should do if it’s a persistent problem.
As I mentioned earlier, seniors may find it challenging to open up to their physician or family members about their mental issues. Still, they would most probably feel much comfortable opening up to an unbiased professional without being judged.
A counselor is probably the best person to find the triggers and causes of anxiety disorder in seniors. A counselor can structure a plan to control the arising anxious feelings in their mind. As a caregiver, you can help the senior follow the plan and methods suggested by the counselor.
How To Lower Stress
Everything I mentioned is directly related to anxiety. Still, persistent stress can also develop an anxiety disorder in seniors, and it’s also a significant mental health problem in its own right.
Unlike anxiety, it is much easier to pinpoint the major reason for stress as they are more apparent. Most millennials suffer stress because of their busy lifestyle, but it is not that prevalent in seniors.
Some of the ways a senior can reduce their stress level are:
- Interesting Hobbies: Try to take out and do the things you love the most as it will distract you from current problems and help you relax.
- Yoga: Yoga is among the best ways to reduce stress. Not just stress, but it helps in reducing anxiety too.
- Proper sleep: A senior should get at least eight hours of sleep to function properly.
- Socialize with people
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Don’t consume too much alcohol
Anxiety is not too common in seniors, but it is still a significant problem for those suffering from it, and it also affects the physical health of the seniors. Controlling anxious thoughts is not an easy task. It requires a substantial amount of effort, but as a caregiver, you can help them a lot by making them follow a structured plan.
You also need to remember that most things are needed to be done by them, and you should only be a helping hand.
With some tweaks in the lifestyle combined with various relaxing activities and professional help, a senior can improve their mental health and live a much better life.