There have been a lot of difficult issues to deal with lately, and many people have found themselves feeling more stressed and anxious than usual. The good news is that you’re not alone, and there are many techniques and supports that can help you. Read more here, by Dr Sue Ferguson.
Are you a worrier, or feeling anxious?
There have been a lot of difficult issues to deal with lately, and many people have found themselves feeling more stressed and anxious than usual. The good news is that you’re not alone, and there are many techniques and supports that can help you.
What is anxiety?
Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety are: difficulty concentrating, worries going around and around in your head, restlessness, rapid heartbeat, trembling or shaking, feeling light-headed, nausea or butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms and muscle tension. You may also find yourself avoiding the things or situations that make you anxious.
Lifestyle factors, can contribute to anxiety, including caffeinated drinks too close to bedtime, poor diet (resulting in poor blood-sugar control) and poor sleep. Physical factors such as thyroid problems can also be an issue.
Once these factors are ruled out or addressed, then we need to look at psychological explanation. The most common anxiety disorders in older adults include:
Generalised anxiety disorder: persistent and excessive worry.
Specific phobia: extreme anxiety and fear of particular objects or situations (such as a fear of spiders or fear of falling).
Social anxiety disorder: severe anxiety about being viewed negatively by others, which leads to avoiding social situations.
How to cope with anxiety
Talking about your worries or fears with a close friend or partner can be helpful, as can journaling. For men in particular, joining a Mens Shed can be helpful, as doing a shared activity has been shown to help men open up and deal with their emotions. Research suggests that relaxing music can also help, or yoga, or relaxation exercises.
In the actual moment of stress, you may be able to help yourself using a grounding technique such as the 5 senses mindfulness task.
Therapies for managing anxiety include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy, which that focus on changing or accepting your anxious thoughts (respectively). You can practice some of these techniques yourself, for example:
When you’re feeling down or anxious, check what you’re thinking, and then ask yourself whether this is:
– helping me achieve my goals?
– making me anxious or sad or cranky?
– realistic? Or a bit exaggerated?
– how could I think about this differently?
Consider how you (or your family) have got through difficulties in the past, and whether these coping skills might help you to get through this situation. Also remind yourself that even though things might be difficult now, many of the consequences are time limited and will eventually improve. (Cognitive Restructuring).
Gradually starting to approach and tolerate things you have been avoiding can reduce your anxiety in the long term. Work yourself up in steps, for example, going to a social gathering for a short time only, or getting close to dead spiders a few times so that live ones don’t feel so frightening (Graded Exposure).
Where and when should I get help?
If you are feeling very distressed, and especially if this has lasted several weeks, or if your anxiety is making it hard for you to do normal activities, then it’s time to seek help, either psychological treatment, or medication from your GP, or both.
One option is Professor Viviana Wuthrich’s Ageing Wisely program at Macquarie University, which is a free treatment program for people aged 65 and over, either face-to-face or by phone. You can contact them on [email protected] or (02) 9850 8715.
If you need immediate help, ring Lifeline on 13 11 14, or the COVID helpline on 1800171866 if COVID is your main concern.
Dr Sue Ferguson is an Honorary Associate Lecturer in the Psychology Department at Macquarie University and has expertise in health psychology and positive ageing.