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Anxiety and Panic in Older People

Mental health issues in older people may be under-diagnosed.

It used to be thought that, as we age, we become less anxious, but the truth is that anxiety afflicts many older people as well.

Indeed, it’s likely that older people with an anxiety or panic disorder have endured the condition since they were much younger, often coping with it alone. Mental health issues in older people may be under-diagnosed, as older patients tend to place more emphasis on their physical problems.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is described as a feeling of unease, which can range from mild (worry) to severe (fear). We all experience anxiety from time to time as a natural response to life events such as exams, job interviews, public speaking, relationship problems, bereavement, moving into a new house, etc.

Severe anxiety can be caused by particular conditions, such as

  • Phobias – extreme fear of particular objects, animals, situations.
  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – a chronic condition.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – caused by distressing events.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – where obsessive worries are calmed by compulsive rituals.
  • For many older people, the fear of falling can also result in severe anxiety.

What are panic attacks?

Around one in 10 people experience occasional panic attacks, which are usually triggered by a stressful event, rather than triggered by on-going anxiety.

Panic attacks are short-lived (5 to 20 minutes), but are unpleasant and frightening experiences, involving a rush of intense psychological and physical conditions. Someone having a panic attack may experience overwhelming fear and anxiety plus symptoms, such as dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, trembling, sweating, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, and confusion. Although the symptoms are scary, panic attacks are not in themselves physically harmful.

What is panic disorder?

People with a panic disorder experience recurring feelings of anxiety, stress, and panic on a regular basis, inducing panic attacks, often for no reason. It affects roughly two in 100 people in the UK and is more common in women. The frequency of panic attacks can be from once or twice a month to several times a week, leading to on-going feelings of worry in anticipation of the next attack. Panic disorder often begins in people aged 20 to 35 and is thought to be rare in older age groups, although older people can and do experience panic attacks, usually due to life changes such as the death of a spouse, health issues, and depression.

All people with panic disorder will get panic attacks on a recurring basis. Some people have attacks once or twice a month, while others have them several times a week. But simply having panic attacks does not necessarily mean you have panic disorder.

Dealing with panic attacks.

You might use the following tips as a useful way to help your older relative if you’re concerned about their anxiety levels:

  • Try not to let the fear of a panic attack control you.
  • Remember that panic attacks always pass.
  • Remind yourself that your fears are caused by anxiety.
  • Don’t try to distract yourself – ride out the attack.
  • Confronting your fear lets you discover that nothing bad is going to happen.
  • If you’re with someone who knows you well, they can provide reassurance.
  • Seek medical help if the panic attacks become more frequent.

How you can help your older relative manage anxiety and panic?

If you’re concerned about your older relative, then the first port of call should be a chat with their GP to rule out any unknown physical cause of the anxiety. There are anti-anxiety medications that can help, but they may also suggest regular exercise, a referral for counselling, or contacting a support group (see below). Caregivers are clearly an important source of support and can help by learning about the condition, providing reassurance, and maintaining a normal routine.

IStock/used with permission
Source: IStock/used with permission

Support for people dealing with panic attacks.

Fortunately, there are a number of organisations and charities in the UK that provide great support for people who suffer from panic attacks. Support groups are a way for people to share common experiences and tips on how to cope.

Anxiety UK is a charity with more than 40 years’ experience in supporting those living with a diverse range of anxiety problems as well as their families and carers. Members benefit from access to a wide range of resources and support services plus access to reduced cost therapy.

The No Panic charity (National Organisation for Panic, Anxiety Neuroses, Information and Care) provides information and advice for people with a range of anxiety issues and their carers.

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