Anxiety can be a tough topic to broach, particularly for seniors. Anxiety disorders are often considered problems of adolescence and early adulthood, and many older adults attribute their symptoms to other issues or the aging process itself. Unfortunately, mental disorders also carry stigma and can lead to shame, secrecy and withdrawal.
Like depression and other mental disorders, however, anxiety is not a normal part of aging — nor is it anything to feel ashamed about. While most seniors no longer have to maintain jobs, earn incomes or raise young children, many other stressors can lead to feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. Declining health, isolation and the loss of close friends and family members can make it seem as if the demands of life are too much to bear.
Fortunately, help is readily available, and the best time to talk to your doctor is now. Discussing your anxiety can be worrisome in and of itself, of course, especially when you don’t know what to say or expect. To set your mind at ease, keep the following tips and information in mind as you prepare for your doctor’s visit.
Anxiety Among Seniors
If you’re experiencing anxiety later in life, know that you’re not alone. While most people think of anxiety as a disorder of the young, its prevalence does not decline with age. In fact, it’s one of the most common conditions among people 55 and older, affecting up to 10 percent of seniors.
However, anxiety does present differently in older adults and younger people. It often overlaps with depression and other psychological disorders, as well as hyperthyroidism and chronic pain. These confounding factors make anxiety more difficult to spot, and they often cause patients and physicians alike to seek improper treatment.
Given the stigma surrounding mental disorders, many seniors are uncomfortable talking about their anxiety. They worry that their concerns won’t be heard, that they’ll be misdiagnosed or that their doctors will believe they’re only interested in a prescription. The best way to avoid these issues and receive the right treatment is to be as honest and detailed as possible when you talk to your doctor.
If you don’t already have a trusted physician, you may also want to seek out a geriatrician who specializes in the aging process and treating older adults. Consult with your insurer to find specialists in your area, or use resources like HealthinAging to find nearby geriatricians.
What to Expect
Ironically, the idea of going to the doctor for anxiety may make you anxious — but knowing what to expect can help you make the most of the visit and ultimately receive the help you need. Most visits will begin with a physical exam, which can rule out other contributing and overlapping factors. Next, your doctor likely will ask a series of questions, including:
- What are your symptoms, and how severe are they?
- What are some aggravating and alleviating factors for your symptoms?
- Do you ever have panic attacks, and if so, how often do they occur?
- How often do you feel anxious, worried or afraid?
- Are there certain situations or people you avoid because of the way they make you feel?
- Are you taking any prescription medications?
- Do you drink alcohol or use recreational drugs?
- Do you have a family history of anxiety or other mental health conditions?
Your doctor will listen carefully to your answers, and if they can’t treat you directly, they can refer you to a psychiatrist, geriatrician or other specialist who can. As usual, honesty is the best policy, and you can only benefit from being as open as possible with your doctor.
Tips for Talking to Your Doctor
You won’t know everything ahead of time, but proper preparation can set your mind at ease. Aside from being honest, here are a few steps you can take to make the visit as productive as possible.
Make lists. It’s tough to recite medications, stressors and symptoms on the spot. To answer questions more easily and thoroughly, prepare a few lists ahead of time.
Review your family history. Even if you know of a relative or two who’s suffered from anxiety, you may not know the whole story. Ask a trusted relative about the prevalence of anxiety and other mental conditions in your family.
Be patient. Understand that it may take several visits before your doctor can make an accurate diagnosis. Waiting is never easy, but it’s more tolerable when you’re not expecting quick results.
Follow up. Timely follow-up will help you and your doctor stay on the same page. If the office staff don’t schedule a second appointment within a week or two, do so yourself. While it may seem like an unnecessary burden, the best outcomes result when patients are proactive with their treatment.
Now is the Time
It may be nerve-racking to talk to your doctor about your anxiety, but it’s the first step to feeling better and living the retirement you want. With the wide array of mental health services available today, there is no reason for any senior to suffer in silence. Schedule your appointment today, and in the meantime, talk about your problems with close friends and family members, who only want what’s best for you.
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