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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Beyond Depression

Anxiety is twice as likely to strike as depression.

Defining the Problem

The umbrella term "anxiety disorder" is used to describe a range of mental health problems, including:

  • Phobias, such as fear of flying, heights, or public places
  • Panic disorder, or the sudden feeling of impending doom
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which people experience senseless or distressing thoughts that lead them to repeat actions, like hand washing multiple times in rapid succession
  • Generalized anxiety disorder, often described as "a constant state of worry"

Occasional feelings of anxiety are a normal part of life, but anxiety disorders cause people "to become preoccupied with their thoughts to such an extent that it disrupts their everyday lives and drains their mental energy," says Wilson.

Like Coats, many older adults suffer for years without knowing what is wrong with them, Wilson says. Only a third of those afflicted seek treatment. Some may feel stigmatized; others may not be aware that the symptoms they are experiencing are part of a treatable mental health condition. According to the Surgeon General's report, anxiety disorders usually first appear when people are younger, but the stress of aging -- deteriorating health, bereavement over the loss of a spouse -- can cause their reappearance in later years.

Help Is at Hand

Today, more is known about treatment for anxiety, and according to mental health experts and research studies, the success rate is usually high, with obsessive compulsive disorder often the only exception. Individual counseling and group therapy can help people understand their anxiety disorder and situations that can trigger it. They can also learn coping methods, such as relaxation techniques. While medications like benzodiazepines have been tried, according to the Surgeon General's report, such drugs are more effective for episodes of acute anxiety in older adults than for the treatment of chronic, or ongoing, anxiety.

After two years of group therapy, Coats learned how to use such techniques as exercise, self-help groups, and relaxation tapes to help him cope with his anxiety. "I'd say I was plagued by it for 16 years,'' he says. "I used to keep it all to myself and not talk about it. But now I find the more I talk about it and face my anxiety, the better I feel.''

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