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Are You a Worrier? Understanding Anxiety

Gordon070703The word “anxiety” (or “anxiousness”) gets used a lot, often to explain situations or feelings of unease, worry, concern and fear, as well as at times an eagerness to accomplish something.

By Dr. Michael Gordon

Where anxiety becomes a challenge for individuals experiencing this clinical symptom is when it results in significant dysfunction, dread or loss of well-being. In the field of aging, most clinicians will be approached by patients whose anxiety has become overwhelming or is undermining their ability to fully function.

Mom’s a worrier
I recall an 80-plus-year-old woman who visited me, accompanied by her two children. They wanted to explore what could be done for their mother, who’d always had a tendency to worry. Her children indicated that, over the years, their level of concern had increased; their mother would often became virtually disabled by her worry and perpetual anxiety. They admitted it was becoming “too much for them” as their own energy levels were not up to it. The mother had been assessed over the years by a range of mental health professionals, who had prescribed a plethora of medications and techniques to address her anxiety—all to virtually no avail. The medications included anxiolytics and tranquilizers, as well as antidepressants for the mood swings the woman was experiencing
as a result of her anxiety.

Solving the challenge of long-standing anxiety is not easy. For some, the cause of the anxiety appears logical. And, with support, the person can be encouraged to consider possible solutions. For those whose anxiety is “free floating” (i.e., without a definable cause), resolving the problem can be a greater challenge. More recently, “mindful meditation”—in which a person learns techniques to focus the mind on specific items or tasks—has come into common use. This, combined with breathing and relaxation exercises or rhythmic water-sound entwined music, is occasionally successful in decreasing the intensity of the anxiety symptoms. One thing that has been fairly well established is that the frequent use of so-called tranquilizers is usually unsuccessful, and can potentially result in a new addiction problem with serious consequences.

My advice
• It is important to try to get to the root of the problem. Why is the person worrying?
• Anxious thoughts at bedtime can lead to sleep deprivation. This is a vicious circle as without proper rest, people tend to overreact and become more easily agitated, nervous or emotional.
• Fussing about the same old things? This could be a person’s unconscious way of getting attention.
• Set up a therapist appointment to the discuss the problem.
• Keep activities top of mind with friends, volunteer work or companion visits.
• Consider a retirement community, if finances permit. This can be a good way to improve everyone’s quality of life.

Help yourself
Never underestimate the power of stress. Prioritize your own health so that your loved ones’ needs don’t completely upset your daily routines and work–life balance. After all, becoming a burned-out caregiver is not in anyone’s best interests.

Dr. Michael Gordon is a geriatric medicine consultant to Palliative Care at Baycrest Geriatric Health Care System.

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