Harvard Men's Health Watch

Overcoming anxiety

The condition tends to strike many older adults, but there are ways to counter its paralyzing effects.

More and more, do you find yourself fighting feelings of worry? Do you feel increasingly anxious and tense? Do you obsess about things that may or may not happen? If so, you may be one of the millions who suffer from anxiety.

Anxiety can develop from many uncontrollable factors, such as genetics, personality, and life events, but the main issue for many older men is that they have too much time on their hands, according to Dr. Cornelia Cremens, a psychiatrist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Men are used to working, being active, and having goals they want to accomplish. It keeps their body and mind engaged,” she says.

“But when they retire and life slows down, they are not prepared for that kind of dramatic shift. This idleness can trigger anxiety because they feel they have lost their purpose and focus.”

How anxiety affects you

Other life-changing events also can increase anxiety, such as financial stress, health issues like heart attacks or injuries that affect mobility, or the death of a spouse or friend. Sometimes certain situations, like large social settings or noisy or unfamiliar environments, can cause anxiety.

“Anxiety is highly treatable, but men may not want to talk about it and feel they can take care of the problem themselves,” says Dr. Cremens. “But men should not take their situation lightly, as anxiety can have a lasting impact on their life.”

People with anxiety can have an array of symptoms that may linger off and on for days, weeks, or even months. You may experience one of more of the following:

  • restlessness
  • being easily fatigued
  • trouble concentrating
  • irritability
  • difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Anxiety also can trigger panic attacks, marked by a rapid heart rate, excessive sweating, and trouble breathing. The symptoms often subside after a while or if you remove yourself from the stressful environment or situation. Anxiety can make it harder to maintain a healthy lifestyle, too. You may be less motivated to exercise and more likely to increase your intake of high-fat and high-sugar foods and alcohol.

Treatments and therapies

Consult with your doctor if you have any of the trademark signs and symptoms. He or she can diagnose anxiety and whether it may be related to a health problem. Otherwise, there are many treatment options, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medication, or a combination of both.

CBT helps identify and then neutralize thoughts that may trigger anxiety. Medication often relieves symptoms. The most common choices are antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and beta blockers.

The common antidepressants for anxiety are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), and paroxetine (Paxil). However, antidepressants can take several weeks to work and can actually worsen anxiety in the first few weeks of use, according to a study published online Aug. 24, 2016, by Nature.

Anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines help reduce the symptoms of extreme fear and worry. These include clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan). Beta blockers, such as atenolol (Tenormin) and propranolol (Hemangeol, Inderal), can control rapid heartbeat, shaking, and trembling in anxious situations. Consult with your doctor about whether any of these medications may be right for you.

What else you can do

You can further manage anxiety through lifestyle changes. Here are some suggestions from Dr. Cornelia Cremens:

  • Set up daily goals to accomplish. “Men are so goal-oriented that when tasks are done they are anxious about what to do next.” Daily goals can be as simple as doing a household chore or calling a friend. “Write it down and cross it off when completed. This can keep your mind satisfied.”
  • Get out there. Make an effort to interact with people on at least a weekly basis. Volunteer for a cause, join a social club or athletic league, or learn a new sport or skill.
  • Address financial concerns. If your anxiety centers on money worries like outliving your retirement funds, see a financial planner to organize your expenses and plan for the future. “Having a strategy in place can help men feel more comfortable as well as address any concerns.”
  • Do more relaxation activities. Incorporate mind-body training like yoga, qigong, and meditation. “Anything that slows your body and mind can help manage anxiety and keep it from building up.”

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