Erasing the Stigma of Geriatric Anxiety and Learning to Help

The effects of anxiety disorders are becoming ever more prevalent in our society. Even with new research shining a light on how many Americans suffer from these varying disorders, we have only begun to scratch the surface. This is especially true when it comes to understanding anxiety in the elderly.

Higher rates of loss, physical suffering from sciatica, lower back pain, chronic conditions, and multiple medications can all increase the levels of anxiety in senior citizens. This makes having the discussion about geriatric anxiety a crucial factor in aiding our loved ones who are suffering.

Understanding Anxiety

We all experience anxiety to a certain degree, and it can even help us to be more productive in our daily lives. However, higher levels become disruptive and unhealthy. The effects leave thousands feeling crippled by pain and fear.

It is important to understand that these disorders are genuine biochemical disturbances , often the aftermath of a traumatic event or a genetic predisposition. They are not sign of weakness or a lack of character, and in no way make someone “crazy”. In fact, The National Institute of Mental Health states that tens of millions of people are experiencing the effects of anxiety every year.

Signs of anxiety in the elderly come in a broad range of forms and signals. The most common of these appear when an elderly person is excessively worrying. Sounding outlandish, or even bizarre, many find themselves dismissing these fears as all in the person’s head.

Active listening is an important part of care for the elderly. Taking their concerns into consideration not only helps to ease their anxiety, but can also reveal immediate dangers to their wellbeing such as criminals. In some cases, hearing what they have to say reveals that they may need therapy to help cope with a traumatic event.

While it is certainly challenging to imagine what those with these conditions are experiencing , it is important to be sympathetic when the signs arise in any demographic. The more empathy we display towards mental disorders, the closer we become to properly diagnosing and treating those who suffer.

The Major Forms of Anxiety

There are seven major types of anxiety existing in today’s known psychological realm that have a prevalent impact on the elderly. Learning to identify the signs and symptoms makes all the difference in getting an elderly individual the help that they need. These disorders include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Social Anxiety
  • Acute Stress Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Panic Attacks
  • Phobias

Each is defined according to its own characteristics, and require different forms of treatment. While research is being done on the effects these conditions have on the elderly, we still know very little on how these conditions vary with age. There are, however, signs that you can be aware of.

This video does an excellent job of illustrating the experiences of a person with these conditions. Understanding any form of anxiety without experiencing it ourselves is a challenging task. However, there are professionals out there who are working hard to shed some light on the subject.

In the video, Marie-Ann Schull is speaking about both anxiety and depression. The symptoms of anxiety disorders and depression may overlap. Depression and anxiety combined can be even more difficult to cope with. Identifying the symptoms and seeking the proper treatment can help save a life.

Below are general descriptions that outline the symptoms associated with each of the major anxiety disorders.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Pessimism or reacting in an exaggeratedly depressed manner over minor setbacks may indicate Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is a chronic condition accompanied by insomnia, aches and pains, exhaustion, and restlessness.

These symptoms must last at least 6 months to be considered signs of Generalized Anxiety Disorder . Excessively worrying about finances, health, and relationships are the most common displays of GAD. However, showing severe distress over something as simple as a television remote ceasing to work can be a sign as well.

Social Anxiety

Those who are terrified by social interaction for fear of judgment have Social Anxiety. Having a harder time hearing, suddenly needing to use a walker, and incontinence can all cause an elderly person to develop this form of anxiety . It inhibits their desire to be around other people, and if left untreated victims tend to isolate themselves often.

Social Anxiety begins as a very simply matter of embarrassment, slowly increasing into a more crippling disorder. It is important to talk with your loved one when major changes are occurring in their lives. Speaking with them is a great way to help them through these difficult times.

Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD

A sudden onset of anger, insomnia, agitation, or violent outbursts are all symptoms that occur after experiencing a traumatic event . Something related to that event triggers these reactions, and causes the victim to relive the trauma they witnessed or experienced. Identifying the trigger is the first step in helping them cope with what caused this disorder in the first place.

Many veterans suffer from PTSD, as do victims of sexual assault and physical battery. Those suffering from Acute Stress have recently witnessed or were subject to a traumatic event, usually within one month, while those with PTSD are experiencing this pain long after the event has taken place. Even though their symptoms are overlapping, each requires extensive therapy to truly heal the person suffering.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

If you are noticing sudden repetitive behavior or obsessive thoughts that interfere with a loved one’s daily life, they more than likely have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder . These impulses are uncontrollable, and often harmless aside from the person feeling that they need to do them. However, they can extend into repeated thoughts of harm to one’s self or others.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder comes in the form of thoughts, actions, or both. Motor tics accompanying OCD are not uncommon, including repeated vocal and motor functions. If these symptoms are sounding familiar to you, there are methods of screening to identify this condition.


It is highly common to develop phobias later in one’s life. Experiencing or witnessing a frightening situation often causes a phobia to develop. While a fear of snakes or traveling on an airplane is typical, developing an irrational phobia can severely inhibit the quality of anyone’s life.

A sudden and intense fear of treatment can cause undue stress and anxiety in the elderly. Fearing hypodermic needles, cramped spaces, or even caretakers makes it terrifying for these individuals to receive the care they need. Therapists are working wonders in the treatment of phobias, and can help you or someone you know to overcome them.

Panic Attacks

This type of attack is a sudden onset of overwhelming fear and anxiety without a terrifying event. A pounding heart and inability to breathe often accompany these attacks. An experience like this is extremely frightening for people of any age. Any of the above disorders are known for causing panic attacks in the elderly .

Growing older causes the body to become frailer over time. Panic attacks wreak havoc on heart conditions, trouble breathing, and other symptoms. While it less common for an elderly person to experience the symptoms of a panic disorder , those who suffer from them are at an increased risk.

Aid and Treatment for the Elderly

If you are noticing any of the above symptoms in an elderly friend or family member, it is important to notify their current caretakers or doctor. Letting these symptoms go can result in worsening of the condition or even harm to the person in question. Thankfully, there are a variety of treatments proving effective in helping with anxiety in the elderly.

One of the most effective treatments is seeking the help of a professional. A licensed therapist, skilled counselor, or social worker can all provide aid.

Medications including Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft display a great effectiveness in helping those with anxiety disorders cope with the associated symptoms. It is important to exercise caution when prescribing an elderly person with a new treatment. Talking with a physician helps you to better understand what is being prescribed, and any necessary safety measures.

Anxiety in the elderly is just as prevalent as any other demographic. Addressing their symptoms and disorders is extremely important for their overall wellbeing. Identifying the signs, actively listening to their fears, and understanding their need for treatment are the best ways to help.

Do you know someone suffering from any of these anxiety disorders? We encourage you to share your story with us in the comments section below!

Photo of author

Stevie Compango, CNSC, CPT

Stevie is Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for the past 10 years. He specializes in mobility and chronic pain management. His methods have helped thousands of clients improve the quality of their life through movement.

Recommended Articles


  • NIH. Statistics.
  • Lenze, Eric J., MD. and Wetherell, Julie Loeback, PhD. Anxiety disorders: new developments in old age.
  • News in Health. Understanding Anxiety Disorders.
  • NIMH. Anxiety Disorders.
  • Mental Health. Anxiety.
  • NIMH. Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
  • NIMH. Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness.
  • NIMH. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
  • ADAA. Screening for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
  • Pachana, Nancy, Woodward, Rana and Byrne, Gerard. (Sept 2007). Treatment of specific phobia in older adults. NCBI
  • NIMH. Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms.
  • Flint, Alastair and Gagnon, Nadine. (2003). Diagnosis and management of panic disorder in older patients.