HealthHow to identify and treat anxiety in the golden years

How to identify and treat anxiety in the golden years

Mental health problems affect a wide range of people of all ages. However, the golden years of one’s life are best spent applauding a lifetime of overcoming obstacles, not feeling blocked by a new one in anxiety. Although studies show that the prevalence of anxiety disorders declines from midlife to later adulthood, anxiety disorders are still the most common mental disorder among older adults. To make matters worse, mature individuals often have a tougher time identifying and communicating their mental health symptoms. In order to help people navigate mental health hurdles as they age, we investigated how anxiety affects the older population.

Research Finds Older Men Struggle with Anxiety

Along with colleagues from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Foothill College, we researched elevated anxiety symptoms in veterans versus nonveterans using the Health and Retirement Study, a large national study. The Health and Retirement Study is a National Institute on Aging funded study that began in 1992 and consists of surveys conducted with approximately 20,000 Americans every two years. 1 In this large study, we focused on male veterans and non-veterans aged 50 years and older. We found that late middle-aged men were less likely to have elevated anxiety symptoms compared with older men.2 We also found that elevated anxiety symptoms were quite common even among older men, affecting almost one in five people over age 75 who were non-veterans. This suggests that a substantial number of older men experience elevated anxiety symptoms.

Older Adults Were Less Likely to Identify Anxiety Symptoms

But how easy is it to separate anxiety symptoms from the natural effects of aging? According to a study that surveyed both older and young adults’ knowledge of anxiety and depressive symptoms, pinpointing symptoms of an anxiety disorder may be more of a challenge the older you get.3 The researchers provided participants with a list of symptoms and asked them to determine whether each symptom was anxiety only, depression only, anxiety and depression or neither. They found that older participants were less accurate at classifying depression and anxiety symptoms compared with younger adults.

Both of these studies reveal the same urgent need: clear, informational help on identifying and treating anxiety for older generations. With this in mind, we have provided some brief information for older individuals and/or their loved ones.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety

If you are unsure of whether or not you or your loved one are experiencing anxiety, here are a few common symptoms:

  • Feeling nervous or jumpy
  • Worrying or dwelling on concerns
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • “What if…?” thoughts
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Feeling tense
  • Butterflies in your stomach
  • Difficulty falling, staying asleep, or waking too early
  • Checking things like blood pressure or finances more often than you need to
  • Avoiding situations due to discomfort or anxiety

How to Get Help: Therapy, Geropsychology, and Medication

If some or all the above symptoms apply to you or an older person you care about, it’s important to seek help. Counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help you learn different techniques to help manage anxiety. Seek out trained mental health providers such as geropsychologists. Geropsychologists are psychologists who specialize in helping older persons and their families to maintain well-being, overcome problems, and achieve maximum potential during later life.4 Mental health providers who have experience working with older adults, such as geropsychologists, likely have a good understanding of how medical problems, cognition, and life changes in the later decades affect anxiety symptoms. These professionals can provide specialized treatment for anxiety that is tailored to the older individual.

Certain medications, such as antidepressants, can also help with anxiety. Contact your primary care physician or a geriatric psychiatrist to discuss this option.

What You Can Do Now to Ease Anxiety

If you can’t make an appointment with a geropsychologist at the moment, here are a few things you can do now to ease a bit of the stress that comes with anxiety.

1. Breathe. Take some time each day and notice how you are breathing. Using your belly to inhale is a calming way to breathe and engages a muscle in your abdomen called the diaphragm. When you use your diaphragm to breathe, you are able to take deeper breaths. Using the diaphragm engages the parasympathetic nervous system. Studies show that this type of breathing, called diaphragmatic breathing, may lower blood pressure.

2. Exercise. Exercise can help clear your mind. Try a class at a gym, yoga, tai chi, pool exercises, or walking.

3. Stop putting off tasks. When faced with a task that you have been avoiding, try approaching it using problem solving. First, break the task down into smaller steps. Then brainstorm different ways to tackle the first step. Pick a solution and try it out. Repeat this process and tackle the task by completing one step at a time.

4. Change your perspective. If you find yourself stuck dwelling on certain concerns or paralyzing what-ifs, try a change in perspective. Imagine asking your spouse, close family member, or friend what they would do if they were in your situation. They are likely to have a different perspective than yours, which can help you think about the situation in a new way. Next time you find yourself dwelling on concerns, remember to open yourself up to new perspectives.

When to Seek Professional Help

Anxiety in late adulthood can be frustrating and debilitating, but it doesn’t mean it cannot be overcome. Fortunately, there are ways to effectively cope with, and potentially treat your symptoms. Seek professional help if your anxiety is interfering with your social connections, daily activities, or your job. By understanding your symptoms and knowing when to get the help that you need, you can stop anxiety from taking the glimmer out of your golden years.


1. Health and Retirement Study. (2015).

2. Gould, C. E., Rideaux, T., Spira, A., & Beaudreau, S. A. (2014). Anxiety and depression symptoms in male veterans and non-veterans: The Health and Retirement Study. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1002/gps.4193

3. Wetherell, J. W., Petkus, A., J., McChesney, K., Stein, M. B., Judd, P. H., Rockwell, E., … & Patterson, T. L. (2009). Older adults are less accurate than younger adults at identifying symptoms of anxiety and depression. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 197, 623-626. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e3181b0c081

4. American Psychological Association. Professional Geropsychology.

Views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the authors’ employer, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the Federal Government.

Psychologist and Clinical Associate Professor (Affiliated) at Stanford University

Sherry A. Beaudreau, Ph.D., ABPP, is a licensed psychologist board certified in geropsychology. She serves as the Co-Director of the national VA Advanced Fellowship Program in Mental Illness Research and Treatment and as a Clinical Associate Professor (Affiliated) in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. She also has an honorary appointment at University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis. She completed her clinical psychology internship at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System (VAPAHCS), and a research postdoctoral fellowship at the VAPHCS Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center (MIRECC).

Dr. Beaudreau’s clinical and clinical research interests focus primarily on understanding the relationship between late-life anxiety and cognitive impairment, and applying that knowledge to interventions aimed at reducing anxiety in older adults with varying cognitive abilities. She has published in such journals as Psychology and Aging, American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Journals of Gerontology, and Journal of Anxiety Disorders. In 2010 she was awarded an Alzheimer’s Association New Investigator Research Grant to examine the impact of anxiety and depressive symptoms on cognitive impairment and decline in older adults. She received a 2012 ISTAART New Investigator Research Award from the Neuropsychiatric Syndromes in Neurodegenerative Professional Interest Area. She is a Fellow in the Behavioral and Social Sciences Section of the Gerontological Society of America.


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