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Worried about being worried?

Up to one in five over 50s are anxious, often about nothing in particular. What can we do about Generalised Anxiety Disorder? asks David Hughes

If there's one thing we post 50s do better than the young, it's worry.

If anxiety was an Olympic Sport, the UK team would almost certainly comprise 50 to 54 year olds (22 percent feel anxious/depressed) and over 80s (20 percent feel anxious/depressed)

This is no laughing matter, of course, as anxiety not only diminishes enjoyment of life, but is strongly linked to a wide range of health problems.

Crossing the line

Some worry is normal. Another thing about the over 50s is that we realise life is not always a bowl of cherries, and have learned to take a certain number of setbacks in our stride, but when does worry cross the line beyond a 'normal' amount?

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is usually defined as an ongoing, chronic feeling of anxiety- of feeling anxious about nothing in particular. 

Symptoms include poor quality of sleep, a sense of dread, feeling constantly 'on edge' and irritability as well as physical manifestations such as muscle aches and tension, and shortness of breath and heart palpitations.

If we do notice such symptoms- particularly the physical ones- it's obviously  worth checking with a GP to ensure that, while anxiety id bad enough, it's not a sign of an even more serious underlying condition.

AS GAD is so common these days, however, the good news is that a huge amount of attention has gone into looking for solutions.

Psychotropic drugs are one route to alleviate the problem; but there are other avenues to explore as well, which can be done in conjunction with treatment from a GP. Here are some of them.

Relaxation

One thing that happens with exercise is that breathing depends. And it seems it's hard to be anxious when we're breathing deeply, which is why Andrew Weil MD in his book Spontaneous Happiness recommends what he calls the 'four-seven-eight' breath: exhale completely through your mouth; then inhale for a count of four; hold your breath for a count of seven; then exhale through your mouth again for a count of eight.

Repeat this twice a day. (And check with your GP first, I would say, particularly anyone with blood pressure problems.)

Yoga, done gently, is an excellent way to release tension; and you might also try meditation, where for anxiety, it seems effortless is best.

A US meta-analysis of 146 studies found Transcendental Meditation, which is easy to learn and use, to be twice as effective as other stress reduction procedures in reducing anxiety.

Food

Obviously a big one - we are what we eat, after all. Comfort foods don't get that name for nothing as our mood can change with what we consume, although the term is usually associated with high- carb, high-sugar, high-fat extravaganzas that won't help anxiety in the long run.

In general, avoid or limit alcohol and caffeine, and sugar. And stopping smoking is important, too; studies have found lower levels of anxiety and depression in those who've quit smoking, compared with those who carry on. Aside  benefit is that higher oxygen levels in the blood mean non smokers can concentrate better as well.

Also, eat regularly. don't skip breakfast: if blood sugar drops, which it might with no breakfast, that can trigger an anxiety attack.

Regular meals, with anxiety-reducing ingredients such as omega-3 fatty acids (nuts, fish, flaz seed are god sources), and plenty of B-vitamins (leafy greens are a good source, as are beef, pork, chicken, oranges and other citrus fruits, nuts and eggs), will improve levels of feel-good chemicals in the brain.

Whole grains are also good-in general, the five a day advice for a balanced diet is as important for the mind as for the body.

In recent years the link between happiness and gut health has also become more evident, so avoid foods which are hard to digest, such as fried or processed, particularly in the evening when digestion is weaker. Researchers in London found that people who ate mainly processed foods, high-fat dairy products and sweetened desserts had a 58 percent greater risk of depression than those who ate wholefoods such as fish and vegetables. 

No man is an island

John Donne was right about that, as any modern sociologist would agree.

Loneliness and lack of social contact is hugely implicated in anxiety among older age groups- so improving such contact is a great way to counteract worry.

Take up a hobby, join local clubs, walk a dog- dog owners are usually sociable when their canine companions meet each other. Ramblers' associations, for example, combine exercise and socialising all in one.

It also helps to meet others with similar worries, as the realisation that we are not alone has been shown to be extremely helpful.

"A problem shared is a problem halved" is literally true, according to researchers from California, who found that discussing a threatening situation with someone in a similar position with someone in a similar position "buffers individuals from experiencing the heightened levels of stress that would typically accompany threat."

Organisations such as Anxiety UK have local contact groups where you can talk face to face with others about problems, and also phone lines and written support.

What's the worst that can happen?

In addition to social contact, we can also train ourselves to avoid 'catastrophic thinking'.  Anxiety can make mountains out of molehills; cognitive behavioural therapy, and similar approaches, encourage us to realise they're really only molehills.

"Very few events really change the trajectory of you life," says Dr Ramsey. Try to remember what you were worrying about a year ago. Did those things actually take place?

According to Winston Churchill (who faced some pretty major problems in his life); "when I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man on his deathbed who said he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened."

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