As we age, it’s common to develop more fears and anxieties. Many factors contribute to this, from changes in our health and cognitive abilities to major life transitions like retirement. While some degree of fear and worry serves an evolutionary purpose – helping us avoid danger – excessive fear and anxiety can diminish our quality of life. Understanding the reasons we tend to develop more fears as we get older can help us better manage them.
Physical changes and health concerns
Our bodies change as we age, and these changes often bring new fears along with them. Chronic health conditions become more common as we get older, and the fear of our health worsening is a major source of anxiety for many older adults. Eyesight, hearing, mobility, and cognitive function tend to decline with age, and this loss of abilities can make us more cautious and afraid of accidents or getting lost. Pain often increases with age as well. Being in constant pain can make people fearful of doing activities that might exacerbate it. Changes in sleep patterns and increased isolation can also heighten anxiety as we age.
Major life transitions
Retirement, the loss of loved ones, and other big life changes tend to happen more frequently as we enter our later decades of life. These transitions can be emotionally difficult and often include fears of the unknown. After retirement, the loss of identity tied to a career can be challenging, as can financial fears if income becomes limited. Losing friends and family members to illness or death is inevitable, and this can produce fears of being alone or dying ourselves. Without the daily purpose provided by work or raising kids, some struggle with anxious feelings of aimlessness and uncertainty.
Changes in brain structure and function
Research shows our brains undergo structural and functional changes as part of the normal aging process. The amygdala, which regulates emotions like fear and anxiety, becomes more reactive with age. Nerve cell dendrites shrink in older brains, decreasing communication between neurons. And aging brains show more inflammation, which is linked to anxiety. Changes in brain chemicals like serotonin may also increase anxious feelings. Factors like stress, loneliness, and depression can accelerate these brain changes. This may explain why anxiety symptoms often increase in later life even without outside stressful events.
Lack of control
As we age, it’s normal to feel a decreased sense of control over our bodies, lives, and futures. Letting go of youth and accepting our mortality is difficult. Health conditions or physical limitations may force us to depend on others more. Giving up driving can limit independence. Cognitive decline can make us more forgetful and confused. Retirement requires major adjustment. All of these factors can leave us feeling powerless, fueling worries about the future. Having less control over life circumstances tends to heighten fears and unsettle us.
Over-focus on negative news
Many older people follow current events more closely than younger generations. But an over-focus on negative news like crime, disasters, politics, and disease outbreaks can reinforce anxious thinking patterns. When we constantly see threats in the world around us, it’s natural to become more protective and fearful. The nonstop information overload of 24-hour news and social media tends to amplify this effect. One study found watching over 6 hours of daily news doubled seniors’ odds of having anxiety disorders.
Tips for managing fears
While some anxiety is normal, excessive fear and worry can negatively impact quality of life. Here are some tips for managing fears as you age:
- Stay active socially, physically, and mentally – this promotes brain health and reduces anxiety.
- Focus less on worrying news stories that reinforce fears.
- Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi.
- Keep a sense of purpose through hobbies, volunteering, family activities, or work.
- Make lifestyle choices to improve health like exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep.
- Limit alcohol, which can increase anxiety symptoms.
- Get screening tests for cognitive decline so you know where you stand.
- Consider therapy or anxiety medication if fears are interfering with daily life.
When to see a doctor
Occasional worry is normal, but see your doctor if anxiety or fear:
- Feels excessive, persistent, or interferes with daily activities
- Is accompanied by panic attacks or obsessive thoughts
- Causes insomnia, headaches, stomach issues, or other physical symptoms
- Includes specific phobias like driving or leaving home
- Is worsening with age for no apparent reason
Your doctor can check for underlying health issues and medication side effects that may be contributing. They may recommend counseling, prescription anti-anxiety medication, or other solutions to help you manage fear and enjoy life.
The importance of socializing
Loneliness and isolation tend to increase as we age, compounding anxious feelings. Socializing remains key to health as we get older. Connecting with others provides a sense of belonging that helps combat fears. Sharing feelings and experiences with friends and family can also alleviate anxiety. One study found seniors who engaged in regular social interaction experienced less cognitive decline and reduced anxiety about aging. Social hobbies like book clubs or golf can provide stimulation and friendship. Interacting with younger generations also gives perspective. So make staying social a priority in order to reduce fears.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for dealing with anxiety and fears in seniors. CBT helps identify negative thought patterns contributing to fears so you can replace worrying thoughts with more positive ones. For example, countering thoughts like “I’m worried about getting lost driving to my friend’s house” with “I’ve driven there before, and I can bring my GPS just in case.” CBT also includes relaxation techniques and help facing specific fear triggers gradually. Studies show CBT reduces anxiety and fears and improves overall well-being in older adults. Many therapists offer online or in-person CBT programs.
Dealing with fear of death
As we reach old age, it’s natural to think about dying more. But for some, death-related fears become excessive and disabling. Getting screened for serious illnesses can provide reassurance. Sharing feelings with loved ones helps avoid bottling up fears. Faith and spirituality aid many in accepting mortality. Finding purpose through volunteering and family time can shift focus to enjoying life. Reminiscing on memories and leaving a legacy behind provide comfort. Counseling helps some overcome intense death anxiety. Anti-anxiety medication may be warranted in severe cases. Accepting mortality as a natural part of life reduces its power to instill fear.
Helping older loved ones manage fears
If your aging parent, relative or friend is struggling with anxiety or fears, here are some tips:
- Listen compassionately when they share worries and provide reassurance.
- Encourage them to discuss concerns with their doctor.
- Go with them to appointments to help explain fears they have.
- Help set up counseling or CBT to manage fearful thinking.
- Drive them to run errands so they can maintain independence.
- Check in regularly if they live alone to combat isolation.
- Remind them of skills and abilities they still possess.
- Provide company and transportation to social engagements.
- Help find purpose through meaningful activities and visits.
Letting them voice fears without judgment provides relief. Boosting social interaction, physical activity, and purpose also helps minimize anxious feelings. Professional counseling gives coping strategies. Your support and understanding can make a difference in overcoming fears.
The role of medications
Medications like antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs may help reduce excessive fears and worry in seniors. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Zoloft, Lexapro, or Prozac can improve serotonin levels and anxious symptoms. Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium help calm the brain and body during panic attacks. Buspirone is another anti-anxiety drug some doctors prescribe. Side effects like sedation or dizziness are possible, so dosages start low. Any new medications should be reviewed to check for interactions. Discuss benefits vs. risks of anxiety medications with your doctor. For many seniors, therapy and lifestyle approaches help manage fears without the need for medication.
While facing increased fears and worries is common with aging, living anxiously into your later years isn’t inevitable. Understanding why we tend to develop more fears as we age empowers us to better cope. Focusing less on worrying news, staying active and social, finding purpose, and using therapies like CBT and medication when needed – these can all help minimize anxious feelings. Most importantly, voicing your fears and getting support provides relief. Counseling teaches strategies to master fears rather than letting them master you. The wisdom and perspective we gain as older adults can itself allay many fears if we share and apply it. Staying engaged, connected, and focusing on the joys in life will help ensure fear doesn’t prevent you from fully enjoying these vital years.