What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear. Everyone feels anxious sometimes – but when the feeling is very strong or it continues for a long time, it can stop you enjoying your life.

People can experience many different symptoms of anxiety. Your doctor may diagnose you with a specific anxiety disorder, such as general anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks, phobias or social anxiety. But it’s also possible to experience anxiety without a specific diagnosis.

Feeling anxious is common in older people. It may be something you’ve experienced throughout your life or, less commonly, something you’re experiencing for the first time. If this is the case, it may be a symptom of another illness.

Although the experience of anxiety is common in older people, anxiety isn’t an inevitable part of ageing. Try to speak to your GP if you have any concerns.

What causes anxiety?

There are many reasons why you might be affected and there may be a combination of factors.

Some of the life changes that may happen as you get older can increase your feelings of anxiety, such as illness, a bereavement, retirement or becoming a carer. If you have a learning disability, you may be more susceptible.

Some medications can cause anxiety. If you’re already on medication, ask your GP or pharmacist for a Medicines Use Review. See our webpage managing your medication for more information.

Your diet can also contribute to anxiety or make your symptoms worse. Even caffeine or too much sugar can make some people feel more anxious.

Some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety overlap and it’s not unusual to have both.

Anxiety and dementia

Anxiety can be part of dementia and may be accompanied by changes in behaviour such as agitation, not wanting to be left alone, pacing, feeling restless and fidgeting. If you’re worried, speak to your GP. You could also contact Alzheimer's Society or Alzheimer Scotland for advice.

How you might feel

Anxiety can cause both physical and psychological symptoms, which vary from person to person.

You may feel some of the following:

  • worried all the time
  • tired
  • unable to concentrate
  • irritable
  • unable to sleep
  • depressed.

You may also experience physical sensations such as:

  • fast or irregular heartbeats (palpitations)
  • feeling tense and uptight
  • sweating
  • pins and needles
  • dry mouth
  • trembling
  • dizziness
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • your stomach churning.

These physical sensations happen because your body senses fear and prepares itself for an emergency. This is known as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.

If you’re concerned about someone who seems to be experiencing anxiety, our page If you're worried about someone's mental health has advice on what you can do to support them.

When to seek help

It’s not unusual to feel anxious, especially if you’ve been going through a difficult time. The feeling may pass – but if it doesn’t, it’s a good idea to seek help.

Anxiety can become a mental health problem if you find it difficult to control your feelings and you start to withdraw from people or avoid the things that make you feel anxious.

Talk to your GP

If you have any concerns about your symptoms, it’s always okay to speak to your GP about them. It can be difficult to reach out but asking for help can be the first step to feeling better.

Your GP can check your general health to make sure there isn’t a physical cause for your anxiety. They may ask you to complete a questionnaire about when you feel nervous, anxious, or worried. They should then discuss treatment options with you, such as talking therapies, relaxation therapy, medication or a combination of these. If you have another problem, such as depression or alcohol misuse, you might need treatment for that first.

If going to the doctor makes you feel anxious, you could ask for a telephone appointment or find out if they do home visits.

If you need to speak to someone urgently, contact NHS 111 or ask your GP for an emergency appointment. If you need to talk, you could call a helpline, such as:

Mind has more information about how to get help in a crisis.

Treatments for anxiety

There are a few different treatment options for anxiety, including self-help resources, talking therapies and medication.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the most common. This is a talking therapy. It can help you understand how your thoughts can affect your feelings, including your anxiety. You’ll learn strategies to help you cope when you feel anxious. You may be offered CBT in a group or one to one. You may also be offered online CBT or self-help books.

Your GP can refer you to a psychological therapies service on the NHS. In England, you can contact them yourself if you prefer at NHS psychological therapies (IAPT) services.

Applied relaxation therapy

Applied relaxation usually involves meeting with a trained therapist for one-hour sessions over a period of three to four months. They will teach you how to relax your muscles in a particular way when you’re in situations that make you anxious.

Medication

If psychological therapy doesn’t work or your symptoms are severe, you may be offered medication. Some can be taken long term, such as certain anti-depressants.

However, some medications - like sedatives - can be addictive and should only be used for a short time. If you have any concerns, speak to your GP or pharmacist.

Private therapy

Waiting lists for NHS talking therapies can be long and you may only be offered a short course of treatment. If you can, you might prefer to organise private therapy. Costs vary, so it’s worth looking around. Ask your GP for recommendations.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has a searchable directory or contact COSCA for services in Scotland. Make sure the therapist is accredited by a professional body such as the BACP.

You could also contact charities that offer support, such as Anxiety UK and No Panic. The Mind Infoline can give you information about other organisations that may be able to help. You could also get in touch with your local Mind. In Scotland, contact SAMH.

Ways to help yourself

There are many things you can do to help yourself, whether or not you’re getting help elsewhere – our page Looking after your mental health has suggestions for general ways to look after yourself.

You could also try:

  • writing things down - keeping a diary may help you to spot patterns and identify the things that cause you to feel anxious so you can manage your anxiety better. Make a note of the things that are troubling you. You could also record the things that make you feel happy and coping strategies that have worked for you
  • allocating worry time - rather than worrying all the time, set aside about 10 to 15 minutes a day as ‘worry time’. If you start to worry at other times, tell yourself to wait. During your worry time, don’t try to come up with solutions – just worry. Time yourself and try not to let the worrying go on when your worry time is up
  • self-help therapies - these include things like guided self-help, where you work through a workbook, or free online courses. For example: 

Next steps

Read our guide Managing anxiety for more information about the support available and ways you can help yourself.

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