Understanding Anxiety in Seniors: Tips, Treatments, and More

There are certain challenges that come with aging, but anxiety is not one of them. Find out what causes elderly anxiety and possible treatments in this article.

Have you ever experienced chest pains so painful it feels like a heart attack? Do you have disturbing thoughts you can’t get out of your head?

You might be experiencing symptoms of anxiety.

Learn more about anxiety in older adults and how to cope with disorders in this article.

What Are the Causes of Anxiety Disorders in Seniors?

Causes of Anxiety Disorders in Seniors

According to the World Health Organization, anxiety is a mental health condition that affects 76 million older adults worldwide.

Unfortunately, the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry states that anxiety and depression in older adults are often untreated and unrecognized.

Significant risk factors can contribute to anxiety disorders in older adults.

Anxiety doesn’t always have a specific cause, but these biological and situational factors can aggravate it.

1. Distressing Life Events

Stressful situations, such as bereavement or separation from loved ones, can trigger anxiety in older adults.

It can be a single traumatic event or a prolonged exposure to disturbing experiences such as long-term domestic abuse.

2. Chronic Medical Conditions

Mental illness can also emerge as a result of physical illness.

Changes brought by AGING, such as vision problems, muscle tension, and memory loss, are risk factors that can bring severe anxiety.

An anxiety disorder can also occur due to existing health conditions such as dementia or cardiovascular diseases.

Certain medical issues like nutritional deficiencies, hyperthyroidism, and Lyme disease are associated with anxiety.

3. Financial Problems

Financial insecurity is also an important risk factor triggering anxiety in older adults.

Stressing about the cost of living expenses combined with medications can affect seniors’ mental health in the long run.

Unexpected medical emergencies, such as falling, can be a source of anxiety if they don’t have health insurance.

For many older adults, the COST of mental health services can be a barrier to seeking professional help.

4. Family History of Anxiety Disorder

A person is at a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder if a family member also has one.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), for example, is a heritable condition that can run in the family.

However, it doesn’t guarantee someone will develop an anxiety disorder due to genetics alone. Environmental factors play an important role as well.

5. Side Effects of Medication

Certain medications have side effects that can result in extreme anxiety in older adults.

Steroids, antidepressants, and bronchodilators/inhalers can heighten anxiety especially combined with other risk factors.

What Are the Main Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders?

Main Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a common response to life stressors.

Symptoms can vary depending on other factors such as age, health condition, and the severity of the illness.

Generally, mental and behavioral signs of an anxiety disorder include:

1. Excessive Fear or Worry

The most common symptom of an anxiety disorder manifests as a recurring feeling of panic, fear, or apprehension.

It is often persistent and overwhelming that it IMPAIRS the person’s daily functioning.

2. Cognitive Impairment

Prolonged feelings of anxiety can also cause the following:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty focusing

3. Physical Symptoms

An anxiety attack is accompanied by symptoms such as:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Trembling
  • Chest pain
  • Shallow breathing
  • Sweating

4. Behavioral Changes

Older adults with severe symptoms can avoid places or people that trigger anxious feelings. They can become MORE irritable or restless.

They may no longer have an interest in routine activities.

Some seniors that have anxiety can also develop depression. They can end up self-medicating with alcohol or other depressants.

5. Physical Appearance

Seniors suffering from these disorders can have changes in appetite and eating habits. It can lead to excessive weight loss or weight gain.

What Are the Different Types of Anxiety Disorders in Seniors?

Geriatric anxiety disorders often go UNDIAGNOSED.

According to the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, roughly 14% of older adults in the U.S. meet the criteria for having mental health disorders.

Several types of anxiety disorders can affect older adults.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic excessive anxiety about everyday life and situations.

This anxiety disorder can cause excessive worry about health, family matters, financial issues, or natural disasters.

Most older adults with GAD know they have an anxiety problem but lack control over their emotions.

They have difficulty sleeping and relaxing, and they startle easily.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Older people can also have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which causes recurring, persistent thoughts or compulsions that they can’t control.

OCD can manifest through obsessive rituals such as hand-washing, counting, or cleaning.

Some older adults believe that by doing these things repeatedly, they can prevent thinking intrusive thoughts, or they can get them under control.

Panic Disorder

People with this disorder can experience panic attacks or sudden feelings of terror that come without warning. It can happen anytime, even during sleep.

Physical symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Chest pains
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweatiness

A panic attack usually lasts for 10 minutes. An older adult with a panic disorder may feel like they’re having a stroke or a heart attack during a panic attack.

A common remedy for panic disorder is to do deep breathing exercises.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

This disorder often develops due to a traumatic event, such as: 

  • Abuse
  • Violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Distressing occurrences

People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can experience vivid flashbacks of the traumatic event as if it is happening again.

They can find it difficult to be affectionate to loved ones. Other behavioral changes include being irritable and paranoid.


Older adults with anxiety can develop phobias or an intense fear of things that pose NO REAL THREAT to their lives.

This irrational fear leads to avoidance of certain objects, places, or situations that trigger anxiousness.

Common phobias among older adults include:

  • Dental procedures
  • Disasters and danger
  • Driving
  • Public places.

When faced with these fears, they can react similarly to a panic attack. They can become dizzy or experience chest pain.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Also called social phobia, a Social Anxiety Disorder refers to a long-term, overwhelming fear of social situations.

People with this mental illness can feel self-conscious or nervous in social settings.

For the elderly, this can stem from their anxiety about forgetting names or their appearance due to illness.

An older adult with a social phobia can have difficulty making and maintaining relationships. They may even avoid social events.

How to Treat Anxiety Disorders in the Elderly

There are clinical practice guidelines that mental health professionals follow for geriatric disorders.

Most treatment options include taking a combination of medications, counseling, and relaxation techniques.

If you need professional help, you can contact the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation here for assistance.

There are also LIFESTYLE PRACTICES that can help manage common symptoms of anxiety.

1. Exercise

There is more to treating an anxiety disorder than just overcoming worry.

Physical activity is a GREAT WAY to alleviate physical symptoms and enhance the mental health of older adults.

Simple exercises can alleviate symptoms like muscle tension and limited mobility. Some of the best exercises are:

  • Walking
  • Swimming and water aerobics
  • Dancing
  • Bodyweight exercises

Numerous exercise videos online are specifically designed to be LOW-IMPACT and MODERATELY PACED for seniors.

2. Structured Routine

It is normal for seniors to suffer from forgetfulness, but disorders can significantly worsen it.

Lack of structure can be a source of anxious feelings for some elderly citizens. It can particularly affect seniors with cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Developing a structured routine can effectively manage memory loss.

A routine can involve scheduling a specific day for grocery shopping or doing chores in the same sequence every day.

Following a daily or weekly routine can be a way to relieve anxiety and become MORE ORGANIZED.

3. Mindfulness

Elderly mindfulness

Anxiety disorders cause extreme stress that can lead to various health problems and impaired functioning in daily life.

Some stress management techniques can help you feel more relaxed.

Mindfulness is one practice that involves being aware of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the PRESENT moment.

Something as simple as deep breathing can be a way to prevent panic attacks in older adults.

4. Sleep Hygiene

Developing sleeping issues is common as you grow older, but lack of sleep can aggravate physical symptoms.

Getting a restful night’s sleep is CRUCIAL for older adults’ physical and mental health.

Improve sleeping habits by adopting certain practices such as going to bed and waking up at the same time or using a white noise machine to mask unwanted sounds.

Older adults should aim to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.

5. Social Interaction

Elderly Social Interaction

Older adults are at an increased risk of experiencing loneliness due to living alone and chronic illness.

Building a strong social support network can relieve anxiety and help seniors cope with social isolation.

Talk with a family member or schedule regular visits with siblings, children, or grandchildren to improve mood and strengthen family ties.

If faith is important to you, you can also seek support from your spiritual leader.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some related questions to better understand anxiety in older adults.

Is Taking Medication Safe for the Elderly?


The most effective treatment to reduce anxiety in older adults is a combination of MEDICATION and psychotherapy.

Let your doctor know of any alternative therapies or certain herbal supplements you’re taking, as they can react with certain medications.

How Do Anxiety Disorders in Elderly Differ Compared to Children?

The main difference in anxious behavior between older adults and children is VERBALIZATION.

Adults and the elderly have the awareness to vocalize their worries and differentiate between normal and extreme.

Children don’t have the same experience in contextualizing their feelings. Anxiety in children can manifest more in behavior as opposed to identifiable anxieties.

Adults are also more likely to use substances to cope with their disorders.


Late-life anxiety disorders can be challenging for older adults. Anxiety can lead to severe health problems and poor quality of life overall.

If you or your loved one is suffering from anxiety, consult your doctor to find the proper solution for your needs.

Take an anxiety screening to better understand your mental health condition.

You can look into organizations such as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America or the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation to find what mental health services are available.

Certain non-profits also offer medical insurance to help cover expenses and services with a psychologist or a clinical social worker.

Severe stress is not a normal part of aging, and you DON’T have to live with it.