Late-life anxiety is real for many people. For me, it showed up unexpectedly as I headed toward my retirement years, arriving as quickly as flipping on a light switch.
At age 60, I became consumed by how my husband and I would live our remaining years. Everyone in our family—including parents, uncles, aunts, and one sibling—had died, and we had shifted to the top of the “to be departed” list.
Dying wasn’t the problem. Facing the unknown was. And I wasn’t alone: According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, one in four older adults experiences late-life anxiety. But as anxiety takes hold, it can be difficult to connect the dots.
I blamed panic episodes on a job from hell, yet anxiety had existed inside me long before it surfaced while working. Now, though, the battle was on as symptoms ran rampant. Each day I struggled to appear normal, hoping no one would notice my crumpling insides. But gradually, my attitudes and perceptions of the disorder began to change.
The bullish face of anxiety
As a disclaimer, I’ll say here that anxiety is a complicated disorder and there could be chemical imbalances or another disease which cause similar symptoms. Someone with severe anxiety should seek the help of a medical professional. But here, for the sake of brevity, are some of the anxiety symptoms I confronted.
Dizziness, chest pain, neck tension, fear, nausea, shortness of breath, brain zaps, heart palpitations, insomnia, crazy feelings and sensations, muscle weakness and twitching, feeling unsafe, crawly and itchy skin, changes in eyesight, excess energy, panic attacks, weight changes, brain fog, ringing in the ears, self-consciousness, memory loss, depression, and repetitive thoughts that wouldn’t turn off.
Symptoms are far-reaching and vary by person. The feelings and sensations are real and overwhelming. Uneasiness can be all-consuming and then suddenly, out of the blue, it disappears. I’d go to bed feeling fine and think “This is finally over” to wake up the next day in a panic.
Anxiety instilled fear and convinced me that I was stuck in life. I felt like a fool because I couldn’t get beyond the pain. I was so close but so far from a solution. I was numb.
Ultimately, I didn’t approach anxiety with a “10-step plan and then you’re done” mentality. Instead, I asked myself this question:
If I owned a pet pig that ran from a mud hole onto my white carpet, what would I do? Would I pet its head and say, “Nice piggy,” or would I grab a broom and chase it out of the house?
Eventually, that’s how I faced anxiety. Instead of coping with anxiety, I made up my mind to triumph over it.
Anxiety and personality
Anxiety isn’t a disorder until it wrecks your life and you can’t function. According to the AnxietyCentre.com website, the disorder is not “a medical, biological, chemical, or genetic problem.” Instead, responding apprehensively to life causes psychological, physiological, and emotional symptoms.
It didn’t help that I came from a family of worriers. Here are some characteristics of people who suffer from anxiety:
- Fearful: For constant worriers, topics can include family members, health concerns, concern about the death of loved ones, financial concerns, and relationships.
- People pleaser: Trouble saying no to requests by family members and friends. Caring way too much about what others think. Wanting friends and fearing rejection.
- Perfectionist: Worriers can be creative multi-taskers, but they fear mistakes.
- Uncertain: Must be in control to prevent bad things from happening. They prepare for the worst to avoid being caught off guard. May not easily deal with changes.
- High expectations: Anxious people feel guilty unless they’re doing something, so they put off resting. They envision answers to problems before they ever happen.
- Self-centered: In addition to “stuffing” feelings, an anxious person may be impatient, may not like compliments, and may have trouble receiving criticism. Sometimes they have low self-esteem, but not always.
Everyone identifies with these characteristics, and we all experience anxiety from time to time. But when overwhelming anxiety prevented me from enjoying my retirement life, I knew I had a problem.
Anxiety needed a shove
In all honesty, I never saw any progress overcoming anxiety until I grew weary of living with the thoughts inside my head. Controlling thoughts and emotions are central to living successfully without anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t go away on its own. I’m here to tell you—living free without anxiety takes work.If you don’t intend to work hard, anxiety continues to be a familiar enemy disguised as your pet pig.
Eventually, I began to recognize the chatter in my head for what it was. I took control over the replay of incessant contemplations about the what-ifs in life.
What if … a terrorist detonates a bomb in a mall. I can’t pay my bills. People start to notice I can’t cope. A natural disaster destroys my home. I end up living on the streets.
These types of thoughts fueled anxiety. I realized that I control what plays in my head. For example, this is how I overcame insomnia. At bedtime, I repeated any of these words—rest, peace, be still, sleep. As I retrained my mind, some nights it still took 12 hours to get 6 hours of sleep.
I applied a similar technique for emotions. Nervous energy and an unsettled disposition are preludes to rampant anxious thoughts. Conditioned responses to situations can take hold unless I stay tuned in to my thoughts. I choose what I meditate on.
The root source of anxiety—fear—did not surface for me until adversity reached a new level in my life, one I couldn’t handle. When I found myself in a pit of anxious despair, I had no experience to draw on. Once I recognized and controlled anxious thoughts, I made steady progress.
Guess what? As an aging adult, I learned to win this shoving match by shifting my focus. I renewed my mind and monitored the what-if thoughts before they overtook me. As I said, I had work to do, but I ran the anxiety bully out of my life. If anxiety tries to return, I know what to do.
Betsy Wise has been a freelance writer since 2013 and currently blogs regularly at her website, WritingForJesus.com.