You can learn to tame anxiety with determination and self-control
By Caroline Fortin
For some people, a single unfortunate incident can be so distressing that it dictates what they will and won’t do later on. Consider someone who slips on a wet floor while out shopping and has a painful fall; in future, afraid of another fall, he or she might go out only when it’s absolutely necessary. Another person might refuse to drive after getting lost in an unfamiliar area. Yet another might stop travelling altogether after forgetting his or her passport at home and missing a flight as a result. In each case, someone is letting fear or anxiety limit his or her life.
Is it a normal part of aging to become anxious in situations that never posed a problem before? The answer is yes—and no. “Anxiety is caused by two main factors: the unknown and the feeling of a lack of control,” explains psychologist Rose-Marie Charest. “As we age, there are more things over which we have less control, such as minor memory lapses and declining strength. We are also more fragile physically, which means that a fall can have more serious consequences than it would have had when we were 30.”
For Sébastien Grenier, a psychologist and a researcher at the University Institute of Geriatrics Research Centre in Montreal, it’s above all a question of temperament. “It’s pretty rare to become anxious simply as a result of getting older,” he says. “Generally, we’ve always had anxiety; it’s the reasons for it that change. At age 40, we worry about money; at 75, we worry about illness. But there can be triggers—specific events that give rise to anxiety.”
“Fear is an alarm that rings to protect us from a threat, and some people have a more sensitive alarm than others do,” says Camillo Zacchia, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders and the vice-chair of the board of directors of Phobies-Zéro, a non-profit community organization that offers support for people living with anxiety. This normal instinct ensures our survival. What is abnormal, our three experts agree, is stopping yourself, no matter your age, from living fully because of imagined, not real, dangers.
When fear comes from a bad experience, a common reaction is to avoid that activity. “Someone may stop going out to avoid a fall, which can lead to isolation and depression as well as a decline in motor skills,” explains Grenier, who is also a professor in the Department of Psychology at the Université de Montréal. “Muscles become weaker, placing the person at a greater risk for a fall when he or she does go out again. This vicious circle can take hold quite easily.” And it can happen with any fear—here are some ways to help you move on.
Face the fear. The principle is the same whether it’s a car accident or a fall from a horse. “The longer you avoid what you’re afraid of, the longer you’ll be afraid,” Grenier says. “This applies to everything. You need to take up the activity you’re afraid of despite your discomfort; face it rather than flee, while respecting your physical condition, of course.”
The idea is to proceed gradually—give yourself small goals. “Self-confidence builds and rebuilds through taking action, not by staying home and being inactive,” Charest says. “By increasing your experiences and encounters with others, you create a positive self-image, whatever your age.”
Start by taking action on things you can control, she advises. “If you’re afraid to travel for fear of forgetting where your hotel is, you can write down the address and put it in your pocket or buy a bag with lots of pockets for important documents so you always have them with you. If you’re recovering from a fall, stay indoors if the sidewalks are icy; when you do go out, take your time—cross the street when the walk signal first comes on, not when there are only seven seconds.” To reconnect with dogs after being bitten, you might start by looking at photos and videos, and then go to a pet store and spend time with dogs, perhaps pat one, and so on.
Let it go. “Managing anxiety means learning to tolerate waves of it,” Zacchia points out. “Wait a few minutes before reacting to your fear. When a wave of emotion overwhelms you, let it come, do nothing, wait. It will pass. Then ask yourself what just happened. ‘Did I have a really good reason to worry? Was I facing a significant risk?’ The voice of reason in you can recognize true dangers. If you cross paths with a bear in the woods and you later meet other hikers, you’ll tell them to be careful, but you’d never tell people that taking the elevator is dangerous just because you’re afraid of it yourself. In short, each time you don’t give in to the fear and realize that you’ve emerged unscathed, you take another step towards freeing yourself from it.”
Relax. Any technique that helps you relax, such as yoga and meditation, is recommended. “Even when you’re moving, you can learn to relax,” Charest says. “Whatever you’re doing, focus on your breathing—inhale and exhale slowly, calmly.” This allows you to avoid focusing on your fear.
Don’t overreact. Memory lapses come with age, and although they can be irksome, they’re part of the natural order of things. “We lose between five and eight per cent of our neurons every decade after adolescence, so it’s normal to have a decreased ability to remember everything when we get older,” Zacchia says.
Nothing good comes of dramatizing, Charest says. “If you go back to school with 20-year-olds, of course you won’t be as quick as they are, no matter how intelligent you are. You can defuse a situation with humour.” You can tell people your age, making light of it, she suggests. “That normalizes things. You have to focus on what you still have and not on what you think you’ve lost.”
Get help. Because the most effective strategy for overcoming a fear is to expose yourself to it, Grenier advises that if you can’t do it on your own, get professional help. “In cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, we might describe a catastrophic scenario as if it were happening and put it on paper; then the patient reads it a few times while imagining that it’s really happening to learn to tolerate the anxiety it causes. Habituation leads the person to become desensitized.”
A doctor can also prescribe antidepressants, “which can lower the thermostat for emotional reactions and help you get past your fears,” Zacchia says.
Seek out resources. “A support group offers something that a psychologist can never give a patient: the opportunity to talk with people who have gone through the same thing,” Zacchia says. “Hearing others express the same thoughts that are spinning around in your head, knowing that you’re not the only one to have gone through a certain situation, is a very rich experience. What’s more, this helps to break isolation and give you some social contacts.” Find community agencies or support groups in your area, or look for resources from Anxiety Canada (anxietycanada.com).
When Should You Worry?
According to psychologist Rose-Marie Charest, these are the signs that it’s time to take action: “You become isolated. You stop seeing friends and family. You feel less pleasure than you used to, and pleasure gives way to boredom or sadness. You stop doing the things you love because you’re driven by fear. When fear prevents you from functioning, you may be turning into your own tormentor.”