Overcome your fear factor
Fear and worry got you down? Here’s how to calm these feelings.
Have you grown more worried and fearful about life over the years? You aren’t alone. Research has shown that feelings of fear, general anxiety, and nervousness tend to rise with age.
These negative feelings can manifest in many ways. You could be more concerned about your financial future, the risk of a new or returning health problem or injury, or as the recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown, changes in world events.
“People become more fearful about daily life because they worry a setback will come at any time, and it’s something they can’t control,” says Dr. Ipsit Vahia, medical director of Geriatric Psychiatry Outpatient Services at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital.
Tell worry to take a walk
Need a mental break from fear or worry? Take a mindful walk during which you focus on your body awareness, movement, breathing, and surroundings. It is a simple way to refresh your mind and be more present. One study found that people who did 30 minutes of mindful walking twice a week for four weeks had less stress and better quality of life.
A cumulative effect
It’s not clear what drives this mindset. Researchers speculate it could be a combination of biological changes in the aging brain along with the cumulative effects of unhappy life experiences, either your own or those of someone close to you.
These ongoing feelings of fear and worry can have a deep impact on your health. You may become less active and less social, both of which can contribute to frailty, heart disease, and depression.
If not addressed, constant fear and worry may progress to a specific disorder, such as social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia (fear of public places), or generalized anxiety disorder (chronic worrying that may lead to physical problems like chest pain and muscle fatigue).
Thoughts on meditation
To get a feel for meditation, try a guided recording by Dr. Ronald Siegel, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School; these are available for free at www.mindfulness-solution.com. You can find meditation apps at such websites as www.calm.com and www.headspace.com. You can also learn meditation at most yoga studios and senior centers.
What to do
There are many ways to address constant fear and worry so they do not consume your life. The first step is to identify your fear’s source. “The right treatment begins with recognition,” says Dr. Vahia. “Often, people cannot articulate why they are fearful or worry too much, and why it’s happening.”
He recommends meeting with a psychiatrist or therapist. “A professional analysis can help pinpoint where your specific worries and fears may lie,” says Dr. Vahia.
After that, the two of you work together to create strategies that address those fears. These could include one-on-one or group therapy sessions, relaxation training exercises, or cognitive behavioral therapy (in which you learn to reframe your response to your fearful thoughts).
Once you are aware of your specific fears and when they typically arise, you can take other means to manage them. For example:
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness trains your mind’s attention to be more present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. This mindset helps you not to overreact to fearful thoughts and reduce any stress, depression, or anxiety that accompanies them.
Meditation is a popular way to learn mindfulness. The goal of meditation is not to push aside or block fearful thinking, but rather to notice your thoughts and feelings and realize that you don’t have to act on them. This could be as simple as closing your eyes and repeating a single phrase or word, or counting breaths. (To learn more about beginning a meditation practice see “Thoughts on meditation.”)
Consult a financial expert. If money issues worry you, meet with a financial planner or adviser. He or she can do a thorough review of your financials, create or adjust your budget, focus on specific concerns, and help set goals. “This can help you feel more confident about your situation and address any issues that may trigger worry,” says Dr. Vahia.
Hire a personal trainer. If you avoid activity or exercise because you fear injury, hire a personal trainer who specializes in older adult conditioning. A trainer can assess your current fitness, identify strengths and weaknesses, and develop a program to help you improve.
“Because you will see and feel your physical improvements as you progress, this will help you overcome fear of injury and the worry that you can’t exercise or be more active,” says Dr. Vahia. “You can realize that you are more than capable of being active than you think.” Look for trainers with specialized certification from organizations like the American Council on Exercise or the National Academy of Sports Medicine.