Worried about Anxiety

Last weekend at our Mother’s Day lunch, my grandson, Patrick asked me whether I remembered the Cuban nuclear missile crisis because he is studying it at school. After I had recovered from the shock of realising that my early life can now be classed as ‘history’, I told him as much as I could recall. Mostly my memory of the 60s and 70s was the constant thrum of anxiety caused by the nuclear time bomb being set at five minutes to midnight. When I got married in 1970 I can remember hoping that we’d have at least a few years of married life before the mutually assured destruction of nuclear annihilation would wipe us all from the face of the earth.


Thankfully that didn’t happen because ‘M.A.D aka ‘mutually assured destruction’ is a powerful disincentive to unleashing a nuclear holocaust, and it also stands as a useful reminder of the futility of worrying about something completely beyond our control and which may never happen.


Which brings me to a recent post on Super Troopers from a member called Alison about her experience of becoming more anxious with age and which provoked a huge reaction from our group. Having read all the 200 or so responses, the overwhelming majority admitted to lives which were being negatively impacted and, in some cases, blighted by chronic feelings of anxiety. I am also not immune from such feelings and am using a range of coping mechanisms which I want to share with you alongside some research that I have been doing into the why, when, how and what of constantly feeling worried and anxious.


I suspect the ‘why?’ is fairly obvious to most of us, but still worth considering:


Covid. There is evidence that the older age group coped better with lockdowns than our adult children and grandchildren. However, I suspect that the fact of a pandemic which heightened our fear of something awful lurking beyond our doors, may have completely robbed many of any spirit of adventure that they may have had before Covid struck. Better to stay home and stay safe because the world has suddenly become a much scarier and more frightening place.


A Broken Health Care System. This one is right at the top of my list. Just when we need it most because we’re all getting older, it can take 3 weeks to get an appointment with a GP and there are nearly eight million people in the queue ahead of us for hospital treatment. Or that’s the perception we have. It’s bad enough having some health concerns, but these are greatly exacerbated by the prospect of a 12 hour wait in A&E if some serious calamity befalls us. I have come to dread the prospect of becoming ill.


Relentless Bad News. For two years we have been assailed by news of death and destruction. Currently there are two ‘hot’ theatres of war, one in eastern Europe and one in the Middle East. The stories and images are harrowing, horrifying and dehumanising. We can limit our exposure by avoiding the news channels and newspapers, but we can’t unsee the pictures, nor can we totally shut ourselves off from the knowledge of what is happening to all those poor souls, many of whom are children.


Divide and Rule. More than ever before we are encouraged to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ something or somebody or some group. Meghan Markle or Kate, anyone? Social media sets out to make us angry and keep us that way by feeding us more of what we respond to. Conspiracy theories, alternative facts, or lies as I prefer to call them, disinformation and misinformation (more lies) keep us all confused, but also engaged and enraged. Just ask yourself who benefits from this in terms of money or power and you have your answer about why we all need to cultivate a healthy scepticism about what we are told and by whom.


Climate Change. The ultimate existential threat for the twenty-first century. The one thing that hangs over us all in its intractability and inevitability. But, like the nuclear threat of my young life, it is also too much for me to get my head around. For what it is worth (which is nothing), I cling to the notion that a scientific breakthrough of some sort in the next 10-15 years will dramatically reduce the emissions which are causing all the problems. In the meantime I now go ‘meat-free’  four or five times a week, drive an electric car and accept that both measures are pathetically insufficient.


This is the backdrop to our lives and all of it perpetuates a sense of foreboding about forces which are beyond our control. In many ways, twas ever thus. There have always been wars (Vietnam), famines (Biafra), genocides (Rwanda), and powerful people with an agenda to stir up hatred and division (Enoch Powell). I suspect that like us, our parents’ generation may have also felt increasingly anxious about the world as they aged, but they would never have admitted it. Stoicism is an admirable virtue, but, fortunately, our generation is more enlightened, better educated about what constitutes mental health and, happily, there is a great deal that is now available to help us. 


First a definition of what is meant by ‘anxiety’.


I quite like this: “Anxiety is when we have nervous apprehension about the uncertain future.” In other words we get ourselves into a state in the here and now about something that may or may not happen somewhere down the line. Our watchwords then become ‘what if?’ often followed by ‘better not’. One Super Trooper wrote that she was “not enjoying my life for the fear of the juggernaut that might be lurking around the corner.” Another wrote that her life was “now lived with a background sense of non-specific dread”, whilst someone else commented: “I have difficulty shaking off a feeling of dread and impending doom, even in happy moments.”


And, unfortunately this state of constant worry is likely to have some unpleasant consequences which include:


Poor sleep. This is the ultimate vicious cycle because lack of good quality sleep can make us feel wretched and even more prone to debilitating, anxious thoughts. And what is waking us up in the middle of the night or stopping us from getting to sleep? “Worrying about which of us will die first and all those aches and pains of old age” was the experience of one Trooper. Another spent the time catastrophizing about her nearest and dearest: “I have 4 grandchildren and I worry that they might get attacked, stabbed, crash the car or do stupid things.” Thoughts like that can seem even more terrifying in the middle of the night.


Depression. It’s really difficult to live “looking on the black side of everything” as one Trooper commented. It could be that you are suffering from depression which may be compounded if you have lost a loved one in the past few years, or if you are helping to care for someone with a serious medical condition. One Super Trooper commented “My doctor tells me that I am depressed but there is nothing they can do and he won’t provide counselling either.” That’s like telling someone with a broken leg to keep on walking and ignore the pain (and is just as cruel in my opinion). Naturally we all urged her to seek a second opinion.


Physical Manifestations of Extreme Anxiety. A few years ago during a particularly bad bout of anxiety, I experienced strong heart palpitations, pains in my chest, severe indigestion with continual burping and a feeling at times of being unable to breathe. Once or twice I came close to calling 999 in the middle of the night because I was convinced that I was having a heart attack. I wore a BP monitor for 24 hours which showed that my heart function was fine and my doctor prescribed a low dosage Beta Blocker which I still take. Now, if I start to experience those physical symptoms, I have learnt to pay attention to my mind rather than my body because therein lies the cause.


Making your world smaller. One of the saddest side-effects of chronic anxiety is the decision to create a much smaller life. One Trooper called this ‘the cling-film’ analogy of life contracting to become ‘shrink wrapped’. One commented “I don’t even want to go shopping any more” and another talked about the limitations around driving that she has placed on herself: “I’ve come to hate driving anywhere, especially at night.”


One of the best things about the thread on Super Troopers was the gratitude from people to Alison for raising an important issue for our mental health in this way. We all want to age well and a big part of that is about physical strength and fitness, but mental strength and fitness are equally important if you are to have a life that is worth living. Another good thing about the discussion about anxiety were all the helpful ideas about how to deal with it.


I still experience bouts of severe anxiety which sometimes appear out of a clear blue sky. When this happens I tell myself that ‘this too shall pass’, and I then start to practise all the therapies that I know will help me to get through it - especially at the witching hour in the middle of the night. 


Next week I will share all my coping strategies and the ones suggested by the Super Troopers, and I have a book and a podcast to recommend both of which I found enlightening and helpful. 


In the meantime do share your thoughts about your experience about anxiety in the comments below. I know that everyone loves to read them, including me!


Tricia x

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