By Jeanne Brideau
As a senior, do you miss out on many activities or events which you enjoyed as a younger person? Do fear and anxiety impact the quality of your life? What is the difference between fear and anxiety? These are questions that we, at senioraction.ca have discussed, researched and share with you. Our intention is to help seniors come to terms with the fact that we can age positively by accepting that fear and anxiety are part of every human being’s life. However, it is how we deal with these emotions which defines our quality of life. Let’s start by defining fear and anxiety.
Forsyth and Eiffert define fear as follows:
Fear is an intensely felt alarm response that you must have to survive. It helps you take protective action when your safety or health is threatened. When you experience this emotion, your body will do a number of things to help you get moving to take care of yourself. For instance, you may experience rapid heartbeat; breathlessness; smothering sensations; increased blood pressure; feel hot, sick to your stomach, or dizzy; or break out in a sweat. You may even feel as though you’re about to pass out…..Fear also tends to heighten awareness of your surroundings so that you may quickly detect sources of danger.
In walking alone in a poorly lit parking lot at night, in being approached by a stranger in a quiet section of a shopping mall or neighborhood, one could experience fear. This emotion is based on what is happening in the present. Though fear is terrifying yet it is useful. It is a survival tool. As seniors, our past experiences often highlight situations which have taught us where fear will be experienced. It makes it possible for us to move into a defensive mode, to move away from a perceived threatening situation and, if necessary, to fight to defend ourselves. Most seniors rarely experience fear either because they restrict their activities, live in a sheltered environment or simply because they are cautious and knowingly avoid potential threatening situations.
Anxiety, on the other hand is defined by the same authors as being:
…a future-oriented mood state. People know anxiety by having anxious apprehension or a sense of foreboding, worry and muscle tension. You still need the capacity to experience anxiety because it can help motivate you to get things done…anxiety tends to be fueled more by what your mind says than by real sources of danger or threat.
Thus, because of the possibility of danger in crowded places, one could decide to avoid concerts or movies, shopping, taking daytime walks, travelling, etc. As elderly people, we are not as strong, as fit, as confident as we once were and these changes bring about a gradual modification in our lifestyle . Considering that anxiety is about what ‘could’ happen, it would seem important to reflect on the role we allow anxiety to play in our modified lifestyle, and to ask ourselves if our reaction is not overly restricting. If we consider the positive side of anxiety, it can become the impetus to plan ahead or to take decisions which take into consideration our limitations as well as our interests. Thus, anxiety can contribute, to some extent, in making life more enjoyable.
In becoming aware of the difference between fear and anxiety, it is possible to focus on specific behaviours, to examine them and to realize their reason for being. In contemplating certain scenarios, the anxious mind can set the stage for feelings of discomfort, vulnerability and even sheer terror at the thought of what might happen if ? It is important to realize that this emotional state is experienced by everyone, young and old, at various degrees. For everyone, the challenge lies in how we deal with anxiety. Do we let it sabotage our well-being or do we allow ourselves to view the other side of the coin. As mentioned previously, realizing that anxiety can be a motivating force to counter avoidance or procrastination could perhaps help shed a new light on a situation. Yours truly must admit that before writing any article destined for the Senioraction website a certain uneasiness, an inspirational void and a feeling of being vulnerable makes writing the first draft quite challenging…anxiety at its best!
Once upon a time, most of us have felt (at varying degrees) invincible, fairly competent, independent and generally capable of coping with everyday events. As we age, these traits are often challenged, and, more so with each passing decade. It is very easy for anxiety to settle in and eventually take control of a large number of our decisions and lead us to gradually retire from most social events.
In 2011, Sean Coughlan, a BBC correspondent wrote an article entitled <>. According to this article, a lack of social interaction can make old people more vulnerable to depression and to problems such as excessive drinking, poor diet and a reduction in exercise. Of course, there are numerous reasons to account for the isolation experienced by seniors. However, it is highly possible that anxiety plays a role in some of their decisions regarding social activities or activities outside their comfort zone.
It is inspiring to observe active seniors and to note how they have adapted their lifestyle to match their declining physical and mental abilities. These are examples which we have observed: visually impaired seniors attending readings by students, golf players enjoying a game with a caddie and ample use of golf carts, seniors learning to play a modified game of badminton, globe-trotters partaking in organized tours, volunteer workers contributing to worthy causes whilst respecting their individual limits and, the list goes on. What do these seniors have in common? They have identified and accepted their declining capabilities and have not allowed anxiety to dictate their lifestyle. It certainly takes a good dose of humility and courage to come to terms with who we are now, at this moment, and to decide that a way to continue to live positively and happily is possible. Happiness at any age is a birthright, how often do we consider this?
And so, whilst fear and anxiety will always be part of who we are, we do have the power to determine what degree of influence we allow these emotions to have on our lives. Positive aging is not about avoiding situations of fear and anxiety but rather realizing that, at any age, we can be courageous, decisive and move forward.
Coughlan, S (2011). Loneliness is ‘hidden killer’ of elderly, www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-12324231
Forsythe,JP, Eifert GH,(2007) The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety, New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland, CA