Kindness, Compassion Can Alleviate Anxiety

Most people expect to experience some physical deterioration as they age.

Many individuals consider with dread the possible physical, functional or mental decline they may encounter in the future but few adults are aware that intense anxiety and depression may become a serious and even life-threatening condition.

The three common types of anxiety include: Generalized anxiety disorder, Social anxiety and Panic disorder. Panic attacks often present with physical manifestations such as: “feeling weak, faint or dizzy, experiencing ‘heart palpitations’, tingling or numbness in hands and fingers, feeling sweaty, having chills, chest pain or breathing difficulties, and experiencing a general loss of control.” These symptoms are often indistinguishable from those of some serious medical conditions and must be assessed by medical professionals.

In “Comorbidity of depression and anxiety in the elderly” Dr. Eric J Lenze addresses the treatment options, “Elderly patients with depression commonly suffer from concurrent symptoms of anxiety with poor response to anti-depressant medications.” He recommends “the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy, which are efficacious for late-life depression, used alone or in combination with appropriate medication.”

Seniors who experience anxiety and/or panic episodes become immensely agitated, fearful and helpless. They may fear that they are in the process of losing control over their body, thoughts or emotions. Some dread a presumed unspecified life-threatening medical condition and may even feel intense panic about their feared impending demise.

Not only do older adults misconstrue their state of health but their family members and even professionals may occasionally exacerbate their dreads by discounting the panic sufferer’s anguish as “harmless” after the symptoms have been ruled out as a medical condition. This is a grave error. The panicked elder is in a deep state of overwhelm about his/her wellbeing and may even question his/her odds of survival. Helping the overwhelmed senior requires kindness and validation of the discomfort the elder is experiencing and his/her stress about his state of mind. Understanding and empathy are likely to facilitate greater calmness and improve the chances of the sufferer’s improvement toward recovery.

Research at the Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford University found that when patients were treated with kindness, communication and empathy they responded with “faster healing, reduced pain, lowered levels of anxiety, reduced blood pressure and shorter hospital stays.” They also discovered that “when doctors and nurses acted compassionately, patients were more likely to be forthcoming in divulging medical information, which led to more accurate diagnoses and fewer readmissions.” An additional unanticipated finding reported, “Doctors, nurses, and caregivers who provide kind treatments benefitted as well.” The researchers concluded, “Kindness should be viewed as an indispensable part of the healing process.”

Help the emotionally distressed elder:

  • Abstain from labeling the elder’s fears as irrational, hysterical, sick or fear-based.
  • Compassionately say, “I can understand your concerns about your symptoms.”
  • Ask the elder what he/she needs to do to feel better.
  • Recommend medical and psychological help in aiding the anxious individual receive treatment toward restoring his emotional equilibrium and wellbeing.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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