THE Midlife Anxiety Epidemic; Palpitations, Constant Fear, Crippling Panic Attacks -- How Chronic Anxiety Is Wrecking the Lives of a Generation of Women with So Much to Live For

Article excerpt

Byline: Hannah Ebelthite

SUE BAKER'S symptoms were as severe as they were strange. 'It started with low-level nausea and sleeplessness which, over the course of a few months, became constant heart palpitations and physical sickness,' says the 56-year-old mother-of-two, from Hampshire.

'It got worse until I finally called a friend who was a nurse, and sobbed down the phone to her that I couldn't go on. She rushed me to my GP and I sat in the waiting room having a full-blown panic attack. My heart was racing, my legs were trembling and I was rocking myself forward and backwards trying to breathe.'

The doctor gave Sue an ECG (electrocardiogram), which measures heart rate, and a prescription for the sedative diazepam to calm her down.

'The ECG showed I had an irregular heart rhythm, so I had to go for further tests, but these came back clear. It turns out that far from suffering a heart attack, I had severe anxiety. I couldn't believe the extent to which my head was controlling my body.'

Sue was one of the growing numbers of women over 50 who are suffering from this kind of chronic anxiety, often so acute it puts them in hospital. Figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show they make up more than a third of all hospital admissions for the condition, usually after a severe panic attack.

Anxiety is a mental condition characterised by an inability to stop worrying about the future, to the extent that dayto-day life is affected. It can also cause serious physical symptoms such as insomnia, dizziness, palpitations, high blood pressure and panic attacks.

Causes can be hard to pin down, as severe anxiety can sometimes seemingly spring from nowhere, but can include ill health, financial worries and even, thanks to fluctuating hormones, the menopause.

Experts say women over 50 are particularly affected because of the numerous burdens the have-it-all baby boomer generation is lumbered with.

'It's often assumed women in their 50s and 60s will be financially stable, happy with their professional achievements and content to slow down,' says Georgia Foster, a London-based clinical therapist who specialises in anxiety.

'But in truth, this age group are expected to work longer and harder, and for those who don't have a healthy pension there is fear about the future.

'Add to the mix empty nest syndrome, health issues, as well as the fact many women feel invisible to the world as they age, and self-esteem can plummet while anxiety takes hold. The fact they're older also means they may feel less able to cope with serious change or problems.'

FOR Sue, the trigger for fullblown anxiety attacks was just such a change -- the car business that her father-in-law had started 58 years before was going into administration after several years in difficulty.

As meetings with the bank failed to bring hope, her stress levels mounted.

'I'd always thought of myself as a strong person, and I feel certain that when I was younger I would have been able to cope,' Sue says.

'By December 2010, I was experiencing terrible anxiety on a daily basis. When we learned the bank wouldn't take the risk on us, I could not

imagine finding peace ever again. I felt paralysed with fear and had my breakdown, which is why I ended up at hospital.

'My husband Lawrence, 63, and I have the sort of relationship where we can talk about what's worrying us, but for me that list was endless. I sometimes caught him looking at me like he wasn't sure what to say or do any more.

'All my fears centred around what would happen to us. It felt like we were too old to start again but too young to give up. I'd worry about big things, such as losing the house, but also smaller concerns, like not being able to afford a haircut. I'd just end up going in circles.'

Of course, we all worry from time to time, but the type of debilitating anxiety that can lead to hospitalisation is far more insidious. …