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Aging and Anxiety:
Intrusive Thoughts as a Barrier to Healthy Aging
Bethany Teachman, Ph.D., School of Psychology
Joshua Magee, M.A., School of Psychology
Jefferson Area Board for Aging
Intrusive thoughts are unpleasant but familiar visitors to the minds of most adults.
From nagging worries about one’s health to jarring thoughts about a partner
being in a car accident, these thoughts encompass a broad range of life
concerns. This collaborative study examines age differences in intrusive
thoughts and consequent distress. Studying intrusive thoughts in older adults is
important because intrusive thoughts are central to a range of problems,
including anxiety, depression, and insomnia, not to mention impairment in
everyday functions, such as problem solving and decision-making. As a result,
preventing and alleviating anxiety due to intrusive thoughts in older adults is
especially critical for promoting healthy and independent living. Preliminary
evidence points to the meanings individuals give to their intrusive thoughts as
influencing whether individuals have minimal, fleeting effects of intrusive
thoughts, or develop disabling problems (Rachman, 1997). For example, an
individual who interprets an intrusive thought as being indicative of cognitive
decline (“Maybe having this thought means I’m losing my mind!”) is more likely to
experience disabling problems with anxiety than a person who simply dismisses
the thought as meaningless. The current study examines younger and older
adults’ interpretations of intrusive thoughts, to see whether older adults may be
vulnerable to different, age-relevant maladaptive meanings, such as interpreting
an intrusive thought as a sign of cognitive decline. Additionally, the study
involves anxiety/intrusive thought workshops that provide dissemination of
psychoeducation about anxiety and intrusive thoughts to older adults, while
simultaneously collecting qualitative information about the experience of intrusive
thoughts in older adults. This research will be a first step toward establishing and
disseminating older-adult inclusive theories, assessments and treatments for
difficulties with anxiety and intrusive thoughts.