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Depression and anxiety

We can all feel low or anxious from time to time. If you’re going through difficult times or you’re feeling sad, you should seek help and support early on.

What is depression?

Depression is more common than many people realise - it affects 1 in 5 people.

Being depressed can show itself in different ways and each person's experience will be different. Symptoms include:

  • lack of interest and unable to enjoy things you normally enjoy
  • being reluctant to engage in usual activities or leave your house
  • feeling tired
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • loss of appetite or eating more than usual
  • losing or gaining weight over a relatively short time
  • losing confidence in yourself and feeling life is pointless
  • being self-critical and feeling guilty
  • having suicidal thoughts.

Feeling down isn't a natural part of ageing, it's a sign that you're not feeling as well as you should be. Older people with depression usually experience more physical symptoms – such as tiredness, weight loss, and problems sleeping. These aren't trivial matters; they're crucial to your health.

If you've experienced some of these symptoms on most days for 2-4 weeks, you should speak to a medical professional. Talking about your mental health can be daunting, but your GP will be used to having these conversations and won't judge you. They are there to help and will know what to do. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear that everyone experiences from time to time. Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • feeling restless or 'on edge'
  • irritability
  • racing heartbeat
  • dry mouth
  • nausea
  • sweating.

These symptoms are completely normal but can affect your daily life. If you find yourself worrying all or most of the time, and you're experiencing physical symptoms such as a fast heartbeat, shaking or sweating, make an appointment with the GP. You can talk to your doctor or nurse at any time, in complete confidence. They won't judge you – they're there to listen and help you get back on track.

It's not uncommon to feel low and worried at the same time. Doctors are used to seeing people who feel depressed and anxious and know how to help.

Don’t brush how you feel under the carpet and hope it will sort itself out – symptoms are likely to get worse if you don’t take action. Having depression or anxiety is like a physical health condition, and it can be successfully treated.

What causes depression or anxiety?

Depression and anxiety can happen for no obvious reason. But in many cases it can be triggered by certain life events, such as:

These situations might make anyone feel low and not everyone who experiences these goes on to develop depression. But thinking about any triggers can help you understand your feelings.

Everyone feels down from time to time, but if you've not been feeling yourself for a while it's time to talk to someone – like your doctor, nurse or a trusted friend or family member. 

How are depression and anxiety diagnosed?

There are no specific tests but your GP may perform some blood tests for other health conditions that share similar symptoms with depression or anxiety.

Your GP will need to get a good picture of the way you’re feeling mentally and physically. They will ask you lots of questions about your symptoms and the changes you’ve noticed.

It can be difficult to think about specific answers on-the-spot but the following suggestions might help you plan ahead for your appointment.

  • Make a list of all your symptoms, whether they are worse at certain times of the day or on particular occasions, how long you’ve had them and their effect on your day-to-day life and relationship with others.
  • Explain any circumstances that could be contributing to these symptoms and the way you feel.
  • Take a list of all medications you currently take, including any supplements or non-prescription medication.
  • Be as open and honest as you can; remember anything you say is confidential.

How is depression and anxiety treated?

If you broke your leg, you wouldn't just struggle on without help. You'd get in seen to. Mental health is as important as physical health and can be treated successfully. There are several treatments available – often a combination of treatments is needed.

If your symptoms are mild, your GP may take a 'wait and see' approach. They may give you some advice on how to cope with symptoms then see if symptoms improve within a few weeks.

Talking treatments

There’s something called 'talking therapies' now, which can really help people who are feeling low, anxious or out of sorts.

Talking treatments allow you to talk to a trained professional who can help you manage your thoughts and feelings and the effect they have on your mood and behaviour.

Examples of talking treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling. They may be one-on-one sessions or in a group environment.

If you are considering talking treatments, be sure to mention any cultural, language or religious needs you have or any hearing or sight problems, so they can be addressed when arranging therapy for you. Talking treatments are effective and available for free on the NHS.

Free talking therapies on the NHS

Talking therapies are proven to work – and they can work particularly well for people who are older. You can refer yourself to see if your local service can help, or your doctor or nurse can do it for you if you prefer. Even if you’ve tried them before and weren’t sure, you can give talking therapies another go. 

Talking helps

Talking if often the best way to start feeling better. Talking therapies are proven to work and they can work particularly well for older people.

Applied relaxation

A trained practitioner can teach you muscle relaxation techniques to help you cope in situations where you feel anxious.

Medications (anti-depressants)

Your GP may prescribe medications to help treat the symptoms of depression. There are a range of different types of antidepressants available and your GP should explain which is best for you. Antidepressants are often combined with talking treatments.

It can take up to two weeks for medications to start having an effect. You may need to continue taking anti-depressants for several months to ensure a long-term recovery.

Be sure to continue with any prescribed medication or treatments as this is important for your long term health and wellbeing. If your symptoms seem to be returning, let friends and family know and make an appointment to see your GP so any problems can be resolved quickly.

Is St John's Wort good for depression and anxiety?

St John's Wort is a herbal remedy that’s available without a prescription from health shops and pharmacies. It isn't recommended by doctors or the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

St John's Wort can cause serious side effects and interact with prescription medications, including anti-depressants.

How can I support my mental health?

Having depression or anxiety isn’t a sign of weakness and there’s no need to feel embarrassed. Keep active in your community, consider joining a support group and do things that boost your mental wellbeing.

Self-help groups

Meeting other people who understand what you’re going through can be helpful, especially if you’re feeling isolated or lonely. You can find a local support group by asking your GP, or by contacting Mind, Anxiety UK, SANE or Rethink Mental Illness.

Keep a regular social routine

There are a range of services in the local community where you can meet new people and learn new skills. This will give you something to look forward to, and prevent you feeling isolated or alone. Your local Age UK can help you find an activity or group that will suit your interests.

Find your local Age UK


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What do I do if I’m worried that a relative or friend has depression or anxiety?

If you think a friend or relative is experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, try to talk to them about it.

You may feel uncomfortable bringing up a sensitive topic, especially if the person you're concerned about doesn't often talk about their emotions. Explain why you are concerned but avoid diagnosing their problem or forcing solutions.

They may be unwilling to talk about it, but let them know that you're willing to listen when they're ready.

There are various ways you can help them, such as:

  • Offer your support, listen and reassure them that how they’re feeling can be improved.
  • Stay in touch, call or visit regularly. The risk of depression increases when people feel alone and unsupported.
  • Encourage them to make an appointment with their GP or another health professional. Offer to go with them to appointments.
  • Encourage them to keep active and healthy. Plan occasional outings to get them out of the house.

Supporting a relative or friend with depression can be both rewarding and stressful. There is information and support for carers where you can get help for the difficulties you experience. Contact Carers Direct, Carers UK and the Carers Trust for more information.

What should I do next?

For more information call the Age UK Advice Line on 0800 678 1602.
We’re open 8am to 7pm, every day of the year.

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Last updated: Apr 20 2021

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