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Anxiety about Retirement: A New Perspective

A new poll conducted in October by the Associated Press and LifeGoesStrong.com found that 73% of Baby Boomers now plan to work past retirement, and 53% said they don't feel comfortable that they'll ever be able to afford a comfortable retirement. These are big numbers, and speak to a substantial increase in anxiety for Americans at or nearing retirement age. Of course, most people experience uncertainty about the future all the time. A degree of anxious uncertainty about the future is a normal, if trying, part of the human experience. But some people are particularly debilitated in their thinking by uncertainty because they find uncertainty about the future terrifying. Psychologists call this an intolerance of uncertainty, and it is thought to underlie many anxiety disorders, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (chronic worry) and obsessive compulsive disorder. Another anxiety-related diagnosis that is not discussed as often is Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety. People who find they are consumed with depression or anxiety and unable to function after a specific precipitating event or change has taken place can be diagnosed with this. When I think about the anxiety about retirement that many Boomers are facing today, I sometimes look at it as a generational adjustment disorder with anxiety, with the precipitating event being the 2008 financial crash in which so many lost much of their savings and financial security.

One way that adjustment disorders can be treated is to focus on the steps of a transition, which include 1) an ending, 2) an uncertain, limbo period and 3) a beginning. It can be reassuring to re-frame an upsetting change in these terms. So for Boomers the ending has already happened: that was the 2008 crash that ended their previous feeling of security. Now it appears they are in the limbo period, which is by its nature an anxious time. At this agonizing juncture, re-focusing on how change brings renewal and new opportunities for growth can help people to grieve what's been lost and experience a kind of new beginning, which typically has the effect of neutralizing the worst of the anxiety.

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