As they age, adults can look forward to one less thing to worry about—anxiety.

A UVA study determined that older adults are less anxious in challenging social situations than younger adults. However, the difference vanished when there was fear of a threat to physical health.

The research focused on trying to understand how aging influences emotional reactions and the ability of older people to regulate their emotions.

“This has important implications for understanding how people function in their everyday lives, and also for the prevention and treatment of emotional disorders such as anxiety and mood problems,” says Bethany Teachman, a psychology professor at UVA who led the study. Researchers measured stress levels when participants were asked to give a public speech; the older adults showed less anxiety.

When there was a physical stressor—breathing through a thin straw or having to blow out an imaginary candle repeatedly and rapidly—young and old alike experienced mild physical sensations, such as dizziness and sweating.

While some anxiety is essential as a survival tool, excessive reactions in nonthreatening situations can be debilitating.

“If we can better understand what triggers emotional distress as people age,” Teachman says, “we can develop better interventions and treatments.”