Fear of Getting Old: What is Gerascophobia & How To Cope
Our society is obsessed with youth. It is only necessary to look at the booming, billionare anti-ageing industry to understand the length of our obsession with appearing young. It comes as no surprise that many of us struggle with a deep-seated fear of aging. The fear of getting old is all too common and can fuel our anxiety and disrupt our mental health. That is why we want to share with you what psychology has to say about the fear of aging, and, most improtantly, discuss how to cope with this fear so that we can live more fulfilling and self-compassionate lives.
What is Gerascophobia? Understanding Fear of Aging
The term gerascophobia comes from the Greek words γηράσκω, gerasko, "I grow old" and φόβος, phobos, "fear". Experts are not quite sure about the cause of gerascophobia, but an interesting conceptual framework has been proposed by Momtaz et al. (2021) which combines several relevant theories to better understand and explain the fear of getting older.
To be more specific, Momtaz et al. (2021) suggested that several theories might explain the origins of fear of aging. Based on the reviewed theories in their research: internalizing ageist stereotypes (Stereotype Embodiment Theory), struggling to meet social expectations (Double Standard of Aging Theory), failing to achieve expected or desired life events (Social Clock Theory), moving from the young (in-group) into the old (out-group) (Social Identity Theory), and diminished beauty and declining health (Terror Management Theory) cause fear of aging. The results of this study provide a theoretical framework for understanding the causes of fear of aging. This framework can be better understood by the following figure they designed.
Studies show that the fear of aging can harm one’s health and is linked to poor physical and psychological health. Living in an era with increased life expectancy, most people can expect to reach old age. Therefore, one of the most important issues that individuals should be prepared for is the adjustment to the aging process and the coping with this fear.
How To Deal with the Fear of Getting Old
Many of us struggle with anxiety-fuelled thoughts about aging. However, this fear is not set in stone. Rather, we can take concrete steps to overcome the fear of getting old. Researchers and therapists alike have found that some strategies can help us cope with this common fear. Some of them include:
1. Identify what are you afraid of losing
A good idea might be to start journaling your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors whenever this fear pops up. You can use this template or any tracking application to note: the events triggering this fear, the intensity and frequency of escalation of the emotion, your thoughts around aging, and the behavioral ways you have developed to cope with this feeling. Taking some time to reflect on that might help you understand why you are afraid of getting older. Is it the sense of losing control? Is it because of a stereotypical behavior you have seen around you? Is it the beauty standards? Is health your only concern?
2. Invite your thoughts to “court”
Having identified the deeper reasons and thoughts around your fear, I now invite you to take those thoughts on trial. Our brains have the tendency to only look for proof that our thoughts and worries around them are valid and truthful. I now invite you to challenge this tendency by looking for arguments against your deeper reasons for fear. For example, if your deeper fear is that aging will be inevitably connected with loneliness and isolation, look for cases around you that don't confirm this belief. Whenever in this state of mind, make sure you include in your thinking pattern that old auntie of yours who, although 80 years old, still enjoys her nights playing cards with her friends.
3. Take a step back. Set the fear in perspective
Let’s not forget that gerascophobia is, after all, a phobia. That does not mean that it is “fake” or “foolish”. On the contrary, it means that it has the power to influence our thoughts and behaviors. However, if looked at from a broader perspective, you can reflect on other fears of yours and the ways you have coped with them in the past. For example, maybe as a kid, you were afraid of dogs, and maybe you still are. Over the years, maybe through: gradual exposure through movies, taking walks with dogs at a distance from you, taking walks with your friend’s dog walking closer to you and so on, you became more resistant to their presence. Similarly, regarding aging, maybe you could spend a bit more time with an older relative of yours, watch a relevant movie, or volunteer at an elderly home. Gradually exposing yourself, relating and talking to people who have already experienced aging, may challenge your thoughts and lower the intensity of your fear.
4. Create an Action Plan
In some cases, having an action plan for that future day where you will be older, might help. Having identified the core reasons why you are afraid of getting older, you can act in advance to tackle them more efficiently. Here are some ideas:
5. Practice Self-compassion, Acceptance, and Mindfulness
Accept your humanity. I know you have heard that before, but I also know it is hard to truly grasp it and accept it in a nonjudgmental way. Truth be told, you can not escape getting older, in the same way you can not escape experiencing “negative” emotions. Instead of spending all your energy worrying about it and pushing it away, you may as well embrace it as part of your journey. Maybe by doing so, that saved energy can be invested into something joyful for your future elderly days, or for your present moments.
6. Talk about it and seek professional Help
Last but not least, know that you are not alone with this fear. Many people around you and around the world have similar fears on this matter. Talking about it with like-others may foster a supportive system around you capable of embracing you warmly in your quest. If you feel that this is not enough, do not hesitate to reach out and seek professional help from a psychologist, counselor, or psychotherapist.
Written by Alexandra Symeonidou, an intern at AntiLoneliness
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