Many of us look toward the aging process with fear and trepidation. We fear declines in our health, memory, productivity, independence, and connection. This fear, which includes worrying about something that has already happened or being anxious about things that haven't yet happened, often results in stress and despair. Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." This certainly seems apropos relative to the anxieties surrounding aging. While aging inevitably results in changes and losses, the fear itself often becomes more disabling than any physical impairment. Researchers have thoroughly established that stress is detrimental to our health and wellbeing. Since fear is a major source of stress, it is vital that it be recognized and managed.
While it is true that some of our fears may become reality, many of us, myself included, worry about things that will never come to be. For this reason it is important to recognize that many commonly accepted characteristics of aging simply do not hold true. For example, we know that many of the chronic diseases associated with aging are as much a result of inactivity and poor nutrition as they are of biological deterioration. This means that even at mid-life we have the opportunity to improve our strength and vitality with exercise and a healthy diet. Although some of us may have severe restrictions in our mobility as we age, just as many of us will still be able to do most of the activities we enjoy especially if we have remained physically active since mid-life.
Since fears associated with aging are often related to misconceptions about the process itself, it is essential to examine our beliefs and attitudes about growing old. What did your family teach you about aging when you were growing up? What past and recent experiences have influenced these perceptions? Often times subconscious thoughts and ideas feed into our fears about aging, regardless of whether or not they are based on reality.
Self-examination and understanding is critical because our beliefs, both conscious and subconscious, will have important implications for the quality of our life. Walter Bortz states in his book We Live Too Short and Die Too Long (2007), "Aging is a self fulfilling prophecy. If we dread growing old, thinking it a time of forgetfulness and physical deterioration, then it is likely to be just that. On the other hand, if we expect to be full of energy and anticipate that our lives will be rich with new adventures and insights, then it is the likely reality. We prescribe who we are and what we are to become."
Acknowledging and opening up to our fears related to aging creates the opportunity for transformation. Some fears inspire us to make important changes in our lives. Others, once labeled and explored, readily fall away, while the most resistant may require more attention. Ram Dass in Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying (2000) shares, "rather than closing ourselves to fear, (if you) learn to open to it, it sit with it, allowing it to arise and pass in its own time...you will find that...(with) this witness state the boundaries of the ego loosen, and fear begins to change. You will discover that the fearful thought you are looking at is quite different from the fear you've run away from; the minute you look at it and embrace it, the power is yours."
Set time aside soon to explore your own fears regarding the aging process. What worries can you discredit as inaccurate? What anxieties can be transformed into motivation for action? And what fears will you need to sit with a bit - remaining open to how they might change with a receptive heart and mind?