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Gerascophobia: When Can Ageing Stop Hurting?

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Ageing is a process that begins right after birth. Therefore, we are all getting old. From the baby, the child, the teenager, the adult to the elderly. We will always be younger or older than someone else. And our appearance accompanies each stage of our life, each phase we go through, each new age we conquer. But when the worry of ageing becomes an excessive fear, then we are faced with a behaviour called gerascophobia.

A gerascophobic person has an exaggerated and persistent fear of the effects inherent to the ageing process such as wrinkles, expression lines, grey hair, sagging, etc. The behaviour distorts a person’s perception and turns it into someone obsessed by beauty (or would be by the defects?).

Gerascophobics sees changes in the face and body as abnormal, aversive, and defective. The false confidence that the more aesthetic interventions we make, the more we will be admired, accepted, and desired is an endless process towards emptiness. Because there will always be something about your appearance that you will want to tweak or modify, simply because appearance cannot transform essence. The essence is that there is cellular ageing; that it is continuous and progressive and that ageing is part of every being that lives. 

There’s no shame in wanting to take care of the appearance and physical health. The problem is when this becomes an exaggeration (almost an obsession), and ends up interfering in relationships with family, friends, work, but mainly with oneself.

Gerascophobia is part of anxiety disorders. For this reason, symptoms such as dry mouth, sweating, agitation, shortness of breath, tremors, and difficulty in speaking clearly can occur. The reasons are varied ranging from family history, mental disorders, environmental influence, lack of personal fulfillment, etc. A clinical case of greater repercussion was that of a 14-year-old boy, Who, due to excessive fear of growing up, took extreme measures to prevent his growth, such as restricting food intake, adopting a bent posture to hide his height, and considering having plastic surgery to disguise physical characteristics of growth. The boy had symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Psychological aspects such as fear of being affected by diseases that are more common in the elderly, may be present in people with the disorder. Another characteristic of gerascophobics is the preference for having friends and romantic relationships with younger people. Being in contact with younger groups gives them the false impression that they are not ageing, thus lessening their anguish. However, when the excessive fear of aging becomes an obsession to keep looking younger and younger, then we are faced with a behaviour called midorexia. 

The term was firstly coined by British journalist Shane Watson, Who defines midorexia (wordplay for middle age and orexia, desire or appetite) as ‘the belief that not only can you be attractive forever (a good thing), but that you are actually more attractive now than ever before’. In practice, a person with midorexia adopts youthful attitudes and behaviours, regardless of their biological age. It is the typical example of singers like Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. 

A characteristic of those who suffer from this is that they resort to all kinds of cosmetic surgeries, use a variety of anti-ageing creams and dress in youthful clothes. ‘They make use of everything that allows them to be within that group,’ adds María Santos Becerril, a psychologist at the National University of Mexico (UNAM). Santos also points out that at the cognitive level, a mydorexic maintains a distorted thinking about reality and usually looks for much smaller partners, even if there is no affinity.

The thing is that age, as well as the meaning attributed to wrinkles, has changed over the years due to culture. This is what Laura Hurd Clarke, PhD in sociology from the University of British Columbia, points out in her book Facing Age: Women Growing Older in an Anti-Aging Culture. According to her, with the advent and increasing use of injectable fillers, fine lines began to have a bad connotation in product marketing messages. People internalise these messages and begin to see and interpret wrinkles and ageing of their bodies in a different way. These cultural constructions are establishing themselves insidiously, leading to the avoidance of linkages among people and seeing ageing as increasingly negative.

However, the most ironic thing is that because of advances in medicine and technology we will have a world more and more inhabited by elderly people than by young people (because we will live longer and better). For this reason, it is necessary to demystify the concept that aging is related to decline or dysfunction.  Under this bias, how to combat the visual prejudice of an anti-ageing society in which beauty and youth are synonymous?

Building a positive image: ageing as a synonym for mindset

The psychologist Ellen Langer, from Harvard University  conducted an experiment in New Hampshire, in 1979, in which a group of elderly people was placed in a kind of ‘time machine’ set in the year 1959.

The time machine was actually an old monastery that had been renovated and set with all the references linked to 1959 such as vintage radio, black and white TV, as well as books and newspapers from that time. More than just enjoying the environment and objects of the place, the volunteers were instructed to act as if they actually lived in 1959. 

The objective of the experiment was to see if the fact that they felt younger and healthier (as in 1959) would cause physiological consequences in their bodies. To do this, Langer and her students met with the men every day to discuss issues and themes related to that time. After a week of experimenting in total immersion in the past, the psychologist observed that memory, vision, hearing, and even physical strength had improved in the volunteers. On the other hand, the control group participants (who did not have to behave as if they were in 1959), remained with the same characteristics as the beginning of the research. 

The conclusion we can draw from Langer’s experiment is that the way we feel plays a crucial role in the way we age. In the experiment, the fact that participants have felt younger, made their bodies returned to have the same force that they had in the past. Thus, ageing cannot be defined by appearance but by mentality, as it is through this that we can transform our behaviour and therefore our lifestyleAs Confucius once asked: ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?’

Getting older is not bad. Bad is not getting old

Here is a genuine truth: you are ageing because you are alive. Here’s another truth: you won’t stop ageing until you die. In view of this, I would like to ask you a question: do you prefer to grow old or would you like to stop ageing?

I honestly prefer to keep ageing (because stopping aging is impossible when you’re alive).

Everything that resists, persists. So the more a person thinks about ageing as painful, the more painful it will be. Getting older will only stop hurting when you stop thinking about it. 

Instead of thinking about ageing, just live. Look less on social media, and relate more with people.

The truth is that getting older started to hurt more, from the moment you started to relate less. After all, it’s a lot of time invested in yourself, in creating a better version of your ideal self – a version with minimal error and as much retouching as possible. And so, a narcissistic society emerges (full of self, very self-centred). 

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a man of extreme beauty. He was so beautiful that he caught the attention of the nymph Echo, who, cursed by her chatter, was condemned to repeat the end of the sentences that the others spoke. One fine day, Echo sees Narcissus at the edge of a lake, and their dialogue is not good at all. Echo could only repeat the last words that Narcissus said. Confused and somewhat irritated, Narcissus repelled Echo just as the nymph tried to hug him. After the incident with Echo, Narcissus continued to despise anyone who dared to want to conquer him. Until one hot day, after returning from a hunt, he stopped to cool off at the edge of a lake. It was then that, when faced with a beautiful image reflected in the lake, he fell in love suddenly. When trying to reach the image with his arms, he ended up drowning in the lake. 

Narcissus loves what is mirror, and in the world of Narcissus we are all Echo. This is the society we live in. We spend so much time admiring ourselves in front of smartphone camera or in the selfies on social media, that we forget about the people around us. Like the Narcissus of mythology, we become numb to our own image, while likes echo everything we want to be, hear, and do. Yes, likes produce affection in Echo’s land. Because likes are nothing more than confirmations of everything we want to hear (and what I don’t want, I delete or reject, just like Narcissus did).

With so many filters and retouching in the virtual world, it’s hard to get old in the real life. It’s as if looking old doesn’t exist anymore, doesn’t make sense. The saddest thing about it all is that we are dying, and it’s not from old age.

Daniela Silva is a freelance educational writer.

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