Why Aging Stresses us Out

Tori Williams, LMHC July 7, 2022

Is it really true that only wine and cheese get better with age?

Why does aging stress us out?

Is it really true that only wine and cheese get better with age? While we’re now several centuries removed from the times when human lifespans averaged about 35 years and more technologically advanced than ever, concerns around aging are still a consistent phenomenon. Getting older can be stressful because of the worries about cognitive and physical deterioration; disease; and, of course, death. In my inner circles, folks who are 29, 39, and 49 years old usually don’t want to hear that they are close to 30, 40, or 50. “Don’t rush it! Let me enjoy my time,” they’ll exclaim. I’ve even heard peers say that the birthdays they've celebrated in the pandemic don’t actually count as years added to their lives (and it’s okay if you’re guilty of this, too).

In a (very) small survey conducted for this blog, concerns of mobility and cognitive decline; uncertainty of the future; the fear of death/dying; and the feeling of running out of time (and subsequently leaving a life that feels undone) were all factors that contributed to the stress associated with aging.  “Uncertainty, but that’s my usual MO. I find myself wondering where I should be, what should I be doing and am I getting the most out of this season of life because I’m only getting older,” one respondent said. Another mentioned, “Aging has a way of making me feel like I’m running out of time—with my loved ones and with experiences and other accomplishments I want to have in life.”

So whether you're making plans to expand your family or are intending to go back to school, you might be riddled with anxiety and depression about the unpredictability of your circumstances in the present moment, looming concerns around climate change, and/or simply running out of time and getting too old before checking all 148 boxes off your #YOLO bucket list. Yes, it’s true—we all get a little anxious about another year around the sun. Ironically, though, we need the time and wisdom that aging affords us in order to fulfill all our intentions. There’s no reason for aging to feel inherently stressful —but if we stress about aging, we don't give ourselves much room to accept the inevitable with compassion, excitement, or gratitude.

Radical acceptance is a DBT skill commonly utilized in the therapeutic space. The concept is about accepting life on life’s terms without resisting or trying to change what you aren’t in control of. Because of our desire to control things (yes, I’m talking to you), we often behave as if not accepting something will change the situation or outcome. Ultimately, you and I have a choice. We can decide whether we’ll meet the inevitable process of aging with doom and gloom or choose to accept it for the gift it is. Consider the practical ways below:

  1. Recognize when you may be stressing about getting older and reposition your focus to the present moment through mindfulness practices.
  2. Challenge/examine your thoughts. (“Are the thoughts I’ve learned about aging aligned with who I am or what I believe now?”)
  3. Practice gratitude. (“I am grateful to be getting older and wiser. I could only attain this wisdom through accumulated experience and knowledge, and for that I am thankful.”)

We can suffer through it, or we can welcome the journey. Getting older can bring entirely new experiences, insights, and even pleasures – if and when we choose to embrace the process in the same way it embraces all of us.

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