Emotions like fear are part of our human survival wiring. They compel us to act. When something scares us, we switch into autopilot safety/survival mode. Even what we might think of as an absence of action, such as the “freeze” response to fear, is an action. Emotions are designed to make us do something about our situation, which may include crawling under the covers for a week. If all we do is react, though, and never examine what our emotions are telling us or address them constructively, we will continue on autopilot even if the autopilot is steering us into a mountain.
When we feel an emotion that’s especially uncomfortable, like fear is, we try to suppress it. What I explain to everyone who will listen (you’re listening, right?) is that there is No. Such. Thing. As. Suppressing. Emotions. When we attempt to suppress them, we become even more ruled by them.
What does this have to do with aging? Everything.
Many of us (let’s be honest—most of us) fear aging and death as soon as we’re old enough to understand what they mean. In the first decades of our life, the consequences of aging are usually more theoretical than actual. Then one day we wake up, count the candles on our birthday cake, and the consequences don’t feel quite so theoretical anymore.
We can respond to our fear by attempting to suppress it or by running away from it, but neither response is healthy or helpful, and neither can work for very long. If all we do is respond on autopilot to our fear of aging, we won’t make the most of the time we have left.
To create a life we love, from today until our last day, we must be willing to look honestly at a situation, accept our thoughts and feelings about it, and only from that broader perspective make decisions about how to act.
For example, imagine your doctor just told you that in six months you’ll go blind. How do you react? With grief and anguish, tears, denial, anger—all of it. Is it ok to respond that way? Of course! Will that reaction change your diagnosis, or make your new life as a blind person easier, or your current sighted life more memorable? No, it won’t. That’s what I mean by taking oneself off of autopilot. Autopilot is the anguish. Piloting our life means deciding how we want to spend the next six months, and then deciding how to create a life we will love even blind.
For many of us, our greatest fear about aging is what happens at the end. If the fear of death keeps us so preoccupied that we’re living in constant anxiety, without joy, then we cut our potential short. We can allow thoughts about death to restrict us—forcing us to live fearful and preoccupied, or we can live fully and fearlessly in the present, which is where joy resides. As psychologist Carl Jung once said of death, “Shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose.”
When we live in a constant state of fear of aging, we waste our potential for a fulfilling life, and we may even damage our health—and, in a vicious cycle, cut our lives short. Science clearly recognizes that link between mind and body—emotional stress can result in physical symptoms, and chronic stress is linked to six of the major causes of death.
To disempower our fears about aging, we must approach them with a mindset of realistic positivity. Realistic positivity means seeing and accepting what is now—both in our inner and outer worlds—and then putting our focus on what we would love. By accepting that we are aging and someday we will die, we can turn our focus to what we would love—to travel, spend time with family, write a book, run a marathon. Realistic positivity gives us the tools to dismantle our fears—and move fearlessly into the present.
To read more about my book, Mindful Aging: click here.