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Getting Older

Getting Older

by Dr Emma Gray - 10th November, 2014

In this blog we highlight and explore the psychological characteristics that are necessary to allow us to embrace the ageing process and that protect us from problems such as anxiety, panic and depression later on in life.

On a day to day basis we seem to be reasonably skilled at avoiding the reality of our mortality, if we weren’t we probably wouldn’t leave the house and certainly wouldn’t get in a car. There are some people who struggle with such day to day tasks (for example those suffering from anxiety based mental health problem like agoraphobia, panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder {OCD}) but it is a fear of losing control and the resulting social embarrassment that drives such avoidant behaviours rather than a fear of death.

However, this ability to sideline an awareness of our ultimate demise becomes increasingly harder as we age, as physical changes bring the reality into sharper focus. Being able to embrace the fact that life has a time limit and that this grows closer with every passing day is dependent on a number of psychological factors: robust self esteem and confidence in our capacity to cope with challenges, an ability to tolerate and manage regret, a clearly defined yet flexible role/purpose and an accurate and helpful thinking style that allows us to hold on to and enjoy achievement and shake off failure and disappointment. As time passes and the robustness of youth fades an absence of these psychological elements leaves the individual increasing vulnerable to age related depression and anxiety.

We will now explore in detail the key psychological traits that enable us to deal with the passing of time.

1. Self Esteem

Our self esteem is vital in dealing with all kinds of challenges, ageing being just one of them. This is because the nature of our self esteem determines how we process and interpret information, it influences the meaning that we attach to event, the choices that we make and ultimately how we feel and what we do. High self esteem is dependent upon a belief that we are ‘good enough’, that we have the resources to cope and an ability to accept and appreciate ourselves.

Low self esteem is a direct result of a belief that we are in some way inadequate or defective, that we can’t cope and a tendency to underestimate and undermine ourselves. When armed with the first we are able to embrace and adapt to chance, when saddled with the latter everything is difficult and frightening, particularly those things that we can’t control, the passing of time being at the top of this list.

2. Regret

Regret is a normal human emotion and like all emotions it serves an important function; it alerts us to missed opportunities so that they are not missed again. If managed and responded to appropriately and adaptively (i.e. past mistakes are accepted and learned from) regret is fleeting, once its purpose is served it dissipates. However, if we respond to regret with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, it not only fails to dissipate but overtime builds and sticks.

Regret of this kind taints our memories making up vulnerable to depression and anxiety. As the past expands and the future shrinks we spend an increasing amount of time looking backwards rather than forwards, meaning that as time passes, if we are unable to manage regret adaptively we become increasingly exposed to the discomfort and distress that it creates.

Learning to respond appropriately to regret is therefore pivotal if we are to deal well with getting older.

3. Role

As human being we need a purpose in life, a role. This does not mean that this role should define us, this in fact this is a risky strategy as over a life time roles changes, if one particular role (e.g. being a mother) is inextricably tied to our self esteem as time passes and what is required of us from others changes (e.g. our children grow up) we will be left in a vulnerable position, with no platform for our self esteem.

Instead our role(s) in life should be clearly defined so affording us a sense of purpose, focusing our mind and creating opportunities for goal driven behaviour and the experience of achievement but it should form only a part of how we evaluate of our value. Otherwise we will find that we have put all our eggs in one basket and as time moves on and what is needed from us shifts, we will be left feelings unimportant and unfulfilled with an unbalanced focus on the past and ‘better times’.

4. Thinking

The way that we think about things effects how we feel and what we do. If our thoughts are an accurate representation of the way and offer us a helpful way forward we will find ourselves in a strong position for dealing with challenges and change including ageing. However, if our thoughts are inaccurate and prevent problem solving and coping we will find ourselves struggling with anxiety and depression and behaving in self defeating ways. In this state of mind the challenges that the ageing process presents can seem insurmountable.

For help and advice about dealing with getting older and associated mental health problems contact The British CBT & Counselling Service.

If you are suffering with any of the issues discussed in this article and would like to seek professional help then you may find our Problems Pages helpful.


Dr Emma Gray

Dr Emma Gray

I am often the first person with whom my patients share significant and intimate thoughts and memories; I never take that privileged position for granted nor the opportunity to help someone to feel better about themselves and discover a more fulfilling life. One of my colleagues once described me as a natural psychologist; I guess she was alluding to the fact that I feel at ease being a therapist, I can empathise with people’s distress and discomfort but don’t feel overwhelmed by it, I can understand their problem and know how to help, it has always just felt like what I should be doing.


Read more about my approach to counselling here...


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