Growing Old Gratefully
Finishing a masterpiece.
Posted Feb 12, 2017
Let’s play the game, “What am I?” Here are the clues: The mirror, bright lights, and gravity are my enemy. I have more funerals on my calendar than Forrest Lawn, and when I get together with friends, it looks like a come-as-your-favorite-disease theme party. What am I? I am Old Age. Like a thunderstorm, I rage all over town and affect different people differently for various reasons. However, all people share the anxiety and worry that accompany aging.
Anxiety and Worry
Anxiety occurs in the limbic region of the old brain, which is the seat of emotions. Though often used interchangeably, anxiety and fear are different. Actual danger causes fear—open the door, and there’s a lion. Perceived threat causes anxiety—terrified that a lion waits behind every door. However, anxiety and fear have the same effect on the brain because our default conflict resolution tool (the fight-or-flight response) begins in a brain region that cannot distinguish between reality and perception because evolution designed the old brain to “survive now, ask questions later.” Therefore, the amygdala processes real or imagined threat equally by activating the stress response. 
Humans use the anterior cingulate cortex and parts of the prefrontal cortex of the “new thinking brain” for problem-solving, planning and decision-making. We use the same brain circuitry for worrying because worrying, problem-solving and planning have similar requirements, such as envisioning possible outcomes. The difference between worrying and planning is that worry attaches more negative emotion and fixates on negative outcome possibilities because the medial prefrontal cortex has direct connections with the amygdala. The amygdala pays more attention to negatives than positives because its job is to protect you. Positive things will not hurt you; negative things will. The amygdala establishes importance by attaching emotional valence or value to items and events. So, the stronger your emotional response is to something you worry about, the more likely you are to worry about it.
Also, evolution designed our brains to use anxiety and worry as a protective measure against danger by projecting possible outcomes. So, we imagine the worst. Regrettably, anxiety and worry are driven by possibility, not actuality, so imagining the worst often leads to catastrophizing.
Chronic worry and anxiety deconstructs lives and leads to depression. Plus, the brain often uses worrying about one thing to decrease anxiety caused by deeper issues. The greater issues for most seniors is impending death or helplessness, so worry goes from being a weather condition to a climate.
Worrying is like a soldier at Little Big Horn jumping up and down screaming, “We’re surrounded by Indians” over and over as opposed to dealing with the crisis. Ironically, worrying is how the brain is dealing with it because worry uses the same brain circuitry as planning and problem solving—so it feels like you are doing something. And you are doing something—you’re worrying. Although worrying won’t stave off being on the wrong side at Little Big Horn, it will help with the emotional crisis of preeminent death.
Growing old is challenging on multiple levels. The things you lusted for and dreamed about in your youth, like fame, fortune, and true love, were elusive, crushed your spirit, or simply were not all that they claimed.
Old age brings changes, and many of them are unpleasant, but change is just another word for life and unpleasantness is vulnerable to attitude and perspective. The past and the future are only valid when they are the present. Never mind what might happen, or what already happened—what's going on now? Never mind what society says old age is. What do you think it is?
Honor your reality, and embrace your aging process because doing so decreases anxiety and worry. Acceptance of self and circumstance allows you to be all that you can be, making it easier to sit with all that you can no longer do or be. Don’t look in the mirror and scrutinize the older person by the younger person that used to be there. Instead, cherish what you see as one of the Universe’s great works of art—you. And from the dawn of biology, until the last star sputters and falls into total blackness, the Universe will have created one, and only one, you. Cherish it, celebrate it, honor it—all of it—beginning, middle and end, because with life, like sculpture, ultimately, it is what is taken away that makes a masterpiece. As always, remain fabulous and phenomenal.
1. McEwen, B., Lasley, E, End of Stress as we know it. 2002, Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.
2. Korb, A., The Upward Spiral. 2015 New Harbinger Publications.