Sarah felt old at 25.
It’s halfway to 50, she reasoned, and suddenly the tick, tick, tick of time became tangible. "At 25 I felt like I should know for sure what career I'm meant to do, planning a family, etc. Now at almost 30 I can recognise how silly this was for someone so young," Sarah says. For the past five years she has battled with gerascophobia, which is an extreme fear of growing older.
Sarah, a 29-year-old YouTuber with over 400k subscribers, uploaded a video entitled "My Extreme Fear of Ageing" last year. In it she discusses how this fear has impacted her life: how she rarely leaves her home; how she worries about her body getting weaker; how she bought a gallon of sunscreen for her birthday to try and keep wrinkles at bay.
The video received 759 comments from others in their 20s and 30s who felt similarly petrified of growing older. One comment reads: "The day I turned 27, I had to leave work early because I couldn't stop crying about getting older."
Being scared of ageing is nothing new but it does seem to be becoming a more intense preoccupation for today’s younger generations. In 2018, a report from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) found that millennials felt the most negatively towards ageing, viewing it as a steep decline and assuming dementia and loneliness as inevitable.
As part of the report, the RSPH also called for a stop to the use of the term 'anti-ageing' within the beauty industry, noting that it could be putting pressure on women to see ageing as something to be battled. More alarmingly, a 2017 study found that 30% of women under 35 were regularly using anti-wrinkle products.
Sarah's fear of ageing focuses less on looks and more on ensuring she’s made the most of her life. "It's inevitable everything around me will change at some point, and I worry I won't be prepared for it. Friendships will drift away, my parents will die, I may lose relationships. I'm even anxious about facing my cat's death and not being able to handle it, not to mention my own! Also will my life be worth it at the end of the day? Will I have impacted people positively? Did I achieve everything I wanted?"
This constant pressure many of us feel to have achieved everything by a certain age is not helped by the comparative nature of social media. According to the nonprofit organisation Flawless, 60% of young adults believe that social media has contributed to them feeling paranoid about ageing.
From Facebook memories to googling the age of every '90s film star (Macaulay Culkin is almost 40?), ruminating over the fragments of my fading youth is just a scroll away. While it's great to look back at embarrassing pictures of myself dressed in a Nutella costume, it also feels like a constant reminder that time is running away from me, which in turn makes me feel like a failure. I don’t want to be on my deathbed with only Netflix shows and memes to talk about.
"In my experience, people who are concerned about getting older generally feel dissatisfied with how far they have got so far in life," Dr Rose Aghdami, a consulting and coaching psychologist tells me. "This is very individual. Everyone will have their own measure of whether they feel they are doing well or not. Social media offers a daily potential for comparing oneself with others, and for some people I believe this can have a negative impact, increasing self-criticism and self-doubt, concerns about time running out and feeling inadequate," Dr Aghdami continues.
Sarah has learned, gradually, to see social media’s archiving of our lives as a positive. "I am able to see how much time has passed and that can of course send me into a spiral, but if I compare myself to just two years ago, it's also a reminder of how much can actually happen in that timeframe. Time feels like it's faster and faster every year, which is horrifying, but at the same time so much can be accomplished in a year."
Most of us worry about getting older, but it’s only when this worry starts to seriously impact your wellbeing that it becomes a diagnosable condition. ”Gerascophobia sufferers have very frequent thoughts about changes in their appearance due to ageing and increasingly losing control over their life as they get older. These thoughts trigger panic attacks, shortness of breath, sweating and shaking," says Dr Aghdami. "Their behaviour is affected too, as they often avoid certain activities which remind them of ageing, withdraw from social contact and become more isolated."
Gerascophobia can be successfully treated by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps individuals to retrain their thinking about ageing. For others who find themselves approaching milestone ages like 30 and panicking about running out of time, breathe. It’s going to be okay.
The internet makes everything feel like it’s moving faster; like we’re never fully present in one moment, always spinning towards something catastrophic. As a society, we need to be less derogatory about ageing and talk more openly about all aspects of it, including the many, many positives. This is especially necessary given that we’re all living longer than ever; recent projections by the Office for National Statistics found that in 50 years' time, there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people in the UK aged 65 and over.
Sarah has learned to accept the reality of ageing and see it, in many ways, as a blessing. "My 30th is one month away and I actually couldn't be more excited about it. I may have let this fear control most of my 20s, and although I'm one-third through my life, I can make the remaining time I have worthwhile. After all, everything we experience on this earth – good and bad, life and death – is part of the human experience and all of it should be celebrated. We're so lucky we have a chance at it all."