In the final piece of our series on getting older, we spoke to our resident therapist Sian Barnard on how best to protect our mental health as we age.
Protecting our mental health as we age
As I creep towards the milestone birthday of 50 years old, I’ve started to notice changes in my skin, my neck, my face. When I notice those changes, I get a feeling in my stomach – it’s a form of anxiety and depression subtly rolled into one feeling, erupting from my thoughts. I know I’m not alone in feeling this.
Our thoughts create our feelings. We appraise, evaluate, make judgements and compare ourselves with others. My mother always said, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. And boy, she wasn’t wrong.
Comparing ourselves to other, perhaps younger, women forms the root of a great deal of our anxiety and feelings of distress. But let me tell you, they don’t have to be so negative.
Resisting the resistance
When we have rigid beliefs that go against reality, we create a friction or pressure towards ‘what is’. This resistance is felt as an unhealthy emotion. So, it’s a bit like standing on the beach in your best Manolo Blahniks (I’ve never owned a pair) and demanding the tide must not come in. If it does come in it will ruin your very expensive shoes and you’ll never be happy again.
You can’t beat that. It’s a ridiculous demand because it’s against reality, it’s out of your control. Equally, over-exaggerating how bad it would make you feel will increase your distress. But this is how we can sometimes talk to ourselves on an unconscious level.
When our belief systems relate to getting older and become irrational – that is, demanding ‘reality MUST not be reality’, then it becomes about vanity. Vanity is not usually about thinking you look amazing. It’s about checking the mirror regularly to make sure you look your best and often stems from the feeling that you don’t have any other qualities that would make you good enough. This means that any imperfection, including a wrinkle, will devalue you completely in the eyes of your audience.
We can’t control getting older, we can’t control what other people think about our wrinkles, wider waist, or lack of muscle behind our cheeks. If we feel depressed or anxious about the signs of ageing it will be because somewhere, deep down, we are believing we MUST not get old, we must not look old, people MUST not judge us. Metaphorically speaking your feet are going to get wet whatever you demand.
Don’t judge others by your own assumptions
Assuming that our thoughts are facts, simply because they feel powerful to us, will have a negative impact on our mental health. For instance, it’s usually our own assumptions that people don’t think we’re attractive if we have more wrinkles or sagginess. We project what we feel about ourselves on to others and assume they are thinking the same. We aren’t psychic. I never look at another woman and think she is any less sexy, attractive or valuable simply because she has wrinkles or looks older. I don’t denigrate her worth and contribution to society because she’s ageing. I have, however, been known to think that about myself.
Leaving the mindset behind
It’s possible to leave this irrational and ridiculous frame of mind behind by accepting reality. Don’t try to control what’s not in your control. Change those demands and catastrophising beliefs to
“I would prefer to look eternally youthful but I also accept that’s not possible, and in honesty not really desirable either. It doesn’t detract from how others see or value me, I can tolerate the ageing effects because I am a worthy and beautiful to those who know my soul.”
Whatever age I am, I know I’m unique. I’m a one-off. I have my friends as mirrors, and they are wonderful. I know it’s ok to be imperfect because beauty is only skin deep. People love personalities, not bodies. My signs of ageing show my wisdom and experience in life.
When I’m confident, vibrant and compassionate I can take a few years off my age – who needs expensive neck cream?
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