What is Gerontophobia? (An Overview)
In this blog we will discuss the symptoms, causes and treatment of Gerontophobia.
Fear of old people and aging is called as Gerontophobia. It is a type of specific phobia which comes under the category of anxiety disorders in the DSM-V. A sufferer experiences extreme anxiety when exposed to old people or the idea of growing old.
Someone suffering from Gerontophobia can also undergo panic attacks if the anxiety worsens. One gets terrified only when they see a picture of old people or a thought of them ageing crosses their mind.
Individuals with Gerontophobia take all the measures that help them to avoid their fear stimuli, old people/ageing. These acts of avoidance are repetitive and can change into compulsions in the long run. Thus, one can also develop OCD in the future.
As the DSM-V suggests, this avoidance which is caused by extreme anxiety, affects one’s social and occupational functioning. For example, a sufferer will undergo a lot facial treatments and surgeries to stop their ageing process. Because they can’t stop their age from increasing, they control the way they look in order to appear young and fresh.
These people spend nearly all of their savings and earnings on these skin treatments as they’re very expensive. They risk their health by trying out a number of thigs and processes to decrease the speed of their facial features from ageing.
One might not visit his grandparents because he is fearful of them. In Gerontophobia, they avoid going to old homes, visiting relatives who’ve turned old or even being unable to study from an aged teacher at school.
All these measures burden the individual’s mind with negative thoughts and the urge to avoid the fear stimuli repeatedly. The sufferer is very likely to develop depression because of these self-demotivating thoughts.
Gerontophobia is the fear of old people and getting old. It derived from a Greek word ‘geronto’ meaning old age and ‘phobos’ meaning fear. This type of specific phobia is often associated or confused with Gerascophobia (fear of getting old).
Symptoms of Gerontophobia
As with all the other specific phobias, anxiety is the main symptom of Gerontophobia. This irrational fear is the driving force, which encourages sufferers to avoid old people. This avoidance can be stressful as they will put in all their efforts to escape a fearful situation. As mentioned earlier, this is what effects their social relations and occupations.
Sufferer goes into flight or fight mode because of an adrenaline rush. In this state, the body’s physiological responses help one make decisions when in fear causing situations. They either decide to escape the situation (flight) or stay and combat their fear (fight).
In the case of Gerontophobia or any other type of specific phobia, the physiological symptoms that are produced when exposed to old people (including extreme anxiety) cause the person to escape or avoid that situation. Sufferers don’t have the courage to fight with their fear because of the unpleasant, terrifying experience the body goes through.
Including anxiety, Gerontophobia also causes a number of other symptoms in the sufferer. They are as follows:
- Extreme anxiety in the presence of old people
- Extreme anxiety by just thinking about old people
- Avoiding seeing/talking to old people
- Full-blown panic attacks
- Inability to handle anxiety
- Muscle tension/tremors
- Increased heart rate
- Inability to breathe properly/increased breathing rate
- Feeling dizzy
- Hot/cold flashes when in a flight or fight mode (A hot flash refers to the temporary heating up of the body when in a state of fear. And a cold flash means when the body suddenly starts to shiver or cool down, when encountered by a fear stimulus).
- Drying up of mouth
- Butterflies in the stomach
Out of these, one should have at least 3-5 symptoms and anxiety lasting for at least 6-months, to be diagnosed with Gerontophobia.
Causes of Gerontophobia
Like every other specific phobia, Gerontophobia is a result of either genetics or a past traumatic experience.
Someone who has a family history of anxiety disorders or specific phobias has a higher chance of developing Gerontophobia than someone who doesn’t. This is because they are genetically predisposed to develop it.
Genes and neurotransmitters also play a significant role in this genetic predisposition.
This genetic tendency to develop a mental disorder/specific phobia can also be referred to as a Diathesis-stress relationship. According to this, one with a genetic predisposition will not develop symptoms of Gerontophobia until and unless there is some trigger event, instigating anxiety or fear related to old people or ageing.
An environmental trigger event, instigating anxiety can be the way old people look. Someone might not be afraid of them because of their physical appearance, frails all over the face, weak body, poor health conditions. May be the idea that they will also suffer from the same problems old people do, fears them.
Someone with Cacophobia (fear of ugliness) might develop Gerontophobia. Old people turn grumpy, rigid and dependent on their children or family for help. This is what might fear one about old people/ageing.
Also the fact that old people are said to be more close to death. They are assumed to die before youngsters because of their ill health conditions. One might be fearful of losing the prime time of his life, youth and going in to a gloomy, depressive phase of one’s life.
Gerontophobia can also be caused if someone has experienced or seen old people becoming violent and or aggressive. One might be terrified of old people/ageing because he saw his grandparents dying.
People associate old age with just pain, grief and uneasiness also because media plays a significant role in doing so. By stereotyping old people, media can induce fear in one’s mind.
Therefore, Gerontophobia has a number of reasons as to why one develops it.
Treatment of Gerontophobia
Gerontophobia, like all other specific phobias has no exclusive type of treatment that is specifically designed to treat it. Like all the other specific phobias, Gerontophobia is treated by a number of different therapies including, Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) and or medications that lower downs the anxiety or other physical symptoms.
• Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
It is one of the most frequently used treatment for patients with almost all kinds of mental disorders. Gerontophobia is defined as the irrational fear of old people/being old. Thus, the therapist helps the patient in replacing these irrational thoughts with more rational ones.
The patients are helped out in analyzing and justifying the way they feel about their fear stimuli. Therapists assist them in uncovering the reasons behind their fear and later they provide them with alternate, pleasant thoughts.
The patient is told to maintain a thought diary (with ABCD column) which provides them a replacement for every irrational thought they have, when thinking about a particular situation. The ABCD stands for:
i. A (antecedents) a situation or triggering event.
ii. B (belief) the thought that comes to one’s mind when in that triggering situation.
iii. C (consequences) the symptoms/feelings caused by that event/thought
iv. D (dispute) alternate, rational thoughts provided by the therapist in an attempt to dispute/challenge those irrational beliefs.
This last section of the thought diary is what really plays a role in helping the person feel good/less anxious.
• Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR is a meditation therapy, is used to manage stress or anxiety. It is an 8-week program which includes group sessions. Mindfulness meditation and Hatha yoga are practiced in these sessions. Lectures and group discussions are also done to talk about mental health and increase interactivity.
In mindfulness meditation the person is told to, for example focus on the sensations felt while breathing or the rhythm of the chest rising and falling during the process. This distracts the person’s attention from something stressful to something which is neutral and soothing.
For quick and effective treatment, patients are also given a set of home works, for example 45 minutes of yoga and meditation sessions for 6 days a week and to record their results/feelings in a book or diary for 15 minutes a day.
• Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This is another effective therapy used to treat Gerontophobia. It is more commonly used with people suffering from personality disorders, but is also useful with patients suffering from this type of specific phobia. Coping skills are taught in the DBT group which lasts for about 6-months and can have a number of people (depending on how many join the group).
i. Half-smiling is the first module of DBT. It is a technique that is used with patients who are distressed because of their irrational thoughts. The technique is known as ‘Half-smiling’ because the person is first advised to think about the stimuli that fears or upsets them, and while doing so they are told to lift the corners of their mouths by subtly smiling. Smiling is not that will help one get rid of these unpleasant thoughts, it is the person’s ability to constrain itself from thinking about those thoughts while half smiling.
ii. Mindfulness, the second module, is another technique used in DBT groups which helps the individual in getting rid of those negative thoughts. Individuals are told to focus on the present and be attentive to what is going on around them at the moment. This helps in breaking the link between their mind and any negative thought that might come to them then. For example, a person is told to focus on his breath or on the sound of the wind around them, making use of their auditory sense.
iii. The third technique or module of the DBT is distress tolerance skills. This module teaches people to calm themselves down in healthy ways when they are distressed or emotionally overwhelmed. Individuals are allowed to make wise, rational decisions and take immediate action, rather than being captured by emotionally destructive thoughts that might make the situation worse. Reality acceptance skills are also learnt under this model so that people fully accept reality and later make plans on how to address the problem.
They are not just one of the many treatment therapies used for Gerontophobia, instead they are one of the most common ways of relaxation used by many people. Yoga tends to stimulate the meditative state of one’s mind while the person is in a particular yoga posture. Through yoga/meditation the mind is diverted towards something more productive and calm, allowing the person to escape the negative, distress causing thoughts.
Out of a number of yoga types, one can benefit from any yoga type/pose they like. Hatha yoga is one of the different types of yoga. The breathing techniques or the imagery one creates while in a yoga posture are the real factors that makes the person feel less anxious and diverts their mind, away from the thoughts about their fear stimuli.
• Drug Therapy
Drugs are used to reduce the physical symptoms caused by Gerontophobia. Drugs are very quick in effectiveness, as they start showing progress in the patients’ health at least 2 weeks after the medicine is taken.
This type of biological treatment is usually more effective if the cause of the phobia is only genetic. However, these drugs/medicines are not to be taken without a doctor’s prescription or consultation.
Two types of drugs are used in the treatment of this phobia:
i. Antidepressant Drugs
These drugs, as the name suggest don’t only treat depression but are also very effective in treating phobias. Medicines like Paxil reduce the anxious feelings of a person and makes him feel calm. They need to be taken on a daily basis but not without a doctor’s advice.
i. Anti-anxiety Drugs
Medicines like Klonopin are anti-anxiety drugs. They are most commonly used with patients who experience panic attacks and also lowers their anxiety by binding to receptor cells of the brain that cause these unpleasant symptoms.
Whether the cause of Gerontophobia, or any other type of specific phobia is genetics, environmental or both, the best and the most effective way of treating them is by using a combination of both biological treatments (drugs) with cognitive treatment (for example CBT/exposure therapy).
Titles to read
- Your User’s Manual: A Guide for Purpose and an Anxiety Free Life in the 21st Century (Stoicism for a Better Life Book 1)
by Anderson Silver
by Gill Hasson
by Wynette Turner
by Mithu Storoni
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1) What does Gerontophobia mean?
It is an irrational fear of old people/ageing. It originated from a Greek word ‘geronto’ meaning old and ‘phobos’ meaning fear.
Q2) What is the difference between Gerontophobia and Gerascophobia?
Gerontophobia is the irrational fear of old people/ageing. Gerascophobia is the irrational fear of getting old. Both are specific phobias but different from each other in terms of their target fear.
Q3) Do I have Gerontophobia?
One must experience anxiety lasting for at least 6 months, panic attacks, tremors, upset stomach and many other symptoms, to be diagnosed with Gerontophobia.
Q4) Is Gerontophobia curable?
Yes. By using treatments like medicinal drugs, CBT, DBT and many other psychotherapies, one’s Gerontophobia can be treated
Below is a complete list of all Phobias which we currently cover.