Aging and death are common sources of anxiety for many of us. Aging anxiety is described as a concern and anticipation of adverse physical, mental and personal losses during the aging process. Death anxiety as you would expect, is defined as a particularly fearful preoccupation with mortality and the uncertainty of death. Such anxieties can manifest and contribute to the development of significant levels of psychological distress and in some cases to the emergence of symptoms of disorders such as depression. Given that we are now well aware that our population is growing increasingly older and death is an unavoidable reality for each and every one of us, research has begun to explore ways of understanding and ameliorating the negative effects of these anxiety-provoking issues.

One such example is a study that was recently published in the scientific journal Personality and Individual Differences, which explored the relationship between a multi-faceted construct termed emotional complexity and the existential anxieties associated with aging and death. While emotional complexity is a difficult construct to concretely define, it is generally understood as the extent to which a person experiences and differentiates between different emotions. According to previous theory and research, the ability to experience and understand emotions readily can contribute to increased resilience and adaptability which have been shown to buffer distress. Emotional complexity has already been shown to buffer the effects of negative cognitive processes and behaviours which contribute to the development and maintenance of psychological distress, such as rumination.

The aforementioned study led by researcher Ehud Bodner, explored emotional complexity in a group of older adults by asking them to complete questionnaires that measured their emotions daily for a consecutive 14 days. This process provided the researchers with detailed information regarding the levels of emotional complexity present in their study group. They then compared this data with further information regarding the groups reported levels of aging and death anxiety as well as psychological distress. As expected their analysis revealed that older adults tend to report significant fear regarding aging and death but interestingly those with higher emotional complexity experience less psychological distress as a result of these fears. One can only assume that the reason for this is because emotional complexity allows an individual to experience both negative and position emotions regularly and therefore develop better emotion regulation abilities. These findings as well ones previous to them highlight emotional complexity as a relative asset, one which may help to protect an individual from the negative effects of growing older in a society that is obsessed with staying young.

Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.

Emotional Complexity – a protective factor for anxieties relating to aging and death

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