Throughout the month, we've talked a lot about how to effectively cope with change, from big events in our lives to small disruptions to our daily routine. We may have even started to feel a bit more open towards the new. Yet many of us struggle to get to grips with the slow but constant changes we live everyday with: the changes in ourselves, our bodies and minds as we get older. Keep reading as Martina, our Thinkingwell expert, discusses the personal changes we face throughout our life spans and how to manage these.
We experience changes in ourselves everyday: most of the little differences just get ignored, while we're more aware of those changes that are meaningful for us. We probably all remember the time when we spotted our very first grey hair on our head and symbolically fixed this moment in our mind as the moment when we started to age.
We start to ‘age’ from the very first moment we get to life, and the biggest changes that our body went through happened in the first years of our life and culminated with adolescence.
But we face changes as a natural part of ageing in our bodies, brains and minds. So let's take a look.
Our ever changing body
Changes to our body don’t stop after adolescence to restart at an older age, but we deal with them on a daily basis, a slow process softly shaping us and determining who we become next.
Most of these changes are naturally part of our life and common to all of us, but the way we experience them differs from individual to individual. For example, all women will experience menopause at some point of their life. For some may come earlier, for some later. Some may be affected by big changes to their body functionality that can have a significant impact on our daily living and our mental wellbeing, while others may just go through the change smoothly and with little impact.
Interestingly, in our thirties most of us will experience lower energy in our body: some of us will just need to slow down the pace of life a bit, others might try to live like we're still in our twenties till we're too exhausted to keep up, others will just feel like retiring as soon as possible!
The key is to make peace with time passing. Being resistant to the natural changes that time brings to our bodies can lead us to uncomfortable feelings, like going against the current ina river and getting swept under. If we go with the flow instead, and accept that time will naturally shape us, we will not live the change as a traumatic event, but as a part of our big story.
It’s about our self image. If we build a very fixed and rigid image of ourselves, it will always tend to be unrealistic, as it's impossible to maintain it over time, and it is more likely to be shaped to mirror an unrealistic model rather than ourselves. If we build a fluid and flexible image of ourselves instead, change will be included as a part of our image from the beginning. For example, if we strictly identify ourselves as a young person, we may struggle to accept ourselves getting older. If we can imagine ourselves at different ages, without losing our own identity, it will be easier for us to accept the changes that time will bring to us.
And this is not just about our lifetime changes. We can experience body changes at any time, like putting on some weight, having an injury or accidentally getting a hair colour we didn’t plan! Self-acceptance doesn’t mean we cannot proactively work towards changing ourselves in the way we would like to: it’s ok if we decide to go back to a lower weight if that’s healthier for us, to go to a hairdresser to repair the messy colour made at home, and certainly is good to recover after an injury with support. But the point is, be realistic, and don’t let any changes that we cannot revert compromise the image we have of ourselves. We might just need to accept a few more inches round the waist, or we might need to give up the full marathons and opt for jogging these days. And that’s ok, it’s adapting to life, not a change to who we are.
We live in a society that's quite heavily fixed on our apppearance, image, identity and performance and so these changes can be hard to accept and welcome, which can have a bigger impact on our wellbeing. but our brain's also go through changes.
Our brain changes as well
Our brain changes throughout our lifespan and so do our cognitive abilities. Our key cognitive abilities develop from birth throughout the young age, coming to a full development in our 20s. Then they plateau until our 50s (approximately), when they start to decline as a part of the natural ageing process.
However, this is not a deterministic process, as so many different factors have an influence on how our mental skills change across the lifespan, such as education, lifestyle habits and the level of stimulation and training we provide to our brain on a daily basis.
We'll all feel our mental speed, attention or memory are not as strong as thye used to be at some point, and this is part of the natural ageing processes of our brain, but the level of impact this has on our daily activities varies individually. It can be difficult to accept the changes we experience in our mental abilities, or the fact that we now struggle to reach our peak performance that we had some decades ago. This again is about the expectations we have for ourselves and the self-image we have built.
Accepting change means adjusting our goals and plans to what’s realistically achievable for us at a specific time in our lives, and also to be open to explore new abilities we have developed with time, which become new powerful resources.
In fact, not all our mental abilities decline with age, but some improve instead. This is the case of skills linked to knowledge and experience, such as wisdom, which gets stronger over time as we grow older. For example, we might have been fast thinkers and problem solvers in our young age, the ones who can always provide a solution by just thinking on their feet. As we aged, we felt this ability decreasing, needing time to sit down and think about a problem and carefully evaluate options. If we had a fixed image of ourselves, this might be perceived as a defeat and could lead us to feeling insecure and deflated. If we have an open and fluid image of ourselves instead, we can perceive this as a natural change of our problem solving style, able to capitalise on our new abilities, such as learning from experience, reflection and wisdom.
Accepting our changing minds
So often we are scared of change happening to ourselves just because we are scared of what other people might think of us as a consequence. We worry about being consistent in the image of ourselves we give to others, to the point that even when we are well-aware of changes that have happened in us, we make an effort to try to maintain an unchanged public image.
This occurs not only for the body and brain changes we experience throughout our life, as described above, but also for changes that we made intentionally, or that we are happy about.
During our life we often change mindsets, interests, hobbies, or even traits of our personality, becoming less shy, more self-confident, or perhaps more reserved and introverted. Whether they’re part of a self-development pathway, or just a change in our tastes, or from learning new perspectives or trying new things. For example, your gym mate dropped your classes because they started playing badminton instead. Or your partner got tired of watching police TV series at night and started to get interested in Japanese literature. A colleague started to be more assertive and stopped avoiding conflict. Your son decided to drop their university engineering course to study nursing instead. Do any of these really make a difference in what that person represents for us, or do we just acknowledge the change, even if sometimes with surprise, and go from there?
The problem of identity of self
Our self-image, the one we have about ourselves and the one to give out to others, represents our personal identity, in other words, who we are. And we could become fearful of change when it could compromise our identity, no longer feeling ourselves.
Identity is a tricky word as it might suggest being identical all the time in order to always be the same person. But we know that this is not actually true, neither for our body nor for our mind. Our own skin cells renew themself completely on a monthly basis, so physically we are not exactly the same as we were last month. Our thoughts are the product of different interactions of billions of neurons in our brain, constantly forming new connections.
What’s true is that our personal identity is a mosaic of many different pieces rather than a static image. Throughout our life, the pieces of the mosaic change constantly, without losing the bigger picture of our self. It doesn’t matter if a single tile of a mosaic is swapped with one of a different colour, does it? After so many swaps of tiles also the big picture could look a bit different, that’s true, but we can still recognise ourselves in there.
Ultimately, what makes us remain ourselves despite any changes that our body and our mind can make throughout the lifespan is the continuity of our and others’ memory, and the narrative that is made out of it. After all, we are a story that we build during our entire life, and every change happening to us just makes our own story more interesting.