Age-Regression and Peter Pan Syndrome

Greater Kashmir

I look into my glass,

And view my wasting skin,

And say, ‘would God it came to pass

My heart had shrunk as thin!’

Thomas Hardy

The aging process is a universal phenomenon; progressive and intrinsic. It is an inbuilt system in a human body with an auto-kick start at birth that ultimately ends up in death. Research and findings aside, no attempt forever will decelerate, cease, or overturn the procedure of getting old. Death, and ultimate decay is an answer to all the research done on the subject. Aging is not a hypothetical construct but the reality of life that remains a subject of interest for poets, authors, scientists, and psychiatrists as well. A psychological point of view about aging and death is supported by two famous poets of Urdu literature, Mirza Ghalib and Narian Chakbast; both referring to the functional decline, of a biological process of growing old, as a progressive loss of physiological integrity, leading to impaired functioning of the body. They call it a loss of balance in constituents and, at the end dispersal of all the elements of, otherwise fully organized systems of personality. Human beings like flowers pass through different stages of development, sprout and emanate, bud and bloom, wither and wane and ultimately die and dilute.

Surprisingly, Psychology and Psychiatry do not care much about ordinary opinions and common notions carried by the general public regarding age and aging, it ruthlessly labels them; awards conditions and syndromes whenever they deviate from the criteria of normality designed by these disciplines. Age-regression, Peter Pan, and Wendy syndromes are linked with aging in a different style other than the routine or normal. These conditions and syndromes are usually associated with young adults who refuse to grow up from one stage of development to other; with an arrested growth mostly at the juvenile stage, they want to remain young boys and girls devoid of responsibilities that increase with adulthood and maturation. These adults see adulthood as a problematic stage, difficult to adjust. To them, glorifying adolescence, “the state of privilege and excitement” seems an easy way out and a comfortable alternative to enjoy life. Reasons for these conditions and syndromes could be many but it is believed that over-protective and over-vigilant parents produce the best of the Peter Pans.

The condition and syndromes is prevalent in the older generation and senior citizens as well and are growing rapidly around the world.  An increasingly large number of adults are showing signs of emotional immaturity by an arrested growth at a younger stage of life. Individuals unable to deal realistically and constructively with the various problems and frustrations, conflicts, instinctual drives, and emotional needs associated with aging and death may return frequently and spontaneously to an earlier stage of life. “The old man may think, feel, and behave as old man but at the same time may manifest teenage needs.”  Sometimes it looks as if a jubilant young man is prisoned in an old skeleton that may tremble and break anytime. Amazingly, some may get fixed at oral and anal stages of development linking every action and reaction to these two parts of the body; further pulled down, an individual may become a baby, start crying, and thumb sucking, bedwetting and soiling. To avoid chronic anxiety and fear, others may create a world of their own, design mother imagery, cling to her and feel safe and secure in her lap. These old people suffering from regression show a lot of symptoms; they become fussy, highly sensitive, emotionally vulnerable, intolerant to criticism. They are unable to let go of the hurt or insult inflicted on them from any source or person. If unchecked and unavoidable, a highly triggered process of regression may result in dementia and other medical and psychiatric problems and conditions.

The reasons and causes may be many; the stressors like distressing memories from a psychological trauma, loneliness and isolation, death threat and insecurity, failure to cope with higher adjustment demands resulting from a disruption in human systems, narcissism and self-absorption, disease and decay, severity of stress due to or associated with tragic deaths in the family or among friends.

Some of the mental or physical issues make age – regression more likely and call for immediate attention. It may be a symptom of dissociative identity disorder also known as multiple or split personality disorder. People suffering from this may have a younger personality within all other distinctive splits. In such cases, psychiatric and medical treatment becomes a necessity to save the person from further distress and disease.

Regression, when used as a defense mechanism to save ego from fragmentation against anxiety, stress, trauma, and anger is seen as a positive sign by Freud and Jung. Regression could be used to help people feel younger, less stressed, and more open. Feeling young may help better brain functioning and longer living. In fact, Peter Pan syndrome is not currently considered psychopathology and is not a clinically recognized diagnosis, American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization do not consider it as a specific disorder and it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Whatever the reasons and symptoms, some of the age- regressions like ‘normal narcissistic entitlements’ should be treated as a normal vent to release anxiety and tension linked with aging and death. Keeping brain young may be considered a healthy sign but keeping heart young is delicious because no matter how haggard your body is, and how fresh your brain is; it is the heart that holds the power to turn you young.