"I don't want to grow up."
These six words comprise what may be the most universally understood human desire.
Most of us experience the looming and abstract fear of finding a good job and paying bills — hallmarks of adulthood. But for one 14-year-old in Mexico, this fear manifests in a more profound way than wanting to stay in high school forever, or "forgetting" to take that college requirement that would land you a diploma.
Instead, it has taken a very real toll on his health.
And it's not just in his head. He has a clinical condition called gerascophobia, the official name for the fear of aging. A team of researchers in Mexico explain this condition in their study, published this month in Case Reports in Psychiatry. As it turns out, it's among a list of the most poorly understood phobias.
The science: Fear is thought be controlled by three parts of the brain that work together as a danger-response system. This system regulates how we respond to danger (think fight-or-flight). Over time, our brain develops a pattern of responding to things that scare us most. For instance, we might get sweaty palms when meeting someone new, or goosebumps when about to give a speech before tons of strangers. When this danger response system causes us to react to fear in a debilitating way, it becomes a phobia.
Meet the primary subject of the scientific research on gerascophobia. His symptoms are severe and numerous: He eats very little out of fear that food contains nutrients that will spur his physical development. He stoops to hide his height. He changes his voice so it is softer and more high-pitched. He searches the Internet with the hope of learning how not to ejaculate out of fear of reaching sexual maturity. He is deeply fearful of growing pubic hair, and he cries when people make remarks that he is getting taller.
"He was able to carry on extreme measures, such as faking his voice and posture non-stop for almost 2 years, with total commitment, in order to hide his growth," Dr. Laurencia Perales-Blum, co-author of the report, told Mic.
Doctors believe there is no single cause for the boy's phobia. Rather, it may be the result of many factors, including his history of sexual abuse, bullying and battling an anxiety disorder.
A new epidemic? Not so much. According to the National Institutes of Health, specific phobias like this one affect 8.7% of Americans. "There have only been two other cases of gerascophobia," writes the team at the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon in Mexico. As a result, there are no clinically proven ways to treat it. In the case of the Mexican teen, the doctors enrolled him in therapy to help him validate his fears, show him empathy and give him the tools to cope with his condition. They also prescribed medication to help treat his anxiety.
Since starting treatment, he has shown a marketable improvement in health and happiness. "He is able to imagine a future, living on his own and working as an actor, and this is an idea he likes," the team reports.
We all get worried. And that's okay. Perales-Blum wants people to understand the complexity of phobias, and that while they can have a devastating effect on our daily lives, they are ultimately treatable. "The usefulness of a holistic approach, where the assertion, 'The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,' is taken into consideration when analyzing human behavior."
Our brains are wired to respond to danger, but phobias or traumatic events can teach our brains to react strongly to very specific situations. Usually, the source of a phobia is unknown. Most people can't explain their irrational fear of snakes, or spiders or clowns.
In the same way, it's difficult to pin down the exact reason we sometimes we get nostalgic for the good old cartoon-filled days of our childhood. The key is not letting the anxiety get the best of us and remembering that the best things, like wine, cheese and whiskey, get better with age.