Midlife Crisis: Signs, Causes, and Coping Tips
Feeling dissatisfied with your life as you reach middle age? Learn about the signs of a midlife crisis, the causes, and how to find peace in this stressful stage of life.
What is a midlife crisis?
“Midlife” takes place approximately between the ages of 40 and 60, give or take a few years. One common belief about this stage of life is that you should expect to face inner turmoil about your identity, life choices, and mortality — in other words, a midlife crisis.
Psychoanalyst Elliott Jacques coined the term “midlife crisis” in the 1960s. Jacques noted that patients in their mid- to late-30s seemed to go through a depressive period and sudden lifestyle changes as they confronted the idea of their own mortality. The idea of the midlife crisis being a biological certainty spread. Nowadays, it's commonly associated with stereotypes of middle-aged men buying fancy cars or ending marriages to regain a sense of youth.
It's true that some studies show a decline in life satisfaction and happiness as people reach midlife. But it's important to note that the drop in happiness isn't always large. And, in some studies, people's satisfaction with life seems to rise as they enter midlife and then decline as they enter their later years. So, for many people, “crisis” isn't the appropriate term to describe their midlife experience. In studies, only about 10 to 20 percent of adults claim to have experienced a midlife crisis.
While the idea of a midlife crisis being an inevitable reality doesn't hold much weight, some of us do face new stressors as we enter these years. You may start to regret your career path and feel trapped by your financial decisions, worry about a decline in your physical abilities, or fret about the goals you’ve missed out on.
Some people also see a shift or increase in responsibilities as they reach middle age. You might begin taking care of an aging parent, or have to accept that your children are becoming more independent, for example.
Depending on your circumstances and outlook, it can be a stressful and confusing time. But midlife can also be a time of growth, stability, and joy. Learning the signs and causes of a midlife crisis can help you identify ways to handle common stressors that come with this time of your life and find ways to move forward and thrive.
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Signs of a midlife crisis
The severity of midlife crisis symptoms can vary from person to person. Gender can also play a role in how a midlife crisis unfolds. Women may be more likely to go through a period of self-reflection as they shift away from tending to the needs of others to tending to their own needs. Men, on the other hand, might be more likely to feel as if their past decisions have limited their future options.
Here are some signs to watch for:
Deep sadness and regret. Perhaps you ruminate over perceived missed opportunities in relationships or employment. This leads to a deep unhappiness with the present and a tendency to overlook the good aspects of your life.
Restlessness and daydreaming. You might feel bored or exhausted with your daily routine, whether that includes your work schedule or other responsibilities. Perhaps you start daydreaming about what life would be like if you had followed a different career path or married a different partner. The desire for change can make it hard to focus on what's in front of you.
Irritability. Feeling like your past decisions have boxed you in or limited your potential can lead to sudden bouts of anger. You might grow annoyed with your spouse, aging parents, or closest friends for minor infractions.
Nostalgia. Rather than focus on the positives of the present, you begin to idealize your past lifestyle. Maybe you reminisce about how athletic you used to be or how expansive your social circle was in college.
Impulsive and indulgent behavior. You might start making big purchases or increase alcohol and drug use to cope with feelings of discontentment. Some people start indulging more in food, overeating out of boredom or stress. None of these behaviors completely satisfy you, but they can have health consequences.
Changes in sexual desire. Some people experience a spike in sexual desire, while others have a decreased interest in sex. You might entertain thoughts of infidelity or engage in infidelity as you have doubts about your current relationship. Thoughts of dating someone younger might be tied to your own insecurities about aging.
Changes in ambition. You might suddenly feel motivated to make changes to your life, such as moving to a new area, buying a new home, or attaining a higher position at work. This could be an attempt to correct what you now perceive as “bad past decisions.” On the other hand, you might feel less motivated to reach for other goals as you begin to question the purpose of your life.
Some of these signs may be easily mistaken for symptoms of depression. Knowing the difference can help you address the problem.
|Depression vs. Midlife crisis|
|Diagnosable mood disorder with an established list of diagnostic criteria||Not a recognized medical or psychiatric condition|
|Symptoms can occur in people of any age, including teenagers and older adults||Signs occur in middle adulthood|
|Often caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors||Caused by a person's revaluation of their own life as they age|
|Symptoms may be more persistent or severe||A sense of dissatisfaction may come and go throughout midlife|
|Treatment may involve medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes||Symptoms may subside when you regain a sense of peace in your life's direction|
Causes of midlife crisis
The idea of midlife crisis might be partially or mostly shaped by cultural views. It's worth keeping in mind that not all cultures subscribe to the concept of a midlife crisis, or even midlife.
Western society, though, tends to paint physical aging in a negative light, while glorifying youth. An overemphasis on senility and reduced physical abilities can make aging seem like a scary prospect. And it's not hard to find products promising to reduce “unsightly” wrinkles and gray hair, implying that you're becoming less attractive with age.
Negativity around aging might make you feel a sense of despair or a drop in self-esteem as you reach midlife. You might feel compelled to reevaluate your progress in life or view this time period as simply a transition into old age.
Of course, very concrete stressors or setbacks during adulthood can also exacerbate or trigger what you might consider a midlife crisis. These stressors could involve changes to your physical health, social relationships, career, or finances.
Maybe you're not as spry as you used to be. You might even be more susceptible to illnesses or diagnosed with a condition like high blood pressure. These physical changes can make you feel disheartened or fearful of the future.
Women will experience menopause, which comes with a variety of symptoms, such as hot flashes, changes in mood, and difficulty sleeping. All of these may contribute to an increase in overall stress.
Men may experience a gradual decline in testosterone as they age beyond 30 or 40 years old. However, factors such as illness, alcohol abuse, medication side effects, and increased body fat can also decrease testosterone. Low testosterone can lead to distressing symptoms such as depression, low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and difficulty sleeping.
Changing family dynamics
In midlife, many parents experience empty nest syndrome — a feeling of grief tied to their children moving out of the house. You might experience loneliness or feelings of emptiness as you reassess your role as a parent and refocus on yourself.
You might also experience changes in your relationship with your parents. Taking on a caretaker role for aging parents can be physically and emotionally stressful. And the passing of a parent can be incredibly heartbreaking.
A divorce is another event that might contribute to a tumultuous midlife. Separating from a long-time partner can lead to conflicting emotions such as sadness, anger, and confusion. If you have children, divorce can also complicate your family dynamics.
A 2019 survey by Indeed revealed that, on average, people who change careers do so at 39 years old. Many people are juggling new work responsibilities as they enter midlife. If you don't switch careers, you might reach more senior positions at your current job. Even if those positions offer higher pay, they will come with new responsibilities that increase your stress.
Other middle-aged adults find that their career is plateauing. Repetition in your daily tasks might contribute to a lack of fulfillment in the workplace.
Changes in financial situation
Many of the aforementioned events can affect your financial stability. You might need to spend more money as you act as a caretaker for your parents. Or perhaps switching careers requires you to reduce your spending. Job loss and sudden changes in the labor market can also cause financial strain at a time when you feel you should be more secure.
If you have adult children who are experiencing financial hardship, you might contend with additional stress. Research shows that middle-aged parents have increased anxiety and depressed mood when their children's economic future appears to be in jeopardy.
Childhood adversity as a risk factor
Certain childhood experiences can increase the risk of health consequences even as you reach adulthood. These health factors may then make your midlife more stressful, contributing to a sense of crisis.
For example, experiencing the death of a parent as a child can increase the likelihood of depression later in life. Growing up in poverty might increase the risk of chronic stress and heart disease in adulthood. Being treated poorly by your parents or seeing them go through a divorce can have similar negative effects.
These consequences aren't set in stone, however. Various coping strategies can help you manage midlife stressors as well as see past society's often-negative interpretation of the aging process.
Navigating a midlife crisis tip 1: Accept change
Change is inevitable as you age, and making peace with that is vital to finding satisfaction in middle adulthood. An adaptive approach to life will help you adjust to changes and cultivate emotional resilience.
Acknowledge your feelings. Suppressing your emotions can lead to unhealthily coping strategies and increase stress. Instead of burying your feelings, find ways to process them. Whether you're feeling frustrated and confused by a divorce or stressed out by finances, consider writing down your feelings in a journal or using HelpGuide’s Emotional Intelligence Toolkit. A trusted friend can also serve as an outlet for emotions.
Identify and accept circumstances that are beyond your control. If you feel stressed by a situation, question whether there's anything you can do to change it. Accept your limitations, and try to narrow your focus to things that are within your control. For example, rather than dwell on the fact that your children are becoming more independent and moving away from home, brainstorm ways to expand your social circle.
Ease into new situations. It's easy to feel overwhelmed by big changes and new roles. Take time to map out the road ahead and break large challenges down into small steps. Perhaps you're stepping into a caretaking role for an aging father. Begin by making a list of tasks that he needs help with immediately. Once you get comfortable handling those tasks, you can gradually expand your list.
Tip 2: Maintain a sense of purpose
Situations like divorce, job loss, or an empty nest might leave you searching for a sense of purpose as you reach middle age. It might be tempting to conclude that your best years are behind you. However, that sentiment doesn't have to be true. Use the following suggestions to find meaning in midlife and beyond.
Try out something new. Experiment with a new hobby, such as photography or creative writing. Or challenge yourself with a foreign language class. Doing so will help keep your brain sharp, expand your social circle, and give your life a new purpose. You don't have to limit yourself to skill-building experiences. Exploring new places can also be a fulfilling use of your time. Consider visiting local parks and art exhibits, or plan out longer trips to foreign locations.
Engage old interests. Take some time to reflect on past interests and neglected hobbies. You might want to get back into acting, painting, bowling, or some other activity you used to enjoy. This is a good way to build a sense of purpose, boost your self-esteem, and meet new friends.
Embrace community activities. Volunteering is way to give your life meaning, increase happiness, and improve mental health as you enter midlife. Look for causes that are important to you and opportunities to put your skills to good use. You might decide to mentor in a youth program, for example, assist with set design for a local performance, or organize a cultural festival.
Tip 3: Prioritize self-care
Midlife will likely bring changes to your body, sleep habits, and relationship with food. Maybe you have a harder time falling asleep or running at the same pace. Rather than feeling discouraged by these changes, it's important to dedicate a little extra time to developing and maintaining healthy habits. It's never too late to incorporate the following tips.
Set realistic exercise goals. If you were never a very active person, start slow and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts. You won't have to struggle with past injuries from sports, and that can be a major benefit. If you were an athlete when you were younger, remember to set realistic goals and expectations. Don't fall into the habit of comparing your current abilities to your past abilities. Instead, focus on reaping the benefits of exercise:
- Sharpens cognitive functioning.
- Reduces risk of anxiety and depression.
- Improves sleep.
- Aids in weight loss or management.
- Reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, and some cancers.
- Slows loss of bone density.
- Strengthens muscle.
Reassess your diet. As you enter midlife, it's more important than ever to replace bad eating habits with healthier alternatives. Swap out refined carbs with whole-grain foods as well as fruits and veggies that offer plenty of fiber. Look for healthy sources of calcium and protein to maintain strong bones and muscles. Be mindful of your relationship with food. Even middle-aged adults may struggle with issues like emotional eating in response to stress and eating disorders in response to poor body image.
Get enough sleep. Health conditions, hormonal changes, and daily stressors can make it hard to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. But that shouldn't stop you from trying. Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet. Experiment with pre-bed rituals, such as reading a book or taking a relaxing bath. Make a note of what seems to work best for you.
Tip 4: Adjust your perception of midlife and aging
If you focus exclusively on the negatives, you'll find plenty of reasons to be unhappy in midlife. But remember that every stage of life comes with its share of ups and downs. Use the following strategies to shift your focus to the positive aspects of midlife.
Practice gratitude. Are there aspects of your life that you’re taking for granted? Take time to appreciate the people in your life and the circumstances you find yourself in. Make a list of what you’re thankful for — your parents’ longevity, your children’s growth, a stable job, financial independence.
Look to your accomplishments. For some people, midlife is a time of reflecting on missed opportunities. Counter these thoughts by making a list of your accomplishments. Think about the obstacles you’ve overcome, honors you’ve been awarded, or the positive effect you’ve had on others. Reflect on the wise decisions you’ve made and actions you’ve taken, rather than your regrets.
Ask yourself, “How have I grown?” Research shows that many middle-aged adults view themselves as more decisive, responsible, and independent than their younger selves. In addition, self-consciousness tends to decline with age. Take time to appreciate your growth while accepting that there is still room for improvement.
Reframe setbacks as opportunities for growth. Whether or not you consider yourself in the midst of a midlife crisis, you'll experience all sorts of setbacks in adulthood. However, when viewed in an optimistic light, setbacks can be opportunities to learn and grow. If you feel as if your career has plateaued, challenge yourself to develop skills you can put to use at a new job or volunteering position. If you're disheartened by an expanding waistline, think of it as motivation to embrace new and exciting forms of physical activity.
How to help someone experiencing a midlife crisis
Watching a spouse or partner go through a midlife crisis can be difficult. You might question if you've played a role in their unhappiness. Or you might start to fear that your relationship is in jeopardy as your partner reevaluates their life choices.
In the end, your partner is responsible for their own emotions and actions during this difficult time. However, you can use the following steps to offer support.
Listen without judging. Your partner might want to air grievances about missed opportunities or voice their dissatisfaction about changes in family roles or finances. Be an active listener, but don't feel pressured to solve their problems for them. Don't minimize their problems or offer advice in the form of “You should…” statements, such as “You should just exercise more.”
Be receptive to potential changes in your relationship. Your partner might want to try new things in the bedroom to revitalize their interest in sex. Or maybe they want to make a financial decision that could affect the rest of the family. Work with them to find compromises that are comfortable for both of you.
Keep an eye out for signs of depression. Midlife crisis and depression have some common symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, insomnia, irritability, and reckless behavior. If the symptoms are persistent and show up every day, it's more likely to be depression.
Spend more time together. When possible, try to join your partner as they incorporate self-care habits. You might decide to go on bike rides together or work together to make healthier eating decisions. You can also join them in exploring new hobbies, but if they want to do these activities alone, be respectful of their space.
Affirm success and express appreciation. Let your partner know that you're proud of their accomplishments and point out specific reasons why you appreciate them. Maybe they excel at work or handle their new caregiving responsibilities with grace and humor. Draw their attention to reasons they can feel proud of their progress in life.
Not everyone experiences a midlife crisis, but those who do can benefit from coping skills and your emotional support. All of this will not only help them navigate the current crisis but also help them find satisfaction later in life as well.
Author: Sheldon Reid
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Last updated: December 30, 2022