Experiencing a midlife crisis can be a very real and serious thing. While it’s normal and expected to go through various life transitions, a midlife crisis can make you question your identity and priorities. It can also cause serious problems in your self-esteem and relationships, but professional counseling can help.
What Is a Midlife Crisis?
A midlife crisis refers to a period of emotional distress someone may experience due to their passing youth. Although it isn’t a specific clinical disorder, experts agree that midlife crises can exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety.
Most people experience some discomfort around getting older. This is especially true when you undergo major changes, like the death of a parent or becoming empty nesters. But a midlife crisis can result in feelings of being lost, depressed, or stagnant.
Midlife Crisis Age Range
Midlife crises can start anywhere from the late-thirties to mid-fifties. They may accompany a significant life event such as a change in career or divorce. Or it can develop when you begin to compare your life to your peers and feel as though you are behind in terms of personal and professional growth. It might also emerge due to stress or becoming more aware of your mortality.
Is Midlife Crisis Real?
It turns out that there is good evidence to support the idea of a midlife crisis. The term, first coined by a psychologist, has been around for nearly 60 years.1 Middle age is a time of great transition and uncertainty in life, so the crisis is a natural state. People may question the experience because everyone will have a unique age of onset and symptoms.
Signs of a Midlife Crisis
A midlife crisis will look different for everyone. That said, understanding the common signs can help you recognize if you’re struggling. It’s important to acknowledge and validate these reactions rather than dismiss them as temporary or dramatic.
Some signs that you or a loved one may be experiencing a midlife crisis include:
- Feeling apathetic, numb, or generally ‘blah’ about things in life
- Excess indecisiveness (which can result in procrastination)
- Experiencing more jealousy and envy towards others
- Pervasive feelings of unfulfillment or emptiness
- Making sudden and dramatic changes in your appearance
- Acting impulsively (buying a new car or house, making a rash business decision)
- Intense nostalgia for the past
- Ongoing disturbances about regrets you have
- Marital infidelity or pervasive thoughts about infidelity
- Career dissatisfaction
- Lack of motivation to engage in usual hobbies or relationships
- Feeling trapped in your life
Midlife Crisis Symptoms
Someone in the midst of a midlife crisis could display symptoms of the experience like:
- Increased sadness and depression
- Irritability and frustration
- Either sleeping too much or not enough
- Changes in diet, hunger, and weight
- Spending more time with different groups of people or beginning to socially isolate
- Blaming other people for how you feel
- Limited self-care
Midlife Crisis in Men vs Women
Men and women often experience midlife crises differently. For instance, a man often focuses on outward success and achievement. On the other hand, women during midlife crises might be more prone to worrying about their appearance, sexual attractiveness, and empty-nest syndrome.2
Midlife Crisis in Men
Men in midlife have often spent years focusing on work and establishing a professional identity. The reality of potentially losing momentum in the workplace can feel threatening and may lead to an identity crisis. Likewise, they may also fear changes associated with slowing, or settling down (getting married, having a family, taking care of ailing family members).
Midlife Crisis in Women
Women often experience midlife crises around menopause, which can exacerbate physical and psychological symptoms.3 If the woman had children, it can be challenging to adjust to their children growing up and leaving home. She may experience feelings of emptiness. Simultaneously, she might also feel excited and relieved to do all the things she neglected while parenting.
Midlife Crisis Stages
All midlife crises do not happen the same way, but many will experience the process in three distinct stages. Learning to identify and understand the stages can help minimize the crisis.
1. The Trigger
The trigger is the event that sets the crisis in motion. For some people, the trigger is a singular event like a birthday, death, or career change. For other people, it is the culmination of environmental, emotional, and physical changes that trigger the event.
2. The Crisis
With midlife crises, there is sure to be a reaction, but the type of reaction will depend on the individual. The crisis could result in bold, impulsive moves, or in shutting down and isolation. In all cases, the crisis will shift the person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions towards a polarized and extreme version of themselves.
The final stage of the crisis, the resolution, marks the end of the experience. The resolution may come all at once in a sudden change, or it could transpire over a long period as someone adjusts to their life changes.
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How Long Does a Midlife Crisis Last?
The crisis could last a few days, weeks, or months with more problems being linked to longer crises. People would certainly like a shorter crisis as opposed to a longer one. Some crises will have a clear beginning and end, while others will gradually fade in and fade out with time. Many people may not recognize their crisis has ended until well after it has concluded.
The Happiness Slump
Rather than referring to this stage of midlife as a crisis, some prefer the term “happiness slump,” since crisis may seem too strong a term for what many experience. The happiness slump represents a common and normal period of decreased happiness during midlife. Experts believe this slump is due to the high expectations younger people have of their accomplishments in midlife. When midlife comes, they feel dissatisfied by their state, so their happiness shrinks.4
What Causes Midlife Crises?
Most experts agree that midlife crises don’t have a single cause. Instead, several factors may increase the likelihood of experiencing this issue. By the time you reach middle age, you’ve probably experienced some trauma, grief, or severe hardships. These difficulties are unavoidable, but they can be incredibly painful. They may leave you with persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Some people cope via denial (acting as if it never happened). Others find themselves consumed with regret or anguish.
Other triggers of a midlife crisis might include:
You might be grayer, heavier, slower, and more forgetful as you get older. Your body is changing due to normal aging, but you may not be comfortable with the process and its impact, so you may be self-conscious about your body image.
Changing Family Dynamics
During midlife, many people find themselves pulled between the older and younger generations. Perhaps your kids need you less, but your parents need you more, which changes your role and responsibilities within the family.
Midlife is a natural time of career change as people are returning to or reinvesting energy into work as their kids are grown. Others will be frustrated by their station at work, wishing they were more accomplished or successful.
Changes in Financial Situation
Mortgages, car payments, college for the kids, and care for the parents means that money may not go as far as it once did and feel the weight of financial stress. Other people may finally have the financial security they worked for, but they can’t find anything meaningful to spend it on.
Going Through a Divorce
As people age and the kids move out, relationships may struggle to adjust and find levels of happiness. Divorce rates can be quite high during midlife.
Midlife Crisis vs. Depression
Some people assume they are having midlife crises when they are really experiencing clinical depression. It’s essential to understand the difference between the two issues. Depression is a serious illness that can fundamentally affect your emotional and physical well-being. Unlike a midlife crisis, depression isn’t a phase, and it isn’t necessarily triggered by a certain event or milestone.
In some cases, a midlife crisis can trigger depression, and the reverse can also be true. Underlying depression may exacerbate the struggles faced during the middle years. Likewise, some symptoms overlap, and it’s possible to experience both depression and a midlife crisis at the same time.
Common symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent sadness that lasts for most or all of the day
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Feeling worthless or excessively guilty
- Having trouble with concentration and focus
- Loss of energy
- Changes in appetite
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
If you are concerned that you are struggling with depression, consult with your primary care physician or a mental health professional. It can be challenging, but depression is treatable. Many people benefit from engaging in psychotherapy, medication, healthy lifestyle changes, or a combination of different methods.5
Midlife Crisis vs. Dementia
At times, the signs and symptoms of a midlife crisis may overlap with dementia. The most significant point of differentiation between the two is who is noticing the changes. Frequently, the person has clear insight and awareness of their midlife crisis, but they may not notice the signs of dementia beginning and a family member may be the first to point out a problem.
Positive Aspects of a Midlife Crisis
People often reevaluate their life and their priorities during a midlife crisis. While this introspection may be eye-opening, that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Self-awareness can lead to profound change, resulting in happier and healthier personal mindsets and choices.
Similarly, a midlife crisis may encourage you to take healthier risks in life. For instance, if you’ve always dreamed of publishing a book, you may experience the surge of energy to start writing. Or, if you experience tremendous grief after the loss of a loved one, you might start spending more time with your own children.
Ideally, a midlife crisis can introduce you to having a more open and curious mind. People often realize they have been running on auto-pilot for many years (or decades), and this kind of awakening can help you shift how you live your life.
How to Deal With a Midlife Crisis
A midlife crisis does not have to be debilitating. It also doesn’t need to define your next course of action. You can learn to cope with this transitional time and come out stronger and happier.
If you have identified that you’re struggling with a midlife crisis, here are ten tips to consider:
1. Identify What’s Happening
This may sound simple, but the profound act of acknowledging that you’re struggling is probably the most important step. If you continue to deny your mortality (or the changes associated with life), you might continue to feel sad, resentful, or lost. But by accepting what’s going on and accepting the intense emotions, you allow yourself the space to reflect on what you need to do next.
2. Focus on Staying Present
Midlife can be hard, especially if you’re ruminating over events in the past or obsessing about what may happen in the future. The more you can embrace the present, the more peace and calmness you can experience.
Try to integrate mindfulness by meditation, single-task activities, gratitude, and active listening. Even just a few deep breaths and reminding yourself to focus on this moment can make a tremendous difference.6
3. Practice More Emotional Self-Care
Self-care refers to engaging in conscious acts of self-compassion. Self-care isn’t selfish- it’s an essential part of your emotional well-being. During stressful times, it’s even more important to implement self-care into your daily routine.
You can practice self-care in many ways, including:
- Journaling about your feelings
- Reaching out for support from loved ones
- Engaging in your favorite hobbies
- Making time for calm and quiet
4. Practice More Physical Self-Care
Taking care of your body can be just as helpful as taking care of your mind. You can practice physical self-care by:
- Engaging in physical activity that you enjoy
- Eating a well-rounded diet full of nutritious foods
- Following a regular sleep schedule and allowing your body to rest when needed
- Take an extra-long bath or shower to pamper yourself
5. Pause for 72 Hours
If you’re feeling tempted to purchase a new car or quit your job, pause and reflect on your desires. What needs are you trying to fill? What problems are you attempting to escape? What are you hoping this new change will bring in your life?
There’s nothing wrong with making positive changes in your life. But impulsivity can lead to long-term consequences, and it can exacerbate feelings of shame and regret. If you feel the urge to do something drastic, write it down, evaluate the pros and cons, and revisit it at least three days later.
6. Try Volunteering
Volunteering allows you to focus on other causes and people instead of your own problems. Whether you choose to volunteer at a homeless shelter or clean up the beach, it’s a fantastic way to give back and meet new people.
Subsequently, volunteering can also give you perspective on life. It can help you feel more appreciative for what you have. Furthermore, volunteering is associated with many benefits including self-confidence, sense of purpose, and increased happiness.7
7. Decrease Social Media Use
Scrolling through Facebook or Twitter may feel addictive, but it isn’t helping your mental health. Research shows that social media can aggravate symptoms of depression, insecurity, anxiety, and low self-esteem.8
Social media can perpetuate the FOMO (fear of missing out) phenomenon, resulting in you comparing your life to everyone else’s. However, social media only tells the partial truth- most people significantly enhance their digital lives by only displaying their successes.
Instead, consider cutting down or eliminating your consumption. You can start by uninstalling the apps or notifications on your phone. Or, you can set specific time limits for how long you will spend using these platforms each day.
8. Do Something Different
Getting through a midlife crisis isn’t all about restraint and control! It’s okay to take risks and make meaningful changes in your life. You just want to do this responsibly and thoughtfully.
Think about something you’ve always wanted to try. Whether it’s scuba diving or visiting Africa, can you make a plan to make that dream come true? If so, give yourself the permission to make it happen!
9. Stay Social
If your instinct is to isolate and turn inwards, do your best to stay social. Connect with new, healthy supports and reinvest more time and energy towards long-term relationships. Being with friends and loved ones can help you stay grounded and appreciative of what you do have.
10. Search for Gratitude
A midlife crisis is all about feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. Searching for gratitude can help counteract these tendencies and keep you focused on your accomplishments and goals for the future. They may not come naturally, so you might have to dig deep for examples, but practicing this frequently can help you notice the good things more in your everyday life.
Signs It’s Time to Get Help for a Midlife Crisis
Many people navigate through midlife crises without severe disruptions to their daily life. That said, if you’re struggling with feeling lost, disconnected, sad, or angry during this time, you might benefit from seeing a therapist.
Some other signs that you could benefit from professional support include:
- Experiencing problems in your relationships that don’t seem to have much resolution
- Worsening self-esteem
- Using drugs, alcohol, or other vices to escape your emotions
- Experiencing co-occurring medical or psychological issues
- Feeling suicidal
Keep in mind that you don’t inherently need a specific reason to reach out for help. Therapy can provide a safe and nonjudgmental environment for you to process your emotions. It will also teach you productive coping skills for managing challenging symptoms.
Getting Help for a Midlife Crisis
When exploring the options for professional help, you can opt between individual, couples, or family therapy. Some people prefer a combination of different therapies- it depends on your particular circumstances. You may also benefit from specific support groups related to current struggles you’re experiencing. Let’s compare and contrast these various options.
Individual therapy can be helpful for processing your feelings, exploring new stressors, and receiving general support. The focus is solely dedicated to you. When working through a midlife crisis, individual therapy allows you to discuss how to cope with your situation effectively. Individual therapy also treats other mental health concerns, including trauma, depression, or anxiety. Because these issues often go hand-in-hand with midlife crises, having that support can be invaluable.
Many couples face roadblocks during the middle years. These issues may emerge due to conflicts related to work, family obligations, health issues, and relationship boredom. Couples therapy can help you and your partner learn healthier ways to communicate and restore intimacy. Couples therapy isn’t just for couples on the brink of divorce. Many couples choose therapy to offer a general tune-up for their relationship. Speaking with a neutral professional allows you both to evaluate how you two relate to one another.
Family therapy can be helpful if you’re struggling with issues related to parenting, boundaries, or mental illness in one or more family members. This can be especially beneficial if you have a rocky relationship with one or more of your children. Family therapy isn’t about assigning blame. It’s about giving each family member time to adequately express their feelings and needs. Through this process, the family unit learns how to work together to solve problems and increase positive communication.
There are numerous groups that can help you if you’re struggling with a midlife crisis.
Many clinics, hospitals, or therapists in private practice facilitate groups on topics related to:
- Women’s or men’s issues
- Chronic illness
- Specific mental illness (depression, anxiety, etc.)
- Grief and bereavement
How to Help a Loved One Going Through a Midlife Crisis
If someone you know is experiencing a midlife crisis, you can be a supportive ally during this time.
Some ways to support someone going through a midlife crisis include:
Normalize & Validate Their Feelings
Even if you don’t personally relate to their experiences, that doesn’t make their feelings any less real. If a loved one confides in you about how they feel, make it a point to listen closely, ask reflective questions as needed, and maintain an open mind.
Avoid Giving Generic Advice
It’s rarely helpful to tell someone what they should or shouldn’t do. Instead of giving advice, aim to give support. If they ask you for your direct advice, remind them that you can only speak on behalf of what works for you or someone else you know.
Check In On Them Regularly
Make the effort to maintain the relationship. You don’t just have to talk about the struggles of midlife! See if they want to try a new activity together. You can oscillate between keeping your conversations heavy and serious and light and enjoyable.
Final Thoughts on Midlife Crises
What you are experiencing right now is inherently unique. However, you’re not alone. If you or a loved one are going through a midlife crisis, reaching out to a mental health professional—or even a trusted loved one—can make a tremendous difference. You deserve to navigate this transition with ease and grace.