Midlife Crisis, Depression, or Anxiety? How to Tell the Difference

midlife crisis

photo by Dylan Nolte

By Andrea Blundell

Somewhere between aged 40 to 60 and not been feeling yourself? Uncertain if it’s a midlife crisis, anxiety, or depression?

Midlife and mood disorders

A midlife crisis is a standalone issue, as are depression and anxiety.

But they can be bedmates. Midlife can involve difficult realisations about mortality and what we haven’t achieved that canlead to bouts of anxiety and/or depression

So then why does the difference matter? It’s a question of knowing when to seek support, and of what kind of support will help.

The definition of a midlife crisis

A midlife crisis is really a sort of extended identity crisis, often triggered by a life change. This could be a big birthday, loss of a loved one, redundancy, or your kids leaving home

We suddenly see ourselves from an all new perspective— that of someone whose mortality is looming closer than we thought. What have we really achieved? What matters and doesn’t? Who do we want to be with the time we have left? 

While some researchers challenge that a midlife crisis is an actual phenomenon [1] newer research suggests we might even have a genetic tendency for them. British economist David Blanchflower  studied data from across 145 countries and concluded that both humans and even primates tend to have a happiness low point in life, which in Western countries occurs around aged 47. [2]

Symptoms and signs of a midlife crisis

There can be positives to midlife. We can make commitments to new values, and to finding a more meaningful life path. But before that, we might have to work through some issues. 

Symptoms of a midlife crisis can include:

What is depression?

midlife crisis

Photo by Paolo Aguilar

Depression is a mood disorder that can vary in intensity, from mild to severe.

At its root are cognitive distortions, negative assumptions we decide are facts. These will be focused on yourself and the world, and sound like black and white, doom and gloom thoughts. “I am worthless, all I do is cause others problems, life is pointless.”

Symptoms of depression include:

So what’s the difference between depression and a midlife crisis?

Both depression and a midlife crisis can mean you have negative thoughts where you deem yourself a failure. And both can mean your thoughts are obsessed with the past.

If it’s just a midlife crisis, though, your thoughts will romanticise the past and your youth. Depression sees you feel ashamed and useless because of the past.

They both also concern thinking about yourself a lot, and your place in the world. But a midlife crisis is about who you are. Have you done enough? What is the point of your life? Who do you want to be? Depression is more about what you are – in this case, from your perspective, useless and a failure.

Depression involves more physical symptoms, and there is a definite difference in energy between the two. With depression, you feel can feel as if invisible sandbags are weighing you down. A midlife crisis can lead to bursts of energy where you make sudden decisions and act impulsively.

In this way, a midlife crisis can veer towards anxiety.

Midlife, depression, and anxiety

If you have:

  • Bouts of racing thoughts about the future and what will or won’t happen?
  • And if your thoughts become obsessive, and increasingly illogical?
  • Or you experience a very real feeling of fear?

You might have anxiety.

Anxiety is also very physical, but here it is more about muscle tension, an upset stomach, headaches, sweatiness, and a pounding heart.

Anxiety is different than depression because it is future obsessed, while depression is past obsessed and sees no future. And anxiety is fear-based while depression is about hopelessness.

The difference is again most clear on an energy level. Anxiety triggers your ‘fight flight or freeze’ response, leading to buzzy, almost manic ‘highs’, which then are followed by a crash when your adrenaline and cortisol runs out.

Are you a woman over forty with anxiety, assuming it’s down to a midlife crisis? Not so fast. It’s important to also talk to your doctor about your hormones. Perimenopause often causes anxiety

Can I have a midlife crisis, depression, AND anxiety?

Again, yes. One thing can lead to another, or you can have a mild version of one issue and a more serious case of the other.

Although note it’s important to not get hung up on the label. If you are not yourself in ways that are damaging your relationships, career, and/or ability to cope, then seek support regardless. 

If it’s only a midlife crisis, you will have comparative thoughts about how the past was better. You will feel stressed that you have done enough or been enough. Your symptoms will mostly be impulsive decisions, acting out of character, and feeling like you have to find more meaning in life. You won’t have many physical symptoms. And it might be a sporadic or short experience. 

If it’s only depression, you will have negative thoughts about the past and yourself and feel hopeless. You will physically feel in poor health and very tired. Your symptoms will go on for six weeks or more, if not for months or even years. 

If it’s just anxiety, your thoughts will be racing and future-focussed, and you will feel fearful. You will physically have signs like muscle tension and headaches.

Do I need to seek support?

Some people have a mild midlife crisis. They make one silly decision, or have a few weeks or months of being a bit reckless, then get back on track. If you have good friends and family to talk to, you might have the support you need.

Others have a prolonged midlife crisis that leads to low moods when they can’t feel that the future has a point, or have worried thoughts about what is next in life. Seeking support can be a very good idea. It can mean your moods and anxious thoughts are less likely to roll into severe depression or anxiety disorder, which are harder to treat. 

A counsellor or psychotherapist will create a safe, non judgmental and unbiased space you can say anything. And they will ask just the right questions to help you realise who you actually are, and how you can now create a life ahead you feel good being in. 

Ready to feel yourself again and like your life ahead? Contact us now to talk to one our top London-based talk therapists. Or use our booking site to find UK-wide registered therapists and online counselling


Still have a question about having a midlife crisis, depression, and anxiety? Use the comment box below. 

 

Andrea BlundellAndrea Blundell is the editor and lead writer of this site. Formerly a working screenwriter and filmmaker, she retrained in coaching and person centered therapy. She is firmly in the middle of an ongoing midlife crisis.

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Nancy L. Galambos, Shichen Fang, Harvey J. Krahn, Matthew D. Johnson, Margie E. Lachman. Up, not down: The age curve in happiness from early adulthood to midlife in two longitudinal studies.Developmental Psychology, 2015; 51 (11): 1664 DOI: 10.1037/dev0000052.

[2] Blanchflower, D.G. Is happiness U-shaped everywhere? Age and subjective well-being in 145 countries. J Popul Econ (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-020-00797-z.

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