Having a Midlife Crisis: A Help Guide
The term 'midlife crisis' refers to a period of emotional and mental duress that can hit during middle age. Its trigger tends to be a combination of realising that life is halfway over and experiencing a substantial life change, such as a birthday that ends in a zero, a child leaving home, a marriage ending, or a parent dying. A midlife crisis can also be connected to hormonal and brain changes that happen with ageing.
While research points to people experiencing a midlife crisis as early as their 30s, they are more commonly experienced aged 41 to 60. How long a midlife crisis lasts is dependent on the individual, who will have their own unique life challenges and methods of coping.
A midlife crisis can be very overwhelming, leaving the sufferer handling negative states of mind and a realm of feelings they might not have had to deal with before. But it can also lead to unanticipated positive consequences and psychological growth. This can include changing something in life for the better, gaining a stronger sense of self, and finding an increased motivation to accomplish goals.
Symptoms can include:
- Anxiety and confusion
- Negative thoughts about yourself and/or your life
- Feelings of remorse over your perceived mistakes and failures
- Relentless life evaluation
- A compulsion to make radical lifestyle changes
- A desire to feel, act, and/or look youthful
- Seemingly impulsive large purchases or decisions including relationship breakups
- Marked difference in social behaviour (withdrawing or socialising more than usual)
It is important to note that everyone experiences challenges in midlife, similar to any other phase of life. But not all challenges denote a 'crisis'. Something difficult that is managed and moved on from will naturally involve some sadness and anger. A midlife crisis, however, also brings negative thoughts and new emotions that feel overwhelming and threatening. It almost always involves ongoing depression.
Be wary of confusing other midlife health problems with a midlife crisis. Losing a loved one such as a parent can cause intense bereavement which like a midlife crisis involves low moods, negative thoughts, and feeling old. Chemical and hormonal changes like menopause and andropause cause depression. Of course both bereavement and hormonal changes can then trigger a midlife crisis, or occur during one.
It was once assumed that most people have a midlife crisis. Research has since proved that only 10 to 20 per cent of people actually experience one. While both genders can be affected, midlife crises are more common in men.
A midlife crisis can hit regardless of your background or ethnicity. Is is more common in Western countries, with places like Japan and India not recognising or using the term. This leads some researchers to link having a midlife crisis to the Western obsession with youth.
There is no single cause to a midlife crisis other than that it will be connected to the realisation that life is moving on. Each individual will have their own trigger, which may be one event or a combination of different stressors. Some common causes of a midlife crisis include:
- Acute awareness of ageing including the physical symptoms it brings
- Health problems such as a big diagnosis
- Anxiety about finances which may be in relation to retirement
- Not feeling as though goals and ambitions have been met
- Questioning past decisions
- Having to care for a parent
- The death of a loved one
- Job loss or extreme boredom with work while feeling there is no other option due to age
- Children leaving home
The stress of a midlife crisis and the negative feelings it brings can cause some people to make irrational decisions including leaving a job or relationship or making a large purchase they can't afford. This can bring an entire new set of stresses to deal with.
The depression that generally accompanies a midlife crisis can worsen if an individual does not seek help, which can lead to ongoing issues like anxiety disorder or suicidal thoughts.
Some people experiencing a midlife crisis fall into addictive behaviour that brings negative consequences to their physical health. Alcoholism is common.
A midlife crises can cause real strain on a sufferer's relationships. They might no longer feel they can communicate with loved ones. Or they might project their feelings of failure onto their children via unrealistic expectations and demands, leaving their child psychologically damaged.
The help of a professional psychotherapist can help those suffering midlife crises to minimise or avoid further negative implications such as these, and help individuals instead find positive results from questioning their life situation.
Like most psychological conditions, there is no simple direct test or checklist to tick when it comes to diagnosing a midlife crisis. A professional psychotherapist or counsellor will instead look at your symptoms as well as the environmental factors present and make an informed conclusion.
Drug therapies are not recommended as a sole treatment to overcome a midlife crisis. It is instead highly advisable to seek psychological help, particularly when symptoms become severe.
It's hard when suffering a midlife crisis to see clearly if the strategies you are using to cope are working and the decisions you are making are leading your to your desired future or not. A therapist can help you develop new and healthier coping strategies for your anxiety and depression and can give you a wider, informed perspective on your future and your options.
Existential therapy is a good fit for a midlife crisis as it explores questions of how to live a meaningful life as well as focuses on your fundamental values and philosophical outlooks. Acceptance and commitment therapy is also useful. It looks at accepting existing circumstances and living in the present rather than fearing the future.
Harley therapy offers both these forms of therapies and others for those experiencing a midlife crisis. You will always be placed with a highly trained and experienced practitioner.
The NHS can also help. Start by seeing your GP and asking for a referral to see a psychological specialist.
Local charities or organisations may provide support groups, therapy and advice in your nearby area. Try contacting your council for more information.
Reduce stress where possible – now is not the time to take on new challenges
Ensure you establish a healthy work/life balance – put aside time to relax and to do the things you enjoy
Set personal goals - this enhances your sense of personal achievement
Live a healthy lifestyle - exercise, eat well and reduce substance intake to improve well-being and moods
The NHS provides helpful advice on the different challenges of midlife.
Male midlife crisis http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/men4060/Pages/midlifecrisis.aspx
Useful self-help books include:
Men in Midlife Crisis Jon Conway (1997).
Coping with a Mid-Life Crisis (Overcoming Common Problems) Dr Derek Milne (2004).
Elaine Wethington (2000). Expecting Stress: Americans and the “Midlife Crisis. Motivation and emotion. Volume 24 (2), 85-103.
Carr (2007). Mid-Life and Later-Life Crises. Encyclopedia of Gerontology (Second Edition).
Wethington, E., (2000). Expecting Stress: Americans and the Midlife Crisis. Motivation and Emotion. 24 (2), 3.
Whitbourne, Susan Krauss (2010). The Search for Fulfillment: Revolutionary New Research Reveals the Secret to Long-Term Happiness. New York: Ballantine Books.