The quintessential midlife crisis image is a man who’s left his wife for a younger woman, traded in his minivan for a Corvette, and grown his thinning hair into a ponytail. But just how realistic is this image? And, for that matter, how realistic is the midlife crisis?
In its simplest terms, a midlife crisis can be said to happen between the ages of 40-60, when a person may find themselves looking back wistfully on their youth, while at the same time grappling with their mortality and impending old age. However, the causes of midlife crisis are actually far more nuanced than a simple apprehension at growing older. Middle age can be described as an emotional crucible, where myriad factors and events converge to cause doubt, fear, sadness, or anger.
Interestingly, happiness, when mapped on a graph, is U-shaped. In other words, our youth is characterized by happiness, which begins to decline in our late teens, hitting its lowest point during — you guessed it — middle age, before increasing again in the third stage of life. It’s only natural for those in the valley of the U-shape to believe that life might continue to get worse. After all, that’s been the general trajectory until that point! But then something strange and unexpected happens — our happiness typically starts to increase again when we’re in our 50s, steadily growing as the years pass. Even though there’s plenty of data to support this U-shaped happiness curve, the idea that the light in our lives only steadily dims as we get older is a far more pervasive idea in Western culture. Hence, the midlife crisis.
The term “midlife crisis” has never been an official mental health diagnosis. One study reported that just 26%of Americans believe they have experienced one. So, is the midlife crisis a real rite of passage on the way to old age, or is it a myth?
Real or make-believe, it’s a fact that the ages of 40-60 are punctuated by doubts, questions, disillusionment, and changes. This is true for both men and women, but it also seems to be more common in Western culture than in other cultures.
Where Did the Idea of a Midlife Crisis Come From?
The term “midlife crisis” was coined by Canadian psychologist Elliot Jaques (pronounced “Jacks”) after he’d undergone a period of questioning and hopelessness himself, at the age of 36. The first time the term appeared in print was in his 1965 article, titled “Death and the Mid-life Crisis,” which was published in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis.
The idea caught on quickly. At the time, life expectancies were on the upswing following advances in medicine and standards of living. The average life expectancy in Western cultures was about 70, meaning the age of 40 was no longer the beginning of the end. In addition, the cultural upheaval of the 1960s — the civil rights movement, more women in the workplace, the Pill, therapy’s growth in popularity, and the growing acceptance of divorce — meant it was easier than ever before to change one’s life. With those opportunities came questions — people began to wonder if they’d chosen the right career, whether they should go back to school, or if they still really loved their spouse.
By the 1970s, the midlife crisis was firmly entrenched in the culture. It was viewed as an inevitable part of life, a normal transition, like adolescence. Best-selling books about midlife crises and how to navigate them flooded self-help aisles during the ’70s and ’80s. In 1995, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development launched the first survey of its project, Midlife Development in the U.S. or MIDUS. This project, which is still ongoing, uncovered that the midlife crisis as depicted in mainstream culture is largely a compelling fiction. Margie Lachman, a member of the original MIDUS team, says, “Most people don’t have a crisis.” She points to the fact that in midlife most people are physically healthy and busy with careers, families, and social lives.
However, these findings do not invalidate the very real feelings of doubt, fear, and malaise that can come with middle age. Even if these feelings may not, in fact, be part of a life crisis or transition, and may not result in dramatic changes in behavior, such as upending one’s life and riding off into the sunset in a new sports car, they are valid, normal, and treatable feelings.
What Are the Signs of a Midlife Crisis?
So how do you know what you’re experiencing may be a midlife crisis? According to the American Psychological Association, the signs of an emotional crisis are evident from “a clear and abrupt change in behavior.” These can include giving up on personal hygiene, dramatic changes in sleep patterns, changes in weight, mood swings, and withdrawal from routines and relationships.
Other signs include the following:
- Boredom with things that previously brought fulfillment
- Restlessness or frantic energy
- Questioning the meaning and purpose of life
- Frequent irritability
- Persistent sadness
- Increase in compulsions such as drinking and emotional eating
- Increase or decrease in sexual desire
- Increased or decreased ambition
- Affairs, especially with someone younger
Again, feelings of general questioning and apprehension are completely normal in the period of midlife. Though, as Lachman and the MIDUS team point out, midlife can be a time of peak performance in terms of health, family, career, and social life, but all of those factors can also contribute to feelings of overwhelm, doubt, and dread. For example, people in midlife may find themselves as the primary caretakers not only for their children but for their parents or others in their family. People are far more likely to have experienced a life crisis such as divorce, chronic illness, death of a loved one, or financial struggles by this period in their lives, leading to a heightened sense of disillusionment and despair.
Are Midlife Crises Different for Women?
Though the midlife crisis affects men and women equally, there are complicating factors for women, mostly due to hormonal issues caused by perimenopause and menopause. Declining estrogen and progesterone levels have been found to disrupt sleep, cause mood swings, and deplete energy. In addition, menopause can cause memory loss, anxiety, weight gain, and decreased interest in activities that once were enjoyable.
For women, aging has always been a minefield. Society expects women to be attractive, fit, and young. Failure to conform to rigid beauty standards can have grave repercussions for some women, especially those in the public eye. Many women are viewed as less attractive as they get older, in contrast to men, who are seen as more dignified and sexy as they mature. There is no female equivalent to the “silver fox,” for example. Instead, from middle age onward, many women feel invisible, unseen, and unvalued. Obviously, these feelings of insignificance only add to the complicated feelings of a midlife crisis.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that women between the ages of 40 and 59 have the highest rates of depression in the United States (12.3%) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Is It a Midlife Crisis, Depression, or Dementia?
The signs of a midlife crisis often bear a striking resemblance to depression. Given the aforementioned high percentage of middle-aged women who experience depression and the fact that suicide rates are highest in middle-aged people (white men in particular), it’s no surprise that there can be confusion between depression and a midlife crisis.
While a midlife crisis can be considered a normal life transition, depression is a serious, sometimes chronic condition. The major difference between the two is that the symptoms of depression are more often present on a day-to-day basis for a number of weeks or months. Depression is also not reliant on age. Depression can, and does, affect those of all age groups. It is also a biological condition, whereas midlife crisis is circumstantial. Further complicating things, a person experiencing a midlife crisis can also be depressed.
Dementia is an often overlooked condition that also shares similarities with the midlife crisis. The Alzheimer’s Society reports that 5% of cases begin before the age of 65. People with dementia tend to experience confusion, trouble planning and thinking ahead, and daydreaming. They can be easily frustrated and irritable. These are all also signs of midlife crisis — it’s important to pay attention to your own feelings and behaviors, as well as those of your loved ones and seek or suggest someone get help if it seems they’re struggling.
How to Get Out of a Midlife Crisis
There are many things that may help shake you from a midlife crisis, including:
- Being open with friends and loved ones about your experiences
- Getting outdoors and spending time with nature
- Taking care to eat healthy foods and get plenty of rest
- Writing about your feelings and experiences
- Reading books
- Traveling to new destinations
- Setting new goals
- Exploring new hobbies
Each of these activities can help you reframe your perspective about what midlife means to you and help you move forward.
When to Get Help for a Midlife Crisis
Perhaps you’ve tried some or all of the activities above and nothing seems to be working. It may be time to consider visiting your physician or speaking to a licensed therapist. Your doctor may be able to prescribe hormone replacement therapies or antidepressants to help combat the physical and emotional symptoms of a midlife crisis. Speaking to a mental health professional can also help clarify symptoms and the underlying causes. More than anyone else, a therapist can help you pinpoint why you’re struggling and help you strategize ways to move forward proactively.
It’s a particularly good idea to seek professional help if:
- Your emotions are getting in the way of sleeping well or if you’re experiencing changes in your appetite
- You’re struggling with being able to focus at work or have had to call in sick
- Your relationships with family, your partner, or friends are suffering due to mood swings or distance
- You no longer are interested or finding pleasure in your favorite activities or routines
Are There Benefits to a Midlife Crisis?
While it’s known as the midlife crisis for a reason, there are many positives to this stage of life. It’s naturally a period of reflection, a time to take stock of your past decisions and what’s led you to your life up to that point. Like the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, you may ask yourself, “How did I get here?” One of the beautiful things about questions is they can lead to answers.
For instance, if you’re finding your career isn’t as fulfilling as it once was, maybe it’s time to pivot and explore your passion for drawing — it might mean a second career as a graphic designer. If your children have all left home, leaving a feeling of emptiness, it may be the perfect time to think about travel, taking a class, or launching a podcast.
Experiencing a midlife crisis can feel like standing on the precipice of a yawning chasm, with nothing standing between you and your mortality. But that precipice can lead to exciting new opportunities and ways of seeing the world — perspectives and experiences you never thought possible when you were thinking inside the neat boundaries of your previous life. Trauma can help us grow and give us resilience and strength to rebuild a better future.
If you’re struggling with a midlife crisis, consider speaking with a Talkspace therapist — it’s a convenient and inexpensive way to get perspective.