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Identifying different life crisis stages and how to cope

November 14, 2022 - 13 min read

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What is a life crisis?

Reasons for life crises

Signs you’re going through a life crisis

The three stages of life crises

How to cope with a life crisis

Focus on your well-being

Think back to your life’s biggest moments. And think of the ones that resembled a crisis. Your parents’ divorce, a bad breakup, or a major health scare might have interrupted your plans. 

Life-altering events like these can force you into a personal reckoning, challenging what you know about yourself and instigating a period of instability. 

Usually, we hear about life crises in the context of aging. People often hit their 40s and question fundamental parts of their life and identity. But personal crises can strike at any time. 

Whether you’re in your mid-20s easing into adult life or in your 60s concerned about your old age, traumas and transitions can push you into distress. You may lose motivation, question your future, or feel nostalgic when this happens. And if left untreated, these feelings can turn into depression or other mental health issues.

Before you lose hope, remember that crises are usually temporary. When you ease into life’s new chapter, it will be with deeper self-knowledge and new learnings about your life. The only thing you should worry about is how to cope right now. And understanding the life crisis stages can help you navigate this confusing time.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is a life crisis?

“Life crisis” is an umbrella term describing a person’s psychological response to major life changes or events. The American Psychological Association defines it as a time of distress and major adjustment associated with a significant life experience, like a divorce or the death of a family member.

We often attribute identity struggles to middle-aged adults — the dreaded “midlife crisis.” But despite the jokes about sports cars and hair dye, this affliction is no laughing matter. In the US, 10–20% of middle-aged people go through a strenuous midlife transition.

Other types of life crises also exist. And contrary to popular belief, they occur at any point in your life. In what’s called a “quarter-life crisis,” people in their early adulthood struggle to build their personal identity after graduating from college or leaving their family homes. LinkedIn found that 75% of people in this age group report experiencing this feeling.

Other major life events can instigate similar identity crises. The death of a parent changes a young person’s life, a mid-career professional may question their line of work after being laid off, and a manager may have to enforce a policy they don’t agree with, forcing them to rethink their job.

A life crisis can strike at any point. During these periods, it’s important to practice self-care and be gentle with yourself. Taking on too much while wrestling with big life questions will deplete your energy. 

Remember that you can always ask for help if you need it. A coach or mental health professional can guide you through this difficult time.

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Reasons for life crises

How people experience crises varies depending on their personality, previous experiences, and personal context. 

Women in North America face different societal pressures than men. Expectations related to beauty and having children can lead to fear of aging or mortality, empty nest syndrome, and questions about their identity outside of motherhood.

These expectations compound with other big life questions, such as whether they plateaued in their career or whether they should return to work. These feelings can also appear in a male midlife crisis, but they’re more likely to impact women.  

In addition to these demographic differences, every individual experiences the world differently. What affects one person might not affect the other, and vice-versa. For example, one person might heavily value their career, meaning unexpected changes at work can impact them greatly. But someone with stronger community values may not be affected by the same career problem.

Signs you’re going through a life crisis

No matter what’s causing your distress, your symptoms will follow a similar pattern. Here are some common signs you’re going through a difficult period:

  • You have little to no motivation. When you feel lost, it’s hard to put in the energy to accomplish anything. You’re not motivated to pursue your goals if you even know what your goals are.
  • Life feels heavier than before. During a crisis, you may feel dispassionate or like you’re not living your values. It could be a chore to drag yourself out of bed every morning.
  • You’re unhappy but don’t know why. You might feel a general sense of unhappiness and languishing in your everyday life, like a cloud hanging over your head. Your feelings toward life are best described as “grey.”
  • Mundanity is taking over your life. Your routine is starting to wear thin. At this point, you’re just going through the motions — you feel no particular attachment to your daily activities.

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  • Self-doubt fills your mind. You want to do something different, but you’re worried you can’t. You might fear failure or lack self-confidence, locking you into a pattern of inaction.
  • Others say you’re not yourself. You used to be happy, passionate, and energetic. But your loved ones noticed a negative swing in your mood and attitude lately.
  • You don’t know what you want. At a high level, you might know that you need to make a change. But with no idea where to start, choosing to do nothing seems best.
  • You feel alone. If you’re struggling in silence, you may feel disconnected from your loved ones. But people can’t support you if they don’t know what you’re going through. Find someone you can trust to help reduce your feelings of isolation.

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The three stages of life crises

When you’re dealing with a crisis, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. But here’s the good news: these feelings are temporary. You’ll likely go through the three life crisis stages, after which you’ll be on the upswing. They’re as follows:

  • Trigger: The first stage involves an instigating life event. A stressor in your everyday life can activate feelings of inadequacy, fear of death, loss of life purpose, and more. Some common triggers include menopause, aging, unintended weight gain, the death of a loved one, layoffs, or the end of a romantic relationship. These are just a few life crisis examples.
  • Crisis period: This phase is the longest and involves deep self-reflection. You’ll examine your doubts, behaviors, relationships, and overall sense of self. And if you don’t like what you find, experiment with new hobbies, identities, or relationships.
  • Resolution: Here, you start to feel more comfortable with yourself. You learn to accept things beyond your control and may even look forward to your next chapter.

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These are loose descriptions — everyone’s experience is different. Trying a new hobby may be enough for you to recalibrate, but someone else might need to implement larger changes in their life to match their shifting identity.

Moving to a new city or changing jobs might be the ticket to feeling like you’re in the right place. Only you know what you need, so check in with yourself before committing to big decisions.

How to cope with a life crisis

As you go through the stages of a life crisis, you may want to stay in bed for days and lean into lethargy. Yes, rest is important. But it’s even more vital that you make time for other self-care practices. Here are some to consider:

  • Make healthy lifestyle changes. Create time for your hobbies, exercise, and eat healthy food — these things can help you find balance in a tumultuous time. 

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  • Lean on your support network. Your friends, spouse, and family can help you talk through your problems and offer a new perspective. If you’re not comfortable sharing with them, consider finding professional help. Someone else can help you process your feelings, find a new direction, and develop healthier relationships. 
  • Be honest with yourself and others. You’re going through a tough time, and ignoring it won’t improve the situation. Naming your struggles often makes them overwhelming. Then, you can work toward improving your situation.
  • Revisit your values. Reflect on what’s most important to you in life. Whether it’s your career, family, or community, your values can give you direction.
  • Focus on what you can control. Life rarely follows a plan, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But you can control your reaction. Letting go of things you can’t change will help calm your mind.

Focus on your well-being

Understanding the life crisis stages can help you orient yourself in difficult times. Without the language to describe your situation, you can may not even realize you’re suffering. Life will simply go on feeling grey and unexciting.

Becoming aware of your distress doesn’t make it any less painful. Triggering events sting. Crisis periods leave you feeling lost and confused. And we’re sorry to report: resolutions always come around later than you hope.

But you can’t rush personal growth. All you can do is accept the things you can’t control and focus on your own self-care and discovery. Name your feelings, prioritize your wellness, lean on the people you trust, and pursue new milestones. Before you know it, you’ll be as excited about your next life stage as you were about the last.

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Published November 14, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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