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Midlife crisis doesn't have to be: Learn to navigate it with grace

March 7, 2022 - 19 min read

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What is a midlife crisis?

Main signs of a midlife crisis

What can cause a midlife crisis?

Midlife crisis stages

A midlife crisis can be mistaken for other conditions

How to cope with a midlife crisis

Here’s a term that can send a shiver down people’s spines: midlife crisis. 

It's become a cliché that we joke about — buying a sports car, dyeing your hair a different color, and trying too hard to appear younger.

It's also something many people fear. The common midlife crises are less visible and less funny. The symptoms so many people experience are really about coming to grips with the passage of time and navigating big life events.

The midlife crisis means getting uncomfortable. These times of challenge and discomfort are also periods of growth — if we're brave and do the Inner Work®. It doesn't have to be a crisis.

But what exactly is it? And, are there side effects that can cause health issues?

There’s a lot more to a midlife crisis than stereotypes suggest. When you understand what it means, when it happens, and why it happens, it might be less scary than you imagined.

 

What is a midlife crisis?

We have a midlife crisis definition, thanks to psychoanalyst Elliot Jacques. In 1965, Jacques coined the term "midlife crisis" to describe the psychological distress some adults experience in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s. He theorized that the distress was a personality change associated with inner conflict. 

Importantly, there’s no empirical evidence of personality change or distress specific to middle age. However, many people do experience shifts in their mental health, life satisfaction, feelings of unhappiness, and overall wellness. 

So, are midlife crises real? Yes and no. 

Middle-aged people who experience significant life changes can be prone to feeling in crisis. At this age, many people have developed chronic health issues or feel the physical effects of aging more deeply. So while the average age for a midlife crisis is between 30 and 40, there isn't a set age.

It's also an age when many face career transitions, loss of parents, and empty nest syndrome. Any of these changes may bring grief

Often some triggering change brings on a form of existential crisis. Most people encounter this periodically throughout their lives — a moment of awareness of having limited time and wondering, “Is this all there is? What is my purpose here?”

People tend to experience such a moment of awareness and desire for meaning between their late 30s to 50s, hence a midlife crisis. Perhaps you have an identity crisis too, or you have the urge to change careers at 40.

But not everyone experiences a midlife crisis. You could go through your entire adult life with plenty of major life events and not feel like you need to learn how to navigate a midlife crisis. 

Predicting if you'll experience a midlife crisis is hard. It's not a hereditary illness, nor is it something that only people who live in certain parts of the world experience.

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Happiness: A U-shaped phenomenon

Everyone wants to learn the secret of happiness and how to sustain it. But researchers have found evidence that happiness and life satisfaction has a U-shaped form. It fluctuates throughout each stage of life. It's a way to describe when and why people have a midlife crisis.

The U-shaped phenomenon suggests that happiness is highest during our 20s and 30s, then it dips down to a lower point around midlife. Then, it begins to rise as we become older adults. It describes how our well-being and life satisfaction changes throughout the aging process.

As we experience gradual or drastic changes, so does our happiness. But it doesn't mean we'll stay in that low part of the U-shape forever. We'll continue to experience new life changes and grow.

But this one shape doesn't and cannot describe how everyone experiences life. Measuring happiness is difficult because everyone’s experiences are unique. No two people live the same life. That's why research also acknowledges that measuring happiness requires multi-disciplinary studies. And even after doing that, not everyone will align with what it means to have a midlife crisis or how to identify one.

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Main signs of a midlife crisis

There are some signs of a midlife crisis that you can readily identify. 

First, we need to acknowledge the gender stereotypes involved. The cliché is that a middle-aged man going through a midlife crisis will buy a flashy car and spend money on fancy gadgets. And the stereotype of a middle-aged woman experiencing a midlife crisis is that it involves an attempt to be perceived as younger while searching for emotional fulfillment. 

How a person identifies doesn't determine how they deal with aging during any stage of life; anyone can buy a new car or want to look younger. Or not.

When we stereotype people about how they can act, it's limiting and harmful. It's limiting and invalidating to say that a midlife crisis in men may only look a certain way, and the same goes for people who identify differently.

These stereotypes don't help people overcome their challenges. They're especially detrimental to people who don't identify as men or women. Not everyone fits the most common midlife crisis examples, but that doesn't mean they aren't experiencing one. 

Plus, everyone deals with different life changes throughout various life stages

Not everyone experiences the same things while going through a midlife crisis, but here's a list of nine warning signs to look out for:

  1. Weight gain or loss
  2. Self-doubt
  3. Drastic mood changes
  4. Frustration and unwillingness to adapt to change
  5. Boredom and dissatisfaction with their stage of life
  6. Sense of nostalgia and idealizing the past
  7. Regret over choices they've made
  8. Changes in sexual desire
  9. Rash and indulgent behavior

What causes a midlife crisis?

Osteopath-Holding-Patients-Foot-midlife-crisis

Reflecting on our life — and considering our mortality — often gives rise to the feelings associated with a midlife crisis. Everyone ages and deals with their stressors differently. This means everyone encounters a midlife crisis from a different cause. What some people may breeze through, others struggle with. 

Hitting certain age-related milestones often prompts reflection. You may reflect on your life and consider whether you've reached your goals. You may start to wonder about all the what-ifs and if making different decisions would have brought you a different career path in life. 

Middle-age years are full of changes in relationships and roles. For example, parents who once had a full household may find themselves alone as "empty nesters." 

Another cause for a midlife crisis stems from the aging process. When people encounter any health issues or health scares, it can show them how precious life is. The limitations of age, such as being unable to keep up with your usual hobbies, can also feel upsetting. 

Working with a BetterUp coach can help you identify what is causing your midlife crisis and how to resolve it. We'll help you identify goals to keep you focusing on the future — and its potential.

Midlife crisis stages

Your midlife crisis could have various stages — each with its own emotions. No stage has a time limit. You may find that you linger in one stage, while other stages pass quickly. 

Here are the three loose stages of a midlife crisis that you could experience:

The initial trigger

This could be the one event that begins your midlife crisis. Maybe it's a moment when you lost your job, experienced some health issues, or helped your child move out. These stressors make you concerned about your aging and what the rest of your life will be like, triggering the crisis.

Woman-Lies-On-Couch-Talking-To-Therapist-midlife-crisis

Period of crisis

In this stage of crisis, you're feeling lost. You've reflected on your life, and you have feelings of self-doubt, a disinterest in your relationships, and a loss of your old values. Maybe you don't feel like yourself anymore. This is the stage where you try to regain your sense of self and explore new things. You exhibit midlife crisis behavior, and you begin to understand that you need some kind of resolution.

Resolution

After you've experienced your period of crisis, resolution comes when you feel like you know yourself again. You're comfortable with who you are, accept your age group, and make efforts to enjoy this stage of life.

A midlife crisis can be mistaken for other conditions

It can be hard to pinpoint and label what you’re experiencing. 

Since depression and dementia can be confused with having a midlife crisis, here are a few points to keep in mind:

Depression

When some people experience what others see as a midlife crisis, they may be experiencing depression. That doesn't necessarily mean that the midlife crisis caused depression. 

If a person feels depressed, it shouldn't be ignored, even if they are also experiencing a midlife crisis. Seeking professional help will help improve your well-being. Talking with a mental health professional can help with any concerns about their lives and help them move into the resolution stage.

Dementia

Early-onset dementia causes people to become stressed and confused with their life events. These effects can mimic the signs of a midlife crisis. 

One thing that can help differentiate a midlife crisis from depression and dementia is how long it lasts. A person could experience a midlife crisis for a few months and then overcome it. With depression, it could be years before they find effective coping strategies and improve their mental health. 

Dementia doesn't yet have a cure. It usually lasts for the remainder of a person's life, and their condition can degrade over time.

How to cope with a midlife crisis

Having a midlife crisis doesn't define you or what your future will be like. You aren't the only one experiencing this. You aren't the first, and you won't be the last. And it will get better. All the more reason to be intentional about self-care and make time for inner work. Plus, with age comes resilience.

While this period can be uncomfortable and distressing, try to learn from it. Discomfort is part of growth. Rather than just trying to make it stop or ease your doubts, get curious about what your body and mind are trying to tell you. 

Here are 10 strategies to help you get through this time in your life:

  1. Acknowledge that your feelings are valid (and you're not alone)
  2. Remember that your milestones are to celebrate
  3. Practice gratitude to shift focus to what you have, not what you don't
  4. Be a good listener when people offer advice or share their own experiences
  5. Keep open lines of communication with your loved ones
  6. Don't be ashamed to seek professional help
  7. Try out something new to expand your perspective and learn something new 
  8. Revisit old hobbies or interests to spark some excitement and passion
  9. Prioritize self-care to take care of your physical and mental health
  10. Accept circumstances for what they are, rather than dwell on the past

Couple-Having-A-Difficult-Conversation-At-Home-midlife-crisis

How to help someone experiencing a midlife crisis

You might not be experiencing a midlife crisis, but others around you might be. Learning the causes and signs of a midlife crisis is important, but knowing how to support someone while they experience one is even more crucial. 

Maybe it's your best friend, sibling, spouse, or parent going through it. You want to be present with them and provide as much support as possible while still knowing when to suggest professional help.

A midlife crisis could also be mistaken for other mental health issues. Tens of millions of people in the United States are affected by mental health issues each year, so knowing when professional help is needed is key.

Here's a list of ways to support someone experiencing a midlife crisis:

  • Practice active listening and don't judge them for what they say
  • Be receptive to changes in your relationship
  • Express your appreciation, admiration, and gratefulness for them
  • Watch for symptoms of depression and other mental health issues
  • Talk about the importance of seeking professional help
  • Spend more time with them and remind them of meaningful things

Positive aspects of a midlife crisis

What if we told you that a midlife crisis has some positive aspects? Even though a midlife crisis can have plenty of negative impacts, you can't ignore that good could come out of it. 

Research has found that middle-aged people have more self-knowledge and have the tools and experience to handle midlife stressors. You're in more control of yourself than you were when you were younger, and you can create change to improve your life.

That could be things like changing careers or moving somewhere new. Even though change is daunting, it also opens people up to new life experiences.

A midlife crisis is a time to explore yourself even more. It's an opportunity to go on a self-discovery journey and expand your self-growth. You have the chance to think about what you value, what your purpose is, and how you can pursue it.

Perhaps you want to start over at 50 and dive into a whole new lifestyle. Your midlife crisis showed you that something was making you unhappy, allowing you to find what was missing. 

But it's not all smooth sailing. Your midlife crisis will test your grit, resilience, and determination. You'll have to navigate the downs first to reap the positive benefits. That's what you have to do if you want to move forward and rise up again.

Moving on

Looking for someone to help you as you learn how to overcome a midlife crisis or no? Or, you might be in a position where you're navigating a quarter-life crisis. Regardless of where you are in life, BetterUp can help. 

Moving to the resolution phase for your midlife crisis can be challenging but leads to peace and self-acceptance. At BetterUp, we're here to help you along the way, giving you tools and support to build resilience and adaptability for whatever comes your way.

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Published March 7, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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