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Midlife Crisis

A midlife crisis, which can occur anytime between one's thirties and sixties, is considered to be the consequence of realizing one's own mortality. For some people, this realization sparks a crisis, and they may begin to feel hopeless, frustrated, or anxious, which may strain relationships with friends, family, and partners. Although popular stereotypes suggest that men are usually the ones who have midlife crises, midlife transitions can affect anyone. Therapy can help a person both learn to accept the aging process and possibly even embrace the gifts of maturity—wisdom, peace, and a sense of accomplishment, among others—and may help alleviate the desire to capture what is gone.

Are Midlife Crises Real?

A midlife crisis is not an illness, nor is it not an inevitable stage of development. Some theorists refer to midlife crises as midlife transitions: The transition provides the opportunity to evaluate past goals and achievements before moving on to the next stage of life. While midlife crises have been parodied in popular culture, for people experiencing them, the feelings are very real. In some cases, however, a midlife crisis can serve to mask depression, anxiety, stress, relationship problems, and mental health concerns, and in other cases, a midlife crisis can be the source of depression and other concerns.

What Causes a Midlife Crisis?

A midlife crisis can be experienced as a result of getting older, but not everyone experiences a midlife crisis. For some, midlife is a time to reflect on past achievements and plan for future ones. But for other people, midlife is a time of frustration, resentment, and depression, all of which can lead to changes in behavior. A crisis can be triggered by physical changes, such as the development of health concerns, or by psychological changes, such as the realization of mortality that often follows the loss of a parent or friend.

 

Youth is frequently associated with a vision of possibilities and the promise of a better future, while maturity can inspire reflection and perhaps regret as an individual considers the choices he or she made and any opportunities that may have been left behind. As one ages, the freedom to choose and reinvent oneself may seem to decrease, regrets may pile up, and one's sense of invincibility and energy may also diminish. Facing one's mortality and the mortality of loved ones becomes inevitable. Accepting the loss of youth and beginning the process of aging is a transition that some find difficult, and many people enter therapy as a result.

 

Common causes of midlife crises include:

  • Divorce or other changes in one's relationship.

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  • Changes in relationships with children or children moving out of the home (a midlife crisis sometimes accompanies empty nest syndrome).
  • Fearing one's own mortality.
  • Frustration with the aging process.
  • Feeling less desirable or vibrant as a result of age.
  • Feeling as though life has not turned out the way one hoped it would.
  • Changing goals.
  • Changes in job responsibilities or unemployment.

Signs of a Midlife Crisis

Sometimes, in an attempt to stave off the feelings of grief or anxiety that can accompany maturity, people engage in what might be called “regression”—they may have an affair, buy a new car, use drugs or alcohol, or otherwise try to recapture the exhilaration of youth. Individuals experiencing or about to experience a midlife crisis may exhibit some of the following emotions and behaviors:

  • Relationship dissatisfaction. This may manifest as demonstrated sexual interest in someone other than one's partner, detachment from one's partner, or the pursuit of an affair.
  • Obsession with one's appearance. An individual might dress in clothes that create a "younger" look, attempt different diets, exercise often, or use cosmetics or procedures in an attempt to reduce or reverse the signs of aging. He or she may feel that it is difficult to recognize who he/she has become.
  • Career dissatisfaction. Someone experiencing a midlife crisis might wish to quit his or her job or escape responsibilities and may feel envious and resentful of younger coworkers, especially those who appear to be advancing ahead in the company.
  • Emotional distress. An individual might feel down or empty (especially for extensive periods), be short-tempered or quick to anger, consider his or her mortality often, question religious beliefs, behave in a reckless manner, or abuse drugs and alcohol, sometimes in an attempt to escape feelings of emotional turmoil.

These signs do not always indicate a midlife crisis, as they can be present in an individual who is simply experiencing some level of difficulty with midlife transition or some other challenge in life. Not all individuals reach a point of midlife crisis.

How Can Therapy Help?

The realization that life is progressing rapidly and may be already half gone can feel overwhelming. During midlife, people often consider issues such as life purpose, loss of youth, mortality, their legacy, and their sense of accomplishment and physical adequacy, just to name a few. Irrational behavior is often common during midlife and many people do things that seem completely out of character at the mid-point in their lives. 

 

A sense of accomplishment can help one transition into midlife. Working with a psychotherapist during midlife provides the opportunity to enter the next phase of life with greater self-awareness and self-compassion. An individual will have the opportunity to work through any issues he or she may have suppressed and verbalize any goals that may not yet have been realized in life. A therapist can help a person explore desires and fears without behaving recklessly or in a way that might negatively affect that person's life.

 

In therapy, individuals might develop plans for taking the next steps in life. People who are experiencing anxiety, depression, or feelings of emptiness as a result of midlife transition may also find that therapy can be an effective treatment for those concerns. Therapy might also help people who are considering pursuing an extramarital affair or who wish to seek a divorce. Marriage therapy might also be of benefit for couples who find themselves distanced as a result of one or both partners' midlife challenges.

 

A sense of accomplishment can help one transition into midlife. Making sense of one's life contributions and recognizing individual strengths and accomplishments are considered to be important factors in making peace with the aging process. Of course, it is also possible to retain a youthful spirit, a sense of wonder and possibility, and the desire for adventure, no matter what age an individual attains.

Achieving Posttraumatic Growth in Midlife

A stressful event or trauma, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job, might often precipitate a midlife crisis, which may lead to significant changes in a person's outlook or career. When a crisis is precipitated by a life-altering shock or awareness, individuals sometimes react with a renewed outlook on life or a sense of transformation, and these changes can often lead a person to experience greater happiness and feel more fulfilled once the shock or grief subsides. Some individuals are able to become stronger after experiencing a tragedy or stressful event because the event may bring out that individual's latent characteristics or lead them to wish to develop a particular strength. Research shows that those who have reached middle age may be more easily able to accept negative events and recover from them, as older people, in general, tend to experience more positive emotions than younger people do. This ability may further an ability to quickly recover from a traumatic event, as well as experience personal growth following that trauma.

Case Examples

  • Depression and marital problems: Caleb, 43, comes to therapy at the request of his wife, who has expressed concern and worry about his behavior. Caleb reports he’s been drinking more often, spending more money, and, unbeknownst to his wife, thinking of going to a prostitute. Caleb calls this a “midlife crisis” and tells the therapist that he thinks it will all be over in a few months, when he believes that things will return to normal. The therapist helps Caleb identify just what the crisis is, and Caleb begins to see that he has been depressed for some time, feeling that his youth has ended and that he has not accomplished what he wanted to in life. He also expresses disappointment that his wife is not more adventurous and admits to the therapist that his wife no longer seems to care about her appearance and that he is dissatisfied with this fact but does not know how to discuss it with her. The therapist recommends they begin joint sessions. In couples counseling, Caleb and his wife are able to discuss some difficult issues between them for the first time, and they are able to renew the strength of their marriage and discuss ways to continue facing the challenges of life and marriage together once more.
  • Mourning regrets in life: Tomiko, 49, seeks therapy for depression and anxiety. She cannot identify any particular trigger for these feelings, but the therapist helps Tomiko uncover some worries about aging as well as several major regrets about her earlier life. With the therapist, Tomiko discusses her regrets and begins to think about preparing for the aging process. She also decides to take up some new hobbies and decides to take a class in woodworking, something she has always had an interest in. Tomiko is soon able to begin making peace with what she comes to call, half-jokingly, the universal enemy: time.

References:

  1. Diller, V. (2013, September 1). The 'New' Midlife Crisis -- and How to Know It's Coming. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vivian-diller-phd/midlife-crisis-how-to-know-its-coming_b_2800892.html.
  2. Doheny, K. (n.d.). Midlife crisis: Transition or depression? WebMD. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/midlife-crisis-opportunity.
  3. Miller, M. (2014, April 1). Personal Growth After a Midlife Crisis. Retrieved from http://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2014/personal-growth-after-midlife-crisis.3.html.

 

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Last updated: 04-21-2015

     

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