The concept of a midlife crisis is one of the most hotly contested topics in psychology. Research on this supposedly widespread phenomenon is scant. Many theorists argue that a midlife crisis is a myth, or that it exists only in some cultures. Others insist the midlife crisis is very real, and offers a chance for meaningful growth and goal-setting.
A 1992 review of previous studies estimated that just 10% of American men experience a midlife crisis. A phone survey published in 2000 found that about a quarter of respondents said they experienced a midlife crisis. In that study, the average age for a midlife crisis was 47 for both men and women. Other studies suggest that midlife crises can occur across a wide range of ages, from 30 to 60.
People experiencing a midlife crisis can find immense relief in therapy. The right therapist can help with resolving trauma, developing a plan for the future, protecting relationships from the challenges of midlife, and finding meaning in the aging process. A therapist can also help with specific issues, such as recovering from infidelity, managing a career change, or dealing with disappointment in a relationship.
Some people experiencing a midlife crisis struggle to admit to the crisis—or even to being middle-aged. For many people in crisis, the loss of youth and the looming specter of mortality are major triggers. Knowing the signs of a midlife crisis can help encourage a person to seek help.
Midlife crises vary from person to person, but some common signs include:
- Anxiety about the future.
- A loss of meaning or purpose.
- Feeling like life hasn’t turned out the way one hoped.
- Feeling the need to keep up or compete with younger people.
- A crisis of confidence following a milestone birthday or a major life event.
Talking to loved ones about the crisis may help put it in perspective. Therapy can be beneficial because therapists routinely help people manage life transitions and set goals for the future.
Working with a psychotherapist during midlife provides the opportunity to enter the next phase of life with greater self-awareness and self-compassion. A person will have the opportunity to work through any issues they may have suppressed and verbalize any goals that may not yet have been realized. 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, a person might develop plans for taking the next steps in life. People who are experiencing anxiety, depression, or feelings of emptiness due to 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 can help support couples who find themselves distanced as a result of one or both partners' midlife challenges.
Therapy is highly effective when there is a close and trusting relationship between the therapist and person in therapy. Some types of therapy that can be particularly effective during a midlife crisis include:
- Trauma-focused therapy: People dealing with trauma in midlife, or trying to come to terms with early childhood trauma, may benefit from trauma-sensitive therapy. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), and emotional freedom technique (EFT) can be helpful.
- Couples counseling: Couples counseling can help partners learn how to deal with a midlife crisis in a husband or wife. Couples may work together to re-envision their relationships, move past infidelity, or revive a long-lost spark.
- Family therapy: Midlife crises can affect an entire family. Parents may treat children differently. Parenting challenges such as a child’s behavioral issues may further compound the challenges of a midlife crisis. Families can work together in therapy to talk about their feelings, tackle troubling family dynamics, and find newer, healthier ways to communicate.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: For many people, a midlife crisis begins with negative or incorrect thoughts about aging, what it means to be attractive, or what a successful life looks like. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people understand the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. A therapist partners with a person to detect unhealthy or automatic negative thoughts and replace those thoughts with healthier thoughts that support a person’s goals.
Good self-care can help with managing a midlife crisis. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, time with loved ones, support from family and friends, and time spent on meaningful hobbies can make midlife feel more meaningful.
Some people also find support from self-help groups. Some other strategies that can help include:
- Not making irreversible decisions, such as having plastic surgery or filing for divorce, without taking time to contemplate the decision.
- Seeking therapy if a midlife crisis leads to depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, or any emotions that feel unbearable.
- Getting a physical. For some people, the physical challenges of midlife play a role in the crisis. Talk to a doctor about strategies for getting healthier and feeling better.
- Trying something new. A new hobby, travel to a new location, or going back to school can offer new meaning and purpose.
When a loved one experiences a midlife crisis, their family and friends may feel disoriented or overwhelmed. Spouses may worry about divorce or marital conflict. Some strategies that may help include:
- Listening to your loved one without judgment. Understand that their feelings are not something that needs to be fixed or solved, and that arguing about their feelings won’t make those feelings disappear.
- Identifying your own anxieties about growing older. When one spouse or family member has a midlife crisis, it can activate those feelings in another person.
- Going to family or couples counseling with a spouse who is experiencing a midlife crisis.
- Giving your loved one space to resolve their feelings in their own way on their own timeline.
- Finding a new hobby or other pursuit. When a loved one has a midlife crisis, you may feel anxious or depressed. Pursuing your own interests can offer a meaningful outlet, and reduce the desire to “fix” the midlife crisis.
- Pursuing individual therapy to address your own feelings about growing older, managing midlife, and setting goals for the future.
- 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.
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