Are you in your 40s, 50s, or 60s and can’t shake the question, “How did I get here so fast?” Is it accompanied by others such as “Have I accomplished anything?” and “Are my best years behind me?” If these thoughts sound familiar, you may be experiencing a midlife crisis.
What exactly is a midlife crisis?
“Midlife crises are the combination of the inevitable impermanence of life and our basic human desire to avoid the anxieties that arise from this realization,” says Ben Fineman, an existential psychotherapist.
Let’s take a closer look at where these feelings come from and how you can deal in a helpful way.
While a midlife crisis is not a formally diagnosable condition, society often uses it to represent the turmoil many people feel at what they consider the midpoint (or transitional point) of their lives.
“In some ways, midlife crises are a normal part of the journey of life,” says Fineman. “The human existence is uncertain, despite our subconscious efforts to create certainty and stability in our lives.
“When this illusory certainty is shaken up, people lose their connection to how they previously understood the world to make sense. The anxiety that follows is unpleasant for many.”
A midlife crisis may present differently in everyone, but some general signs mark it.
A few symptoms of a midlife crisis to look out for are:
- making rash decisions
- fluctuations in mood
- dramatic routine changes
These may manifest as quitting a long-term job, buying something expensive, sinking into depression, or a different sleep schedule. Another common characteristic of midlife crises is sinking into regret.
“Often such crises can cause a person to look back over the past few decades and feel regret over the journey they’ve taken, whether it’s spending time with the wrong person or staying in a career they were ‘betrayed’ by after losing their job recently,” says Dr. Brian Wind, clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer of Journey Pure.
“Others may look back at happier days and regret their current situation, which can sometimes make it harder to bounce back from a midlife crisis.”
Many of the associated symptoms are negative, but not all of them. In a 2017 study, researchers found that quarter or mid-life crises actually brought curiosity to some. This manifestation may present as openness to new ideas and greater consideration of the world.
Does it appear differently according to gender?
As previously mentioned, no two midlife crises will look the same, even among people of the same gender. However, these crises can often be associated with men, so it’s important to acknowledge the challenges of other genders.
In a 2018 study of women between 40 to 65, participants described the most challenging aspects of this time in their life as rebalancing work and personal life, breaking up with a partner, health problems, and death of a parent.
Various life occurrences and feelings can cause a midlife crisis to occur.
Keeping an accomplishment scorecard
No matter what a person accomplishes, there could still be lingering feelings that they haven’t done enough.
“Everyone has expectations on things they think they should have done or could have done. When those expectations are not reached it is difficult to accept the reality of what your life has become,” says Sasha Jackson, MSW, LCSW, a licensed therapist.
Feeling like the clock is ticking
As you age, the window of opportunity to chase new paths and experiences may feel like it’s closing.
“A person may also feel like they have limited time to achieve their goals, which can make it harder for them to recover from events such as a divorce or job loss compared to a younger person,” says Wind.
Losing some things
Similar to feeling like time is fleeting, it can be hard to cope with personal losses, like not having as much energy as before, changes in physical appearance, or even the loss of some relationships.
“Some people find great joy in reflecting on their lives and their achievements and meaning. Others don’t feel so ready to accept those limitations or to grieve those losses, and so they can enter periods of depression or anxiety,” says Bognar.
“The pain of those experiences is brutal and sad, and many people seek to change the situation rather than to grieve it. Rather than cope with the fact that they are an aging person in an aging body, they may try to undertake activities that are risky for their health. Rather than accept that they have adult responsibilities, they might choose to be frivolous with their money.”
Going through a big transition
A person may enter a midlife crisis after experiencing a big life change. Fineman says this can include divorce, loss of a job, death of a parent, or moving.
Death may be inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier to consider.
“It is difficult for some to face the concept of mortality and aging. When this reality is more apparent, due to age, this can make a person wish to regress,” says Jackson. Choosing to regress can lead to a full-blown midlife crisis.
If you experience a midlife crisis, it can feel overwhelming, and almost impossible to shake. But with the right outlook and guidance, you can manage.
“The easy solution is to reduce it by distractions and numbing out the discomfort that has suddenly emerged,” says Fineman. “The harder — but ultimately necessary — path forward is to lean into the destabilizing feelings and take a good look at what lies beneath. What gives your life meaning? How comfortable are you with uncertainty and impermanence? How open are you to the inevitability of death?”
It’s natural to have a sense of isolation when experiencing something challenging like this, but remember you’re not alone. Finding community is a great way to cope as well. Speak to close friends or relatives around your age who’ve had similar feelings or who may have gone through a midlife crisis.
Speaking to a mental health professional or seeking additional support can be critical if a midlife crisis begins to interfere with your life or become painful. Consider speaking to a therapist to receive targeted coping mechanisms based on the symptoms you’re exhibiting.
Therapy can also help you get clarity about what’s important to you, and help reaffirm your values and whether you’re living them out.
A midlife crisis is a normal experience that comes along when a person might struggle with processing a transitional period of life. Coping requires you to focus on the things that make you happy and accomplishments that make you proud, as well as accepting what has come before.
You can overcome a midlife crisis by looking inward to reassess your priorities and potentially seeking advice from a mental health professional.