We are all familiar with the idea of a midlife crisis. It has become something of a given, right? Sometime in your 40s or 50s you experience a personal crisis and upend your life. Generally as a desperate attempt to reclaim your youth, or achieve all the things you neglected to because you always felt there would be time for that later. Now it is you who find yourself in a midlife crisis. But is a midlife crisis real or is it just a myth?
Many people find themselves asking that question as they approach middle adulthood. Is a midlife crisis a real thing that you should expect, or is it an overblown stereotype? Some have even suggested that it’s a label we use to explain away mental health issues like depression.
Whatever your impression, it is a common term in today’s society that’s often discussed as though it’s a fact of life. We are quick to label anyone in the middle of life as experiencing a crisis when they exhibit any unexpected behavior. This is especially true with men. There are many behaviors that we assume are the symptoms of a crisis in middle aged men – the red sports car and affairs for example. But this happens to women too. We see any woman who is in midlife and trying to improve her appearance or improve her life as going through a midlife crisis. But is a midlife crisis really what’s happening in either case?
The truth is that the middle years of life, somewhere between the ages of 40-60, do bring on changes for nearly everyone. But perhaps a better way to refer to it on a large scale is as a midlife reflection rather than a crisis. If you are wondering if a midlife crisis will happen to you, it’s hard to say. The crisis portion does exist – for some, but not for everyone.
Is It A Crisis Or Is It Normal?
In any project there are stages. You plan, you execute, you review, and then you revise as needed. The middle years of life are a lot like the project review and revise stages. In your 20s and 30s (maybe 40s too) you are busy building a career, family and life overall. Then you get to that point where you look back and reflect upon what you have achieved, or haven’t as the case may be, and make the desired adjustments. This is normal.
The middle of life is a transitional phase for most of us. Our perception of life changes and our priorities often change. This reflection and reordering of things can initiate many new behaviors. These can be normal too. People may let go of things that are causing unhappiness, or decide to make positive changes to increase their happiness. Going back to school, de-cluttering your home, spending some money to travel – these are all on the positive side.
However, for some this reflection brings on difficult feelings. Anxiety can set in over missed opportunities, perceived failures, regrets, or goals that haven’t been achieved. The sense of time passing can fuel the desire to make drastic changes, especially for people who were already unhappy. In these cases the behavior can become extreme and cause more problems in their lives than happiness. This is when a midlife crisis becomes all too real, no myth about it. People may initiate divorces, start affairs or make extravagant purchases. Some may even take extreme measures to try and recapture their youth like surgical procedures to alter their appearance.
So while a resetting of priorities and even some changes to the way you live your life can be normal during the middle years, any of these things taken to the extreme are not. Tearing your life apart in an effort to recapture youth or make up for lost time will not make things better. In fact, doing these things is not only symptomatic of a crisis, but they will also act like fuel to a fire making everything worse as you go along.
When A Midlife Crisis Is Actually A Mental Issue
In those people who have an extreme reaction to entering midlife there may be deeper, more serious issues to contend with as well. For these people the realization that their lives did not go as planned may bring on mental problems like depression or anxiety. Or the converse may be true as well. Those that have struggled with depression or other psychological issues may find these conditions worsening during these years.
Because midlife is full of many transitions both in life and biologically speaking, it isn’t surprising that it can take a toll on happiness. While many of us might experience growing pains as we adjust to these changes, some will struggle. According to the CDC the incidence of depression increases for both men and women between the ages of 40 – 59 years old. The symptoms of depression in men can be different than in women, but they are equally as serious.
Is The Crisis Always In Midlife?
The short answer is no, it’s not. Although most people go through a reflective period during that time, the crisis that is attributed to midlife can happen anytime in the adult years. There is no magic age that causes people to fall into crisis mode.
A midlife crisis can often be brought on by traumatic events like the passing of a parent or friend, the loss of a job, the diagnosis of an illness, or the failure of a marriage. These events can occur at any point in someone’s life and can trigger overwhelming feelings and lead to the subsequent extreme behavior. Events like these can push people to, as Garth Brooks says, “live like you are dying” and engage in risky behaviors that may do more harm overall than good.
These traumas can also be associated with the onset of depression and can cause the crisis behavior to be even more erratic. If you, or someone you know, are facing a circumstance like this, professional counseling may be needed to help sort through the complex feelings being dealt with.
So, A Midlife Crisis Is Real?
Yes, it’s real. It’s just not a given, or even as common as people may have you believe. Most of us will get through those years without much of a problem, making appropriate adjustments as needed. When asked about whether he considered a midlife crisis a real thing or a myth Dr. Kurt had this to say,
Sadly, 'midlife crisis' gets joked about a lot. To explain odd behavior people will often say, 'Oh, he's just going through a midlife crisis (ha, ha).' As a result, it's easy to think that having a crisis at midlife is more of a myth than a real thing. As a professional who treats men and women who struggle with one I can tell you that midlife crisis is very real. It may not happen at midlife, but having a 'life crisis' at some point happens to most of us. The most important question is not whether we'll have one, it's how we deal with it because that's what determines how much of a crisis it becomes.
For those that find themselves dealing with a midlife crisis, however, it can be a very difficult time. It’s possible they won’t even recognize that there is anything wrong with their behavior. They may view their actions as their only pathway to happiness no matter how extreme or desperate those actions are.
People going through a midlife crisis will need the support of those around them. This can be tough to provide since they may be hurting or rejecting those who love them with their behavior. In many instances counseling is needed to help them gain perspective and find more productive ways to deal with their feelings.
Midlife crisis is no myth, it is real and does happen. The middle years of life can be complicated. Some might argue that they are just as complicated and confusing as the other big transition years – the teens. (Well, maybe not quite that bad - acne in your 40s and 50s is rare) There is no escaping it though, we will all be there. The good news is that most of won’t deal with a crisis as we go through it. So next time someone you know who is in their 50s buys a red convertible pause before you consider it a sign of a midlife crisis. They simply might have purchased it because they can afford it and they have always wanted one.
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