If you're approaching middle age, or you're in your midlife years, you might be worried that you'll have a midlife crisis. But there's a good chance that you'll pass through middle age without facing any significant emotional problems. In fact, one U.S. study found that only 26% of people experience a midlife crisis. And in many other cultures, midlife crises don’t seem to exist.
Still, many middle-aged adults might find themselves reevaluating their past, relationships, and career path. You might feel disappointed because you haven’t reached your long-term goals. You could be unhappy with your love life or develop a cynical attitude. “Midlife is a time when some people experience internal and external turmoil,” said Srinivas Dannaram, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, AZ.
With a midlife crisis, your personality can change significantly, and this can affect your sense of identity. You may question your role models, principles, values and relationships. “The whole framework of your earlier life is in question,” Dr. Dannaram said.
Who is likely to have a midlife crisis?
There’s no way to predict whether you might have a midlife crisis. Despite the stereotype of a middle-aged man buying an expensive sports car or running off with a younger woman, midlife crises are common in both men and women. But some adjustments can trigger stress and make a midlife crisis more likely:
- Changes in your family, such as kids moving out, which can give you more time to reflect and feel dissatisfied or guilty about the past
- Aging parents or partner’s sickness or death
- Age-related changes in your health and physical abilities
- Changes that leave you with a lot of free time, which may trigger emptiness and a sense of unfulfillment
Here’s how you can cope if you are having a midlife crisis
Don't ignore your emotions if you’re feeling distressed, frustrated, dissatisfied and unmotivated. Instead, try these strategies:
- Reflect on your thoughts. Emotions can irrationally drive your thoughts when you’re in crisis. When you look back on your past, focus on the circumstances and decisions you faced. “Remember that the experiences you had in your past weren’t entirely in your control. Most of the time, you probably chose the best option given the circumstances, even if the outcome turned out to be negative,” Dr. Dannaram said. It might help to talk through your thoughts and feelings with friends.
- Understand how and why your roles change as you get older. As you age, the quality of your relationships and roles keeps changing. For example, you may feel ignored when your children move out and no longer depend on you. But that means you succeeded as a parent in making them independent.
- Get more physical activity. Active, regular exercise gives structure to your routine, reduces stress, promotes restful sleep, prevents anxiety and helps prevent weight gain.
- Interact with your friends and family. When you spend time with people you care about, you stay in the present, and you can focus on your current role and accomplishments rather than dwelling on the past.
Here’s when you should seek professional care
If adjusting to the changes that come with midlife affect you to the extent that you feel depressed, guilty or unable to function, you should consider talking to a behavioral health professional. “A midlife crisis is a process of adjustment, and a professional can help,” Dr. Dannaram said. “Also, sometimes it can mark the beginning of a mental illness.” Warning signs include changes in attention span or concentration, hopelessness and helplessness.
The bottom line
Life changes that strike during midlife can lead you to reevaluating your past, your relationships and your career and can cause you to feel dissatisfied or distressed. If you’d like to talk to a mental health professional about coping with the changes of middle age, Banner Health can help.