By the time most people reach middle age, they have been through more than one or two big changes in life. They may have changed careers multiple times, experienced loss, or raised children. In truth, many people have experienced all of the above by the time they are in their 40s or 50s. This is why a midlife crisis can come as such a surprise to some people. After experiencing five or so decades of all life's highs and lows, a midlife crisis can feel entirely different. But no matter how uncomfortable a midlife crisis might feel, it's incredibly normal (and very common). Just consider all the life changes that middle age brings.
Things like retirement, a newly empty nest, or physical/mental changes can be jarring. It's no wonder that so many people experience feeling lost, indecisive, or restless during this period of life. Knowing the specific signs of a midlife crisis is an important way to make sure that you're able to understand how you're feeling, identify the root of the feelings, and seek help and support from your peers or professionals. Though a midlife crisis can feel overwhelming, these steps will make things feel that much more manageable. In other words: They give you more time to focus on being happy. And what could be more important than that?
What is a midlife crisis?
Though the term midlife crisis is fairly common, it’s actually only existed since the mid-1960s, according to Psychology Today. Coined by psychologist Elliot Jacques, "midlife crisis" was originally used to describe the period of life where adults tend to “reckon with their mortality,” as the same Psychology Today article explains. In other words, the phenomenon can be a little more complicated than how it's often portrayed — it’s more than just someone purchasing a fancy car or picking up an unexpected hobby. As Baltimore-based therapist and co-founder of WithTherapy, Dr. Heather Z. Lyons tells Woman’s Day, a midlife crisis, in essence, is a struggle with one’s own finiteness.
“Our finiteness or mortality can become particularly salient when we experience health issues, experience transition, hit a milestone, or lose a loved one,” Lyons explains, emphasizing why midlife can be such a sensitive time for adults, and why it's often a time when adults feel an impulse to achieve and create more meaning in their lives than usual. It’s also a time when adults are at a greater risk to develop mood disorders like depression, Lyons adds.
What does a midlife crisis look like?
The ways in which a midlife crisis can manifest are numerous. As licensed professional counselor and founder/CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers, Dr. Mark Mayfield, explains: "Often in the early forties to early fifties, an individual is confronted with their mortality and that 'half' their life is over. As a result, they try to make sense of their present and how it relates to their past and their future."
"This can be a great place to readjust goals and make peace with your past. Frequently, the question of, 'Am I enough?' is at the center of this stage of life. When someone cannot answer that question with an honest and vulnerable mindset they can spiral into chaos. As a result of this chaotic mindset, they may in turn make decisions that are out of impulse and out of a need to cope or numb."
Instead of making impulsive decisions in the midst of these feelings, Dr. Mayfield suggests using this moment as a time for serious self-reflection and adjustment, "I would suggest that we need to re-think the term 'midlife crisis' and replace it with something like a mid-life reflection."
How women experience midlife crises differently
Midlife crises are common for both men and women in middle age, but as an article from the Cleveland Clinic explains, midlife crises can present a little differently in women as compared to men. When you consider that many women experience the physical changes that come with menopause during mid-life, this makes sense. As the article goes on to outline, while men often feel "trapped" by life during their midlife crisis, women's main discomfort often comes from hormonal changes. In addition to seeing a doctor and learning ways to alleviate symptoms of menopause, Healthline suggests seeing a therapist, talking to friends, journaling, reading, and prioritizing healthy exercise and nutrition as ways to deal with a midlife crisis as a woman.
How to seek help for a midlife crisis
Being aware of the monumental changes (emotional, mental, and physical) that can occur when someone reaches middle-age is helpful — no matter what your age. “If you notice that a loved one has difficulty accomplishing daily tasks or attending to relationships it's time to reach out to them to talk with them about whether what they're experiencing is more serious,” Dr. Lyons says.
If you suspect you may be experiencing a midlife crisis, working with a therapist can be helpful. Follow the American Psychological Association's tips for finding a good therapist to ensure you work with a qualified professional who has background and expertise that will benefit you and your specific needs.
What are the common signs of a midlife crisis?
Here are 17 common warning signs that experts say can signal a midlife crisis in women.
You're gaining or losing weight.
Midlife crises often share similar traits with depression, according to Jennifer Wickham, a licensed professional counselor for Mayo Clinic Health System, with drastic changes in weight being one of them. The American Psychological Association also lists weight gain or loss as one of the many disruptive factors that may indicate a person is having an emotional crisis.
According to Wickham, while some changes can be a normal part of midlife, if you or a loved one is undergoing any out-of-character or sudden changes, it's a good idea to seek professional support in the form of a therapist.
If you or someone you know has suddenly lost interest or enthusiasm for the things in life that they used to enjoy, that could be a sign of an oncoming emotional crisis — and possibly something that could be defined as a midlife crisis.
According to self-help author Yocheved Golani, apathy adds a deeper, more complicated layer to a midlife crisis, as it can affect how willing a person is to help themselves or seek out help.
Christine Hueber, a member of the Forbes Coaches Council, encourages those who are feeling apathetic to think every day about what positive things they have going on for them. "My top tip is to appreciate what's working in your life, then take action every day to shape your life how you want it to be," Hueber writes for Forbes. "Resolutely move forward, let go and leave the past in the past."
You're experiencing unusual physical pain.
It's no secret that psychological difficulties can result in physical manifestations of the problem, and midlife crises are no different. Headaches and gastrointestinal issues that don't seem to have any physical cause, and more often than not don't respond to usual medical are often linked to this kind of emotional crisis, according to Mayo Clinic.
In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Yolanda Reid Chassiakos chronicles a patient who began experiencing physical symptoms, most notably intense migraines, due to the stressors she was feeling at mid-age.
Chassiakos concludes that she recommended a combination of prescription-strength medication to help alleviate the migraines, and professional counseling.
You're asking yourself deep, probing questions.
"One of the things that can happen and identify the onset of a midlife crisis is feeling ill-fit for the life you're leading," says Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy. D. and author of Your Best Age Is Now. "There's a tendency to stop and pause during midlife and question whether you're on the right track." In other words, you feel the need to give yourself a strong evaluation about where you wanted to be in life versus where you actually are.
Perhaps you realize you've been following the dreams your parents set out for you or you've been abiding by the "rules" of society. "There's suddenly a stronger desire to listen to one's soul, and perhaps the crisis comes when you feel off-track," Dr. Ludwig continues.
However, keep in mind that a period of self-reflection can be positive, she adds, "because it can get you to eliminate those things that are no longer in sync with who you are today." Also, a 2016 study from the British Psychological Society discovered that individuals who experience either a quarter or midlife crisis by becoming ultra-focused on their purpose in the world were likely to find creative solutions for their challenges.
"This enhanced curiosity may be the 'silver lining' of crisis," stated the co-author of the research in the press release. "Armed with this knowledge, people may find the crises of adult life easier to bear."
You're making rash decisions.
As a result of soul searching, it's possible that you've drawn some significant conclusions about the state of your life, like perhaps that your marriage isn't as romantic as you had hoped or your career is no longer fulfilling. "The danger is when somebody makes an impulsive decision — like a knee-jerk reaction — based on these feelings [it might] not lead to therapeutic results," Dr. Ludwig says.
Acting before thinking about the possible long-term ramifications of leaving your spouse or quitting your job, for example, can lead you down a road of regret. "Overall, it's an avoidance of reality," Dr. Ludwig says.
You're turning down opportunities.
If you find yourself actively and confidently saying "no" to certain things and setting new boundaries in your life, this could be a sign of a mid-life shift. Thankfully, this change is not necessarily a bad thing.
“For some, a midlife crisis might manifest in actions such as forming new relationships, enjoying the fruits of their labor through new purchases or adventurous travel, or a change in appearance,” Dr. Lyons explains. “For others, a midlife crisis might be seen in what they choose not to do such as turning down opportunities or setting new boundaries that suggest a shift to defining life for themselves rather than by others' standards.”
You're not sleeping through the night.
If you’re a middle-aged woman and find yourself unable to sleep through the night, it’s totally possible that menopause or other hormonal changes might be behind the bout of tossing and turning. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation states that waning levels of estrogen during perimenopause through menopause can make a woman more susceptible to environmental and other factors, which can further disrupt sleep and lead to insomnia.
However, it’s extremely important not to conflate menopause with a midlife crisis or other mental health ailments. If you are a woman who happens to be middle age and you’re experiencing many of the other symptoms listed here, it’s worth considering that your sleeplessness could actually have to do with your mental health.
“Research and clinical experience show that insomnia is associated with reduced quality of life as well as depression. In turn, depression can lead to sleep problems,” Lara Schuster Effland, LCSW, writes in an article for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
While it’s important to remember that clinical depression and a midlife crisis are not necessarily the same thing, if you’re having difficulty sleeping and have struggled with mental health in the past, be sure to mention this to your doctor before you dismiss it as just another part of middle age.
Your vision of the future is dismal.
"One of the wonderful things about youth is that you really think you have all the time in the world and the future is where all your dreams will come true," says Dr. Ludwig. "That shifts at midlife, so the future isn't necessarily where all of these positive things are happening. In fact, it can potentially be a scary time."
While it's natural to remove those rose-colored glasses, feeling jaded about what's in store or seeing nothing but a bleak forecast ahead can lead to a downward spiral. And believe it or not, it might be wise to take a life lesson from those twenty-somethings, she adds. "Those in their youth see the future in a more optimistic way, and that's something we need to be deliberate about in midlife, because we've been culturally trained to believe in the 'deficit model,'" Dr. Ludwig says.
You're constantly bored.
"Boredom — feeling passionless — can be a sign of a midlife crisis," according to Dr. Ludwig. "The truth is, the pressures of adulthood can weigh people down at this time — they can feel stuck in a rut — where the opportunity to introduce fun for fun's sake can get lost."
A possible solution: Doing something outside of your typical routine that lights you up. For example, if you enjoy watching cooking shows about desserts, consider signing up for a cake decorating class. If listening to music soothes your soul, research upcoming concerts in your area.
You have an overwhelming sense of loss.
Do you have this nagging feeling that something in your life has slipped away — yet you can't quite put your finger on what that thing is? "I don't know if I would call it clinical depression, but there is a dealing of some degree of loss," Dr. Ludwig says. "The loss of a wish, the loss of the idea of who you wanted to be — it's a confrontation with reality that can leave people feeling disappointed and unsettled." For others, it could be that previous goals have been met (Corporate job? Check! A trip to Hawaii? Check!), resulting in a "Now what?" mentality.
Dr. Ludwig quickly notes the positive in this scenario: "At this point in life, we're wiser and we know ourselves better," she says. "So whether or not we've accomplished our goals, we can create new goals." Also, having the belief that there must be something more ahead can be a good thing, "because we're never going to arrive at the 'there' place because there's always going to be a new 'there.'"
You become overly concerned about your appearance.
Wanting to look and feel your best is one thing, but staring into a mirror for hours to point out emerging lines and wrinkles could indicate a crisis. "And some people will go to extremes trying to achieve a look of youth or perfection," says Dr. Ludwig. "Sadly, they tend to ruin themselves — it's like that false plant that is too green and too perfect. This behavior is based in fear — fear of losing one's looks — but this is cultural brainwashing."
She adds that single people are likely to obsess more over their changing face compared to those in committed relationships (who tend to care more about their weight and being fit). "And this is true for both men and women — it's a response to physical changes that identify there's an inevitable shift going on, but it doesn't have to be worse."
Or you stop caring about appearances completely.
While some women in their middle years become fixated on perfecting their appearance, others may trash their beauty products altogether or stop picking up their broom on a regular basis.
"People should never give up on themselves, but if they do, they're probably more inclined to experience a midlife crisis," says Dr. Ludwig, who suggests finding an "older woman" role model who can serve as motivation. "Of course, not everyone is Christie Brinkley, but the fact that Christie Brinkley can look like that at 68 is wonderful. There is nothing elderly about her! That's nice to know, and I think there is a trickle-down effect."
You think of yourself as an "old person."
Take a quiet moment to close your eyes and ask yourself this simple question: "How old do I feel?" If you consider yourself to be older than your years (or refer to yourself as being an "old lady" or "over the hill"), you might be in a midlife crisis.
And science backs up this theory: A ten-year study conducted at the University of Waterloo found that simply feeling older predicts lower psychological well-being and lower life satisfaction compared to those with more favorable attitudes about aging.
Dr. Ludwig believes this negative narrative may derive from your environment. "If someone in their middle years feels old, I question if somebody is treating them like they're elderly or if they are reading from a cultural script that has been internalized," she states.
But if thinking about yourself in a younger light feels silly, it may help knowing that this thought process has become a growing trend. In fact, research out of Florida State University in 2016 discovered that many women in their middle and older years are likely to maintain youthful perceptions of themselves in order to enhance their emotional well-being.
You feel OK sometimes...
"There are similarities between midlife and adolescents — they call it "middle-escents" — but it doesn't have to be a bad thing," Dr. Ludwig says. "It's about learning to embrace exciting experiences and newness into one's life while incorporating optimism and dreams, which we should be doing throughout our lives."
But not OK other times.
As an article for Neuro Spa Therapy Centers explains, it’s important for every person to note the differences between clinical depression and midlife crises so they can seek professional help that is most effective.
“The most differentiating factor is the frequency in which these feelings arise,” the post reads. “A person who is experiencing a midlife crisis may have periods of time in which they are feeling fine, whereas a depressed person feels down and experiences the symptoms on a daily basis. Depression is a chronic, biologically-based mood disorder, while a midlife crisis is not.”
If you find that your feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, or apathy are constant or debilitating, it is imperative to mention this to your doctors as soon as possible.
You think your best years are behind you.
Believing that all of the wonderful happenings that will occur in your lifetime have already taken place can be a sign that you're in crisis mode. "Again, it's about losing that sense of excitement," states Dr. Ludwig.
However, she says this belief is a fallacy. "Isn't it sad that we train people to think that the only time they can have happiness is when they're young — and it's so not true!" she continues. "The nice thing — and this is something we overlook culturally — is that many people have the best times of their lives as they get older. Why? Because your enjoyment with life has less to do with age and more to do with how gratified you are and how good you feel about yourself — and that can happen at any point."
You think every bad day means you're having a midlife crisis.
Even though the term "midlife crisis" was coined in 1965, ongoing research indicates that this so-called "crisis" may not even exist. According to a 25-year longitudinal study conducted by the University of Alberta, happiness does not come to a screeching halt when you turn 40. Instead, there is an overall upward trajectory of happiness that begins in our teens and early twenties.
"I think it's important that we redefine the 'midlife crisis' and we make it potentially be [something] good," Dr. Ludwig says. "Sometimes in the crisis, you are evaluating what is no longer working in your life and trying to introduce people, places, and things that might be useful, of value, or bring joy."
Dr. Leah Millheiser, OBGYN and NAMS-Certified Menopause Practitioner, concurs, adding that middle aged women in the 21st century aren't like middle aged women from the '70s and '80s. "There's been a shift in attitude," she says. "Women in their 40s and 50s today are empowered and in better shape than they were when they had their children. They're really taking the bull by the horns and saying, 'I'm not going to let this bring me down!'''
Olivia Muenter is a freelance writer and former fashion and beauty editor who writes about fashion, beauty, lifestyle, relationships, travel, home decor, and more for Woman's Day and beyond. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Refinery 29, Glamour, Byrdie, Apartment Therapy, Philadelphia Magazine, and more. When she's not reading (or talking about reading on Bad on Paper, the bookish podcast she co-hosts), you can find Olivia working on her first novel, curating the perfect playlist, or shopping online.
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