As you age, you might begin looking back on the earlier decades of your life — perhaps fondly, perhaps with relief, but maybe with some wistfulness or regret.
The approach of middle age inspires dread for many, so you’re not alone in your unease. Sometimes, you might feel certain your “best years” are behind you, leaving you with nothing to look forward to but long, uneventful days, a purposeless existence, and the slow decline of your body and mind.
As you face these existential concerns and come to terms with the realization that your life has taken a different shape than you envisioned, you might begin to wonder if you’re on the brink of the dreaded midlife crisis.
A period of soul-searching is relatively common, but only about 10 to 20 percent of people actually face some kind of crisis in middle age. Experts mostly consider the “midlife crisis” a cultural phenomenon, a Western myth fueled by tired media tropes.
The various changes that come with this new stage in life do often bring up some complex emotions. These feelings might not necessarily spark a crisis, but they’re absolutely worth exploring.
The notion of the “midlife crisis” comes from Elliot Jacques, a psychoanalyst who came up with the term in 1965 after noticing significant changes in one of his middle-aged clients.
His article on the topic, published when Jacques himself was in his late 40s, also touched on his awareness of his own limitations and mortality.
According to Jacques, this crisis prompts feelings of depression, anguish, and loss related to the approaching end of life. He also noted that it often involved a loss of creativity and confidence.
Along with the first inklings of mortality, the transition to middle age is often suggested to involve other emotional turmoil, such as:
- declining happiness and life satisfaction
- aimlessness or a loss of life purpose
- frustration with changing life roles and responsibilities
- boredom and dissatisfaction with your relationship, career, or life in general
- concerns about your appearance and how others perceive you
- thoughts about death, the meaning of life, and other existential concepts
- changes in energy levels, from increased restlessness to unusual fatigue
- less motivation or interest in pursuing goals and activities you used to enjoy
- mood changes, including anger, irritability, and sadness
- changes in sexual desire
Many experts consider the midlife crisis more of a myth than anything else.
As a result, you’re unlikely to find any evidence-backed lists of key signs or clearly defined stages. Much of what people generally believe about midlife crises tends to come from media portrayals, not scientific evidence.
In reality, the factors triggering age-related distress and emotional tension can vary quite a bit, based on your unique situation and circumstances.
If you do experience age-related distress, it might fall into three loose stages:
- The trigger. Some stressor or moment of tension leads to concerns over aging, a loss of life purpose, or a fear of death. Common triggers include job loss, health concerns, a parent’s death or illness, children moving out, or even day-to-day overwhelm.
- The crisis period. This stage typically involves some examination of your doubts, relationships, values, and sense of self. If you don’t like what you discover, you might feel lost and uncertain and try to reshape your life by exploring new passions, identities, and sexual or romantic connections.
- Resolution. The “crisis,” so to speak, generally ends when you feel more comfortable with yourself and begin to accept, perhaps even welcome, what life has in store.
There’s no set timeline for a supposed “midlife crisis.”
People work through difficult and unpleasant emotions in different ways, and this process doesn’t always happen smoothly.
If you find it relatively easy to come to terms with aging and related existential concerns, you might resolve these feelings within a few weeks or months.
On the other hand, if you continue to face new stressors that heap more complications on top of the distress you’re already experiencing, the crisis period could last for several months, or even years.
Here’s an example:
Your child heads off to college, leaving you looking forward to renewing your relationship with your partner. But then, your parent’s illness places you unexpectedly in the role of caretaker once again. General exhaustion and fear for their health makes it tough to devote energy to your romantic relationship, especially since you’re still working full-time.
You feel your partner withdrawing, and the tension between you adds to your stress. Additional worries begin to bubble up: Will they cheat? Decide they didn’t sign up for an ailing parent and leave? What if I get fired because I can barely focus at work?
Unless you directly address these concerns, they’re likely to linger.
More often than not, age-related distress begins when you realize your own mortality and come up against the perceived restrictions of age.
Plenty of people consider youth the most desirable commodity. The wide variety of anti-aging products and procedures on the market only serve to emphasize the idea that you should maintain youth, or the prime of health and appearance, at any cost.
Cultural assumptions about age also come into play. People commonly associate aging with unwelcome physical and mental changes, like:
As your middle years approach, then, you might feel afraid of aging before you’ve had the chance to fully experience life — especially if you have yet to achieve certain milestones or personal goals, like purchasing a home, getting married, or publishing a novel.
At the same time, those very milestones you achieved can also factor into midlife distress:
- Parents who define themselves by their role as parents may feel a sense of loss and purposelessness when their children leave home.
- Parents who juggle work and child care, plus carry a majority of the mental load, might be “doing it all,” but they’re more likely to face a breaking point when faced with even one additional source of stress.
The distress you’re experiencing is valid, no matter what you choose to call it. The following strategies can help you navigate those complicated feelings productively.
Acknowledge your feelings
You might feel tempted to ignore your frustration and hope it goes away, but pushing these feelings aside usually doesn’t help much.
- When do I feel most satisfied or content?
- Who do I enjoy spending time with?
- What gives my days meaning and purpose?
- How do I take care of my own needs?
Heading down the road to self-discovery? Start with our guide.
Remember: Your life is expanding, not shrinking
Simply acknowledging the onward march of time can empower you to take charge of what you can control. Yes, you’re growing older, but your life is far from over, and your choices don’t need to align with society’s idea of middle age.
Many people end a point of crisis, not by resigning themselves to limitations, but by realizing the wealth of possibilities open to them.
Maybe you feel renewed by embracing new interests and creative outlets, or maybe you realize you’d like to change your diet, dress a different way, go back to school, or date casually.
These opportunities, and others, all lie within your grasp. Doing things that make you happy can help you regain a sense of self-confidence, purpose, and joy. You only have one life, after all, and it’s never too late to start living it for yourself.
Take stock of your relationships
It’s natural for relationships, especially marriages and long-term partnerships, to change over time. Sometimes, these changes lead to unmet needs, along with other conflict.
A tense or strained relationship can leave everyone involved unhappy, and lasting changes in relationships with children, friends, parents, or partners can leave you feeling lonely.
Considering if your emotional and physical needs have shifted can help you get more insight on areas for growth. A couples or family therapist can help you identify sources of relationship stress and explore your options for change.
As you may have noticed, many signs of a supposed midlife crisis — sadness, irritability, less interest in life, thoughts of death — resemble key symptoms of depression.
It’s always helpful to connect with a mental health professional when any emotional or mental symptoms:
- persist for more than 1 or 2 weeks
- affect your relationships, friendships, or job performance
- get in the way of your daily routine
- make it difficult to take care of basic needs
Keep in mind that mental health symptoms can certainly show up for the first time as you approach middle age. It’s also possible, though, for mild anxiety or depression to get worse as you grapple with stressful life changes.
Therapy can help, no matter your age or stage of life. In fact, many therapists specialize in offering support for life transitions and the mental health symptoms that show up alongside these changes.
A therapist can offer more insight on what might be going on and help you explore new ways of finding fulfillment.
As you approach the twilight of your youth, don’t think of it as an ending. After all, the sun has to set in order to rise again — and rise it will, on the dawn of the rest of your life.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.