What Is a Midlife Crisis?

August 24, 2022

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About The Editor
About The Editor

Melissa Carmona is the content manager at Advanced Recovery Systems.

About The Writer
About The Writer

Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board.

About The Medical Reviewer
About The Medical Reviewer

Dr. Angela Phillips is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher.

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Table of Contents

While everyone might have their own perception of midlife, it’s usually between the ages of 40 and 60. The middle point of your life is where you might frequently hear that you should experience stress and inner turmoil regarding who you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going.

While some declines in happiness and life satisfaction are often seen when people reach their midlife, it’s not usually a big drop. Some studies show people’s life satisfaction increases in midlife and declines later, but some people may experience a midlife crisis. In fact, recent research shows that 46% of men and 59% of women experience a crisis between the ages of 40–49, and earlier studies have shown that 10–20% of people experience such a crisis. 

The History of the Midlife Crisis

Elliott Jacques, a psychoanalyst, coined the term midlife crisis in the 1960s. Jacques noted that his patients in their mid-to-late 30s seemed to go through sudden lifestyle changes and depressive periods as they confronted the concept of their own mortality. That led to the spread of the concept. Now, we often have stereotypes in our minds of what a midlife crisis might look like, and the concept of this crisis is portrayed frequently in the media and pop culture. 

Jacques was known for studying organizational structures, like corporate culture. His research was primarily based on empirical studies and also driven by the theories of Sigmund Freud. When Jacques himself was 35, he started thinking about the concept. He presented a paper on death and the midlife crisis to the British Psychoanalytic Society in 1957, but it wasn’t accepted for publication in a journal until eight years later. 

He argued that the first phase of adult life is lived during the middle years of life. That means people have to adjust to new situations. There is an establishment of work and family, parents age, and children begin getting closer to their adulthood. Jacques felt those factors, combined with the personal aging experience, led to the midlife crisis.

Midlife Crisis Symptoms

Not everyone will experience a midlife crisis. It’s not the norm for the majority of people. A midlife crisis is a social construct and not an official diagnosis. Since it’s not a diagnosis, it can be tough to say what the symptoms might look like. What one person experiences may be nothing like what another does. The signs might be similar to what we experience during other times of crisis in our lives, such as the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one.

Changes that might occur if someone is experiencing a life crisis include:

  • Neglecting personal hygiene and care or obsession with appearance
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Significant changes in mood, such as anger, sadness, irritability, or anxiety
  • Withdrawing from relationships or dissatisfaction with them
  • Career dissatisfaction
  • Changing usual routines
  • Using drugs or alcohol
  • Reckless behavior
  • Questioning religious belief
  • Changes in sexual desire
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Nostalgia
  • Feelings of regret

What Causes a Midlife Crisis?

While the experience is different for everyone, some of the things that might trigger a midlife crisis include:

  • Changing roles, like becoming an empty nester or feeling like your children are growing up fast
  • The aging process
  • Developing a physical illness or a decline in physical ability
  • Fear of death
  • Changes in the body like weight gain
  • Divorces or other changes in personal relationships
  • Feelings that you haven’t achieved what you hoped to by this point in your life
  • Financial issues, especially as they relate to retirement
  • Career challenges
  • Hormonal changes

Midlife Crisis in Men vs. Women

There’s not a lot of available research on differences in how men and women experience a midlife crisis, but in one 2000 study, it was found to be more common for women than men. In that research, conducted by a sociology professor at Cornell University, 26.3% of women versus 25.4% of men experienced what could be described as a midlife crisis. Based on that same research, while more than 25% of Americans older than 35 felt they’d had a midlife crisis, more than half of these situations were stressful life events.

Women tend to experience differences in their midlives because of hormones as well. For example, when women go through menopause, hormones fluctuate, which can lead to a range of symptoms. There are higher ovarian and breast cancer risks for women in their 40s and 50s, which can affect mental health.

Men overall are more likely to link a crisis to issues in their jobs or their careers. For women, a midlife crisis is most likely to stem from physical appearance, ability and health changes. Beyond those, there don’t appear to be major differences between men and women. 

Midlife Crisis vs. Depression

The signs of a midlife crisis can be mistaken for depression and vice versa. These are some key differences:

  • Diagnosis: Depression is a diagnosable mood disorder. There is a set of diagnostic criteria. A midlife crisis is vague and not a recognized mental health condition.
  • Age-Specific: In a midlife crisis, signs occur in middle adulthood, but depression can affect people of any age.
  • Complexity: someone’s reflection on their life can cause the experience of a midlife crisis as they age. Depression is caused by a complex combination of psychological, biological, and environmental factors.
  • Severity: dissatisfaction can come during midlife, but depression symptoms are often more severe and persistent without treatment.
  • Treatment: If you regain a feeling of inner peace about the direction of your life, you may notice your symptoms of a midlife crisis get better. Depression, on the other hand, usually requires medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes to control symptoms.

Can a Midlife Crisis Be Beneficial?

The concept of a midlife crisis has many negative connotations, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If you’re at a point in your life where you’re reflecting and re-evaluating, this “crisis” can be a time for you to make positive changes. For example, you might consider changing your career or starting your own business. Maybe you decide you’ll take more time for yourself or leave a bad relationship. You can also learn more about yourself as an individual outside of your family and career roles. Someone in a midlife crisis might step outside their comfort zone, learn to value self-care and try new things.

When To Seek Help for a Midlife Crisis

Not everyone’s midlife crisis is going to require outside or professional help. There are, however, situations where you might find relief through therapy. If you work with a therapist, you can resolve trauma, work on a plan for the future and explore how you’re going to find meaning as you age. You can also work through specific issues with a therapist, like managing a change in your career or important relationships.

If you’d like to navigate mental health challenges on your terms, explore the Nobu app. Nobu is an advanced mental health app that lets you explore your mental health goals, thoughts, and emotions. You can start for free, and if you need more support, you can connect with a licensed mental health professional with a paid plan.

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About The Editor
About The Editor

Melissa Carmona is the content manager at Advanced Recovery Systems.

About The Writer
About The Writer

Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board.

About The Medical Reviewer
About The Medical Reviewer

Dr. Angela Phillips is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher.

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