Is it Really a Midlife Crisis?

by Andrea M. Darcy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

You are somewhere between 45 to 65, and you decide to make big life changes…. only to be questioned by friends who think you are having a midlife crisis. Or you are facing many challenges and start to spiral and convince yourself it must be one. Is either scenario correct?

What is a midlife crisis, really?

It’s a term created way back in the 1960s, based on the observations of one psychiatrist over any solid research. But the idea stuck and the research followed, both for and against the concept.

A midlife crisis is not just changing things or struggling with challenges in middle age. It is sudden changes or struggles caused or at least informed by worries about ageing and mortality.

But is it really a midlife crisis?

A study where 23 per cent of participants identified as having a midlife crisis discovered that in fact only eight per cent of them actually had.

The rest were mistaking typical challenges of middle life for one, such as divorce, empty nesting, losing a job, or suddenly being burdened with the care of ageing parents. Unless these challenges come with strong worries about ageing and approaching death, they don’t qualify.

On the other hand, if you are still in your late thirties and are having a meltdown as you are convinced your life is over now you are almost 40? And are having death anxiety? Then you could qualify as having a midlife crisis a bit early.

Midlife crisis or depression?

It’s far too easy to brush off someone middle-aged who is suddenly experiencing low moods or negative thinking as just having a typical midlife crisis. When in fact it might be depression, which left untreated can spiral onto major depressive disorder.

While we can have depression and a midlife crisis together, the difference between the two would be in your thinking, and the consistency of your low moods.

When we are in a midlife crisis our negative thoughts are about not having achieved enough with our life, and running out of time. It's regret, nostalgia, and restlessness at play. When we are depressed, they are about being unworthy and about life being pointless.

With a midlife crisis, we don't feel bad all the time. Some days we feel fine, other days we feel anxious or low. With depression, we will feel awful all of the time. No matter how hard we try we can't shake the blues.

There aren’t physical symptoms connected to a midlife crisis, although our overthinking and anxiety can affect our sleep and see us turning to bad habits like alcohol abuse. Depression also affects our sleep, but also tends to bring a sense of exhaustion, foggy headedness, general aches and pains, and ongoing colds and flus.

Midlife crisis or menopause?

Thankfully here in the UK a movement is in swing to bring information on menopause to the masses. But it’s still far too easy for many women to blame their sudden low moods and anxiety on a ‘midlife crisis’ and miss getting the menopause support they need.

Menopause can, though, definitely trigger or feed into a crisis. It certainly makes a woman abruptly aware that she is not the youthful person she was, as she ends her fertile years and can see symptoms like a change in libido, dry skin, and aching joints. So while HRT can alleviate many of these physical symptoms, it doesn’t change or take away the shock around ageing that menopause can be.

A distinctly Western phenomenon?

Earlier research suggested that far fewer citizens identify as having a midlife crisis in countries like Japan and India. And that it is mostly a Western phenomenon, which has led to suggestions that it is connected to the American obsession with fighting ageing and also the idealisation of teenage years.

But more recent research used data from five hundred thousand people globally and connected having a midlife crisis not to culture, but to affluence.

The study found that in affluent nations there is a rise in a host of mental issues in middle age, and points out that it is a time when suicide statistics shoot up. This is certainly true in the UK, where men and women are at the highest risk of taking their life from ages 45 to 49.

So what to do if I’m having one?

A change in perspective might help, also called ‘reframing’ in psychology. If we view midlife as a transition period, towards an inevitable decline, we are more likely to go into crisis.

It’s more helpful to approach middle aged as a period of growth. It’s a good time of life to see what goals we have achieved and to troubleshoot the one we haven’t, then make choices around what goals we will now focus on.

Also take the time to recognise what you have achieved, which might be more than you have let yourself realise.

Become fully who you are

Jung would say that we are in a period of individuation,  where we are becoming more fully and deeply aware of who we are. From a Jungian perspective, perhaps this would be the reason we might have a crisis. As seeing who we are can then make us realise all the goals we clung to that weren’t actually for us, or if we had created a life we thought we should over the one that actually suits us. But again, all useful fodder for now pulling up our socks and making that life finally reality.

And perhaps the best advice here is to work to stop caring what others think. Again, a midlife crisis is heavily fed by the values placed by society on different aged people over any real proven values. What if those ideas didn’t even exist? Who would you then be if nobody was judging you to telling you what your life now should or shouldn’t look like?

Can therapy help me?

Unbiased support in the form of talk therapy can certainly be very helpful if you are going through a midlife crisis that is leaving you feel lost and despondent. It gives you a safe space to vent your fears and frustrations, and can also introduce you to helpful coping tools.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for example, teaches you how to move your negative thoughts to more balanced ones, and many therapists now integrate mindfulness into their work with clients.

Time to stop struggling alone and find help to make the second half of your life the best half? Find your perfect therapist now and start talking your way forward.

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