Say “midlife crisis,” and many people picture a cultural cliché: someone in their 40s or 50s who has bought a flashy sports car and suddenly started dying their hair a youthful shade. But common symptoms of dissatisfaction with one’s life and personal “status quo” may signify a deeper issue that should be taken seriously.
Decades of research have revealed that many people experience a life-cycle pattern known as the “happiness U-curve.” This phenomenon describes how someone’s sense of satisfaction and contentment can dip in their 40s and early 50s — before again starting to increase with age.
While this period of midlife malaise doesn’t affect everyone (and is not an official diagnosis), it can make some people more susceptible to a major depressive or anxiety disorder if left unchecked, according to Lauren Borkowski, MA, LPC, of Sound Mind Counseling & Wellness in Colorado.
She explains that this is because during these midlife years, people often take time to reflect on their relationships, career, and life’s general direction. This questioning can cause them to feel stuck and hopeless, frustrated, or empty, which may dampen their future outlook.
By age 40 or 50, it’s common to have passed some of life’s biggest traditional milestones, such as getting married, establishing yourself in a career, raising young kids, and buying a home, says Alexander Burgemeester, neuropsychologist and owner of The Narcissistic Life.
“People who are going through this [period] often reminisce about the past and rarely talk about the future,” he says. “There is a lack of feeling fulfilled, as they believe the largest moments of their life have already passed.”
Borkowski adds that certain situations can trigger this sense of crisis in middle age, for instance:
• Mourning the loss of older family members
• Feeling lonely with a newly empty nest
• Experiencing worry over the impacts of aging on your health
• Thinking about missed opportunities and unreached goals.
Because this emotionally uncomfortable time in life isn’t a medical condition, there aren’t official “symptoms” of a midlife crisis. Still, there are common signs that you or someone you love may be experiencing the mental toll of aging through this period of life.
A common reaction to entering midlife is to feel like we missed out on something when we were younger — and to act on that impulse — explains Rich Heller, MSW, a therapist at Rich in Relationship in New York.
Some may experience an intense urge for adventure or drastic change, for example. That’s why actions like making a big-ticket purchase and ending a marriage are common pop culture portrayals of a midlife crisis.
But this itch can appear in any number of ways, like quitting a job, obsessing over or changing one’s appearance, or suddenly relocating.
People who feel a sense of dissatisfaction with their life in middle age often question long-held beliefs, values, or choices. This lingering doubt can confuse someone’s sense of self, chipping away at their confidence. In turn, they may find it more difficult to trust in their own decision-making abilities.
This same discontentment can also lead people to excessively evaluate their past — and blame themselves or others for what they see as missed opportunities or setbacks. It can also prompt some people to compare their life to others, triggering jealousy of peers or younger friends and acquaintances.
A midlife crisis may feel like a series of small, nagging doubts, an ongoing sense of discontentment, or simply prolonged boredom.
Everyone’s experience is different, but Burgemeester says that these feelings might develop into anxiety or depression when someone can’t feel satisfied and always feels like life’s “good times” are over.
Mental health issues like depression can affect someone’s entire state of well-being, including their physical health and relationships. Look out for common signs you or your loved one may be suffering from a mental health issue, like:
• Loss of interest in activities
• Lack of energy
• Sleep disruptions
• Change in appetite
• Increased alcohol or drug use
(If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at any time, day or night, for free and confidential support, at 1-800-273-8255. You can also visit the organization’s website for more resources.)
Experts say that navigating midlife is about reconnecting with who you are — not who you were.
That’s because reflecting on what your strengths, values, and interests are today can help you form new milestones and goals, reinstating a sense of purpose, direction, and control.
“It’s helpful to try adding some variety to your life,” Borkowski says. “Plan a trip, take a class, or join a club or organization.”
Focusing on smaller, gradual changes — like by developing a hobby or learning a new skill — also encourages a sense that you’re “taking action” toward meaningful momentum in your midlife, without risking a rash or impulsive decision.
(Read “Maintaining Meaning, Purpose, and Mental Health as You Age” to learn more about maintaining mental well-being.)
Research shows that physical activity helps people maintain a sense of life satisfaction and happiness at every age.
Maintaining a healthy diet, engaging in physical activities, and getting good sleep can support mental health. These healthy habits also:
• Protect your body from the physical decline or frailty associated with aging, which can limit your ability to engage in activities you enjoy
• Reduce your risk of developing a chronic disease or other health issues, common triggers for midlife unhappiness
• Lower tension and stress
(Read “8 Tips for Healthy Aging and Living Well Later in Life" to learn more about maximizing wellness at age 50, 60, 70, and beyond.)
“If these things sound overwhelming to do on your own, getting therapy can help,” Borkowski says. “Joining a support group can also be invaluable.”
External supports can help people understand — and reinvigorate — their strengths, create new goals, and find sound footing in this transitional period of life. This can help reduce the risk of developing mental health issues while uncovering ways to improve your satisfaction and contentment in midlife.
Staying on top of your health becomes even more important as you enter midlife. And scheduling a routine checkup doesn’t need to be a hassle! At Carbon Health, we work diligently to ensure that appointments are easy to schedule, and that all information on your health, including ongoing care, is in one place for you to access.