Your midlife crisis is calling you or not

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We’ve all seen the stereotypical midlife crisis: the guy in the convertible, usually in his 40s or 50s, seemingly doing one less desperate hold on a long-gone youngster. We guess the car was meant to impress, but sometimes all we see is something pathetic and wasteful. We also consider this midlife crisis to be inevitable – as much a part of aging as receding gums or expanding in size.

What if the notion of “crisis” was not so predetermined? Quarantine, of course, there is no way to avoid a countdown. We all experience physical and emotional changes as we age. And the natural uncertainty (and, for some, actual anxiety) that comes with aging is a common reaction. The crisis suggests something sinister and destructive, or at least, in the case of the convertible cliché, very expensive. A midlife crisis may reflect certain cultural norms, especially in Western society, rather than a psychological condition that we will all face.

Quarantine is inevitable. The crisis could be optional.

Quarantine ? Global. Crisis? Local. The psychological stress that most of us face during our 40s – a period some define as 30-70, with the middle years being 40-60 – is due to a specific event (such as a divorce, loss of a parent or loss of a job) . A more generic feeling of acute stress brought on simply by the number of candles on your cake is far more common in rich countries than elsewhere.

A British study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development found that 59% of women surveyed aged 40 to 49 said they had experienced a seizure. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that people aged 45 to 54 were the least likely to be satisfied with their life. Other studies have found no correlation between middle age and extreme distress.

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that truly universal human experiences (like aging) don’t just happen in specific parts of the world. This phenomenon suggests that cultural norms surrounding aging and society’s perception of the value of people beyond a certain age can cause people to experience stress when they reach this stage.

It’s not all in your head. It’s nothing at all. A crisis suggests that a particularly negative outcome is certain or likely, and steps should be taken to avoid that outcome. Just being 40 (or 50 or 60) doesn’t create an inevitable negative psychological event in your brain. People going through a midlife crisis have likely internalized a (probably devastating) narrative that they are critically declining due to age.

For some, it is a perceived deterioration in their intellectual capacity. According to a study cited by the American Psychological Association: “Verbal ability, numerical ability, reasoning, and verbal memory all improve around midlife.” That’s right, get better. A midlife crisis is not the result of an actual decline in mental processing. So don’t blame your brain.

You may have seizures during quarantine. If a midlife crisis is not a mental health issue in a clinical sense, how do you explain that, at least in some countries, most people report feeling the least happy in their midlife? (The age of 45-46 is considered by many to be the peak of midlife).

One possibility: people during this period are part of the “sandwich generation” one of the most difficult times of our lives. At this stage, people are often at a point in their professional career when they have important responsibilities. They are more likely to be married and raising a family as their own parents begin to age, creating a collision of stress and obligations.

There’s a reality to a person’s physical decline – some face their first major health crisis at this age (or begin to notice smaller signs of aging like the need for bifocals or the appearance of arthritis). These individual events are real and the stress they bring is not in your head. Overall, the pressure may feel like a permanent (negative) change in your experience of everyday life.

And this convertible? Why do some people seem to go through a crisis and others less so? Some people perceive that they lose value as they age, that they lack time, or that they have wasted the first decades of their adult life. Their answer is to “make things happen”. For some, this may just be a costly decision; for others, more destructive (consumption of hard drugs, extramarital affair). It is unclear why some people struggle so much in their living environment to characterize it as a crisis. It may come down to individual responses: what hits me like a punch may feel like just another Wednesday to you.

If you’re part of the Wednesday crowd, there’s good news: studies show that people who proved to be the most resilient in their young adulthood tend to be less hit hard by the challenges of midlife and the fifties. While some treat these changes with unhealthy behaviors, others find it the right incentive to change careers or make other positive adjustments to their lives.

The good news is that studies show that most of us come out of the slump in our mid-50s. Even better, this recovery seems to continue well into their 60s. Perhaps the real antidote to crisis is time, and the best advice is the same given to all teenagers (another difficult stage in life): “you’ll understand when you’re older”.

About Marion Alexander

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