Midlife crisis: definition, causes and symptoms

Am I having a midlife crisis? What can I do to deal with a midlife crisis and its symptoms? When is a midlife crisis over and what causes people to even have one in the first place? Here is help for men and women suffering a midlife crisis.

30.04.2024 Imke Schmitz 6 minutes

Midlife crisis: explanation

What is a midlife crisis? A midlife crisis concerns a certain stage of life. During this period, those affected will question their own identity and the meaning of life. They look back on their lives and no longer feel comfortable in their current situation. They often realise that they still haven’t achieved all their goals and time may be running out.

At what age do people experience a midlife crisis? A midlife crisis mostly occurs when people are between 35 and 55. But it’s possible to have a midlife crisis at 30, too. The reason for this is the U-shaped curve of happiness: people tend to be happiest in childhood and adolescence as well as in old age. In their middle years, on the other hand, they often hit a “low”. 

How long a midlife crisis lasts varies from person to person. Some people get through it quickly, others take several years. Research into the midlife crisis shows that people generally become happier from the age of 55 onwards. Midlife crises affect men just as much as women – even if the media focus more on men’s midlife crises. 

Another fact: many people aged 20 talk of experiencing a life crisis. Researchers call this phase a “quarter-life crisis”. 

Midlife crisis: what are the causes?

A midlife crisis is triggered by different things. For most midlife crisis sufferers, questioning what their life means is a major factor. The following uncertainties and changes fuel these thoughts:

  • Your children are leaving home. 
  • Your job is no longer fulfilling.
  • People close to you are ill.
  • Your marriage or partnership is no longer working.

If you’re experiencing a midlife crisis, you may be asking yourself the following questions:

  • Does my work make me happy?
  • Am I satisfied with my relationship?
  • Who am I really? 

Then there are physical changes: men see their testosterone levels drop, women lose oestrogen. People’s appearance also changes. Wrinkles get deeper, and new ones come along. 

The reasons for a midlife crisis differ greatly – it depends on the affected person’s individual life situation. Many women experience this crisis of meaning through losing their role in life. Children leave the family home, parents get ill or die. Then women ask themselves: “Who am I when the roles of mother and daughter are slowly fading away?”.

How can I recognise a midlife crisis?

A midlife crisis involves a variety of symptoms:

  • Big changes: a common sign of a midlife crisis is the desire for radical changes. These can relate to your appearance, but also to your personal life. You may feel the need for a new hairstyle, new clothes or a change of job. Some people also try out new hobbies. 
  • Withdrawal: many people suffering a midlife crisis and questioning the meaning of their life withdraw into themselves. This is because lots of people experience a sense of shame during this stage of life and feel overwhelmed. They withdraw, which negatively affects their relationship with their partner.
  • Thoughts of death and mortality: midlife crisis sufferers grapple with the concept of death and the realisation that life is not for ever. 
  • Mood swings: people suffering a midlife crisis experience sudden mood swings. On one hand, they are active and motivated, but equally they lack drive and get depressed.

The symptoms of a midlife crisis are similar for women and men. Women are less likely to suffer a midlife crisis, though. Why is this? Women generally confide in those around them to a greater extent. They talk more often to friends about their problems and worries. This helps them cope better with their negative feelings and thoughts.

Midlife crisis or mental illness?

Many people ask if they are suffering a midlife crisis or if they have depression. This is no surprise, since the symptoms are similar. However, feeling demotivated and lacking drive last longer with depression. If depressed people don’t get treatment for their illness, they increasingly struggle to cope with everyday life. 

The question “Midlife crisis or burnout?” is also asked by many people who are questioning the meaning of their life. Burnout is characterised by a permanent feeling of tiredness caused by chronic stress.

Keep an eye on potential signs. If symptoms such as exhaustion and pessimism continue over a longer period of time, talk to your GP to start with. They will help you to identify if you are suffering from mental disorders or if it is a midlife crisis.

How can I cope with a midlife crisis?

If you are experiencing an existential crisis and are asking yourself “How can you get out of a midlife crisis?”, don’t despair. There are lots of ways to overcome a midlife crisis. Self-reflection and optimism will help you get through a midlife crisis. If you are experiencing a midlife crisis, note the following tips: 

  • Stay objective. Look at what you have achieved in life so far – professionally or personally. Assess these things realistically. You will realise that you’ve already achieved a lot, and plenty of opportunities are still ahead of you. 
  • Don’t judge yourself for your emotions. Be conscious of where you are in life: you’re not 20 anymore, but it is still possible to make your life fulfilling.
  • Avoid turning everything on its head. You might have the urge to completely restructure your life. Start with small changes instead and be open to suggestions from those around you. Discuss big changes with your partner. 
  • Talk to people you trust. Friends may also be going through a life crisis. Share ideas and support each other.
  • Look for role models that inspire you. Many people only start enjoying life in the second half of theirs. Tap into these positive examples.
  • Stay active. Because doing exercise makes us happy. Work on your fitness and treat yourself to things too. For example, get your hair done or buy some clothes that make you feel good. You should also pay attention to your diet
  • Make realistic plans for the future. Maybe you want to travel or even emigrate? Think about the best way to approach these goals. If necessary, get the opinion of the people around you. Whether you have a life crisis at 40 or a life crisis at 50 – you still have a lot of time ahead of you. Be optimistic and look forward to what lies ahead.

What can help with your partner’s midlife crisis?

How can you support a partner going through a midlife crisis? Show understanding and help them to get through their midlife crisis. Note the following points on this:

  • Don’t criticise your partner and take their concerns seriously. 
  • Help them increase their self-awareness. Show them the good things about their life and what they have achieved. 
  • Listen to their wishes. Work with them on how they can achieve their goals and tackle this together. But also communicate your ideas and, if needed, reach compromises. 
  • Play an active part in your partner’s life. Ask about their feelings, and maybe find a hobby to do together.  

Midlife crisis: advice and help

How can you combat a midlife crisis? For women and men suffering a midlife crisis, their desire for change is not a bad thing per se. But sometimes a midlife crisis requires professional treatment. Psychotherapists provide help with a midlife crisis if this tips into depression. Take your issues seriously and if need be, go to your GP. Is your situation less serious but you nevertheless need help? You could also see a life counsellor or a coach. Also, treatments from the field of complementary medicine such as kinesiology are a good alternative.

Got any questions about the midlife crisis?

Our health consultation advisors will show you how you can recognise and deal with an existential crisis. They will also help you find a recognised therapist. 

Midlife crisis as an opportunity

A midlife crisis does have its good sides: it stimulates people and motivates them to live their lives. Those affected examine their unconscious desires and goals and reflect on their life to date. This can be painful, but it also opens up the chance to live a more genuine and fulfilling life. Women and men going through a midlife crisis still have half of their lives ahead of them. This is the time to become who you want to be and set new goals: embark on a new career path, revive an old hobby or do something for the greater good.   

The midlife crisis offers even more opportunities for personal growth. People affected may learn to communicate more openly and honestly with those closest to them. You also have the chance to develop better coping strategies and greater resilience. Many people also use their midlife crisis to make new friendships and to look after their physical and mental health better.

View a midlife crisis as a time full of opportunities. Think about what you really want, and recalibrate yourself. Men and women dealing with a midlife crisis can navigate their way through this period with great success. Share this exciting journey with your partner and those close to you. Discover all the possibilities that lay ahead of you, and be optimistic.

Read more

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