What Is a Midlife Crisis, and How Is It Different for Some People?

Your feelings about this stage may be complicated. But they can also reveal and point you in the direction you’re meant to go. 

A midlife crisis is the stuff of clichés and Hollywood tropes: Red sports cars, leather pants, and perky paramours. Other people's version, however, is talked about much less. 

In some people, many of its symptoms—like sleeplessness, sadness, and anxiety—are chalked up to perimenopause. Women mostly experience perimenopause, which is the physiological transition to menopause. However, anyone with a uterus can have those symptoms.

Perimenopause, with all its hormonal fluctuations, can undoubtedly bring emotional upheaval. But a woman's midlife crisis is often more complex, with cultural forces and psychological triggers at play.

The good news is that middle age can also be enlightening and liberating, said Barbara Mark, PhD, an executive coach in San Francisco. 

"This is a time that brings about self-reflection," noted Mark. "Some women move through this process with little incident. For others, it is a crisis."

We confront the question: Am I living the life I truly want to live? But understanding the transition can help you tap into your deep inner knowing to emerge from it with greater clarity and peace of mind.

Here's what you should know about the dreaded midlife crisis, including how people experience that period of their lives differently.

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Cultural Matters

It's no secret that we live in a society obsessed with productivity. But that "go, go, go" culture can feel especially harsh if your pace slows down or plateaus in midlife. For example, your kids leave home, or you stop climbing the corporate ladder.

"It's like our culture is saying, 'Oh well, it's all over,' " explained Martha Beck, author of The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self. "It's the way our culture sees the life course, and it doesn't see it right."

To challenge that deeply ingrained perspective, Beck suggested looking to other parts of the world where aging is celebrated. Take China, for example: "There, you accrue more prestige as you get older," explained Beck. "You are the person to whom others go to for advice."

That respect is well-deserved because we become wiser with age, said Lynn Saladino, PsyD, clinical psychologist and Health's contributing psychology editor.

"Through the hardship of our experiences comes a broader perspective," said Saladino. 

Reflecting on the lessons you've learned may lead to a greater appreciation of your strengths, many of which you likely didn't possess 20, 10, or even five years ago. 

Another cultural hurdle women face: Maintaining their sense of attractiveness as we age when the idea of beauty is a forever-young appearance. Try radically reassessing your definition of beauty, suggested Beck.

Take note of things around you that you find visually pleasing, even if nobody else would agree. You might stop to admire the intricate folds in a ball of aluminum foil or the delicate swirls in the algae on the surface of a pond. Eventually, you may be able to see the beauty in your crow's feet and laugh lines, too.

It can also help to bask in your self-assurance.

"As we age, our increased confidence and calm adds tremendously to our attractiveness," offered Saladino. "Being comfortable in your own skin often gets easier over time, leading to an effortless beauty that was likely hard to achieve as a younger person."

Tips for Overcoming Cultural Bias on Aging

  • Acknowledge that age reflects experience, hardship, and wisdom.
  • Reassess your definition of beauty.
  • Feel more confident and comfortable in your skin.

Psychological Elements

It's natural to begin reevaluating how you spend your days at the midpoint of your life. If you've been caring for teenagers or elderly loved ones, you might feel depleted. Perhaps you're frustrated with your career or longing for a greater purpose.

That period is an opportunity to refashion your life. It's an excellent time to get off autopilot and be more deliberate about your decisions. 

"Then, lean into the optimism of becoming a great version of yourself," said Saladino.

To architect your future, it may be helpful to begin with your past, added Beck. Think back to when you were a young child and had zero responsibilities. What did you choose to do with your time? Beck recalled drawing, reading, and playing outside.

Those activities will likely make you happy now, too. Imagine a scenario that allows you to engage in a grown-up version of a childhood pastime, and assess how your body feels in response, said Beck. 

Does your breathing deepen? Do you experience a sensation of freedom? Those are good signs.

You might also ask yourself some tough questions: Who do you want to spend time with? What are your core values? What makes you feel fulfilled? How will you take better care of yourself?

Once you've set your goals, take lots of tiny "turtle steps" toward them. Since the steps are small, it's no big deal if you fail. 

"Small steps and repeated failures are the way to make something happen," said Beck.

Tips for Overcoming Psychological Elements of Aging

  • Be more deliberate about your decisions.
  • Reflect on what activities made you happy when you were younger and imagine a grown-up version.
  • Ask yourself tough questions about your values and goals.

Biological Changes

In the years leading up to menopause, it's impossible to ignore the role hormones play in our lives: "They're all over the place," said Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. and Health Advisory Board member.

"Some days, we make no estrogen, and others, we make double the amount. Some days, our breasts are sore. And others, we might have hot flashes," explained Dr. Minkin. "This variability and unpredictability can trigger depression and mood swings."

Fortunately, those troubling issues diminish or disappear entirely with the onset of menopause, which in the United States, occurs between ages 45 to 55.

But in the meantime, try being open about your symptoms with others who are likely going through similar experiences, recommended Saladino. Your night sweats may not feel so annoying when you realize you are not alone.

Confide in the right friends, and you'll be met with compassion and solidarity, which can only deepen your bonds. 

"Our culture is so competitive," added Beck. "But if you get vulnerable and tell the truth to women who deserve to hear it, you'll have a damn fine time."

Tips for Overcoming Biological Elements of Aging

  • Be open and vulnerable about your symptoms with others who are likely going through similar experiences.
  • Know you are not alone.

A Quick Review

A midlife crisis for a woman can be complex, with cultural, psychological, and biological triggers at play. 

However, middle age can also be a very enlightening and liberating period, especially if it is approached with self-reflection and as a time to reset life goals.

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  1. National Institute on Aging. What is menopause?.

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