Women as young as their 40s (and sometimes even earlier) are experiencing it. Not many are talking about it. Those in it may not know what to do about it. Although it can be related to a change in physical appearance, extra workouts and Botox isn’t going to cure it. And getting a flashy car or having a fling, isn’t going to fix it either.
Many women, at this time in their life, are faced with a feeling of despair and stress that’s leaving them anxious, depressed and sleepless. “Women in a midlife crisis describe a general feeling of dissatisfaction with life or feeling unhappy,” explains Dr. Marketa Wills, MD, a psychiatrist and author. “While some women complain of weight gain, problems sleeping and sex, others may have problems with attention, concentration, and focus commonly described as brain fog or zoning out.” We spoke to experts to find out more about this not-new yet under-the-radar issue and how to help if you or someone you know is experiencing one.
What is a mid-life crisis? When does it happen, why and what are the signs?
“A midlife crisis typically happens somewhere around that first decade of midlife, between 40 to 50, although it can happen later for some women,” says Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson, a recognized leader in functional medicine and author of the new self-care book Vibrant: A Groundbreaking Program to Get Energized, Reverse Aging, and Glow. “Those who say they have experienced one typically describe it as some combination of realizing they are no longer young and have a sudden sense of their own mortality, don’t have the kind of life they hoped they would have at this point in their lives, feel like their lives no longer fit their priorities or passions, and/or want to get back to the things they loved when they were young, that they may have had to put aside to do more adult things like building their careers and raising their families.”
Dr. Gin Love Thompson, PhD, psychotherapist, and author notes that “a big question I hear over and over from women is, Is this it? Is this all life is? And that’s when we dig into ‘what we expected life to be and what we can do now to feel more fulfilled and return to some of the dreams and goals we had.’”
Whether it’s male or female, Dr. Wills explains that it’s “lack of fulfillment in work and marriage are common triggers for a midlife crisis.” Other common triggers? These can range from “aging or death of parents or other family members, loss of fertility, maturation of children or changes to the physical body associated with aging,” she explains. “This prolonged period of boredom and questioning may last two to five years in women and is characterized by frequent crying spells, low mood, poor concentration or changes in sex drive, however, women in particular when going through a midlife crisis also cite feeling invisible as they age given our youth-obsessed culture.”
Typically, the term is associated with men not women, why is that?
“One theory is that men value external status indicators more than women, so their response to the anxiety that their lives aren’t what they should be is to go out and get those external markers of success, like shiny red sports cars and younger women,” explains Stephenson. “Women, on the other hand, are thought to value inner fulfillment more, so they may leave unfulfilling marriages or careers and do something they think will bring them more inner satisfaction.” However, women like their male counterparts can show outward signs of having one, too. “I know or have heard of women who take off on some dangerous grand adventure like solo world travel or skydiving, others who start completely new careers that have nothing to do with what they did before, and others who take up with much younger partners, whereas some men make shifts that give them more spiritual fulfillment without upending their bank accounts or marriages,” she adds. “Either way, what these all have in common is the desire to change something, when life doesn’t feel satisfying.”
Haley Perlus, PhD, a sports and performance psychologist, explains “those associations were made when there were mainly alpha-males and stay-at-home moms, or women who existed to be subservient, not equal to men.” Which of course, we know is no longer today’s truth. “As women have become a huge part of the corporate and business world and earn significant money, their chances of having a mid-life crisis have grown,” she adds. “Women are analyzing themselves and their “station” in life in a way that was previously relegated to men”.
Are there physiological factors that may play a role in a female mid-life crisis?
“One unique feature of a woman’s midlife crisis is that it often happens around the same time she may be heading into menopause,” says Stephenson. “To say this is a purely psychological condition ignores the profound influence of changing hormones at this time of life, which impact so much of our lives, including the way we think and feel — as estrogen, progesterone, and even testosterone fall away, women often struggle with mood swings, discomfort, and depression, which can add to the feeling that life isn’t satisfying.”
Can there be a silver lining for women when experiencing a mid-life crisis?
Women should know that a midlife crisis is a real and legitimate part of the transition into mid-life
Embrace it. “Women should know that a midlife crisis is a real and legitimate part of the transition into mid-life,” notes Stephenson. “It’s not a sign that something is wrong with you. It is simply part of a woman’s ever-changing and growing psyche. It only becomes a problem when people let powerful but temporary strong feelings convince them to make decisions that will impact their lives for years to come, which they will regret later.”
How can women be advocates for their own mental health and navigate this time in their life?
Dr. Perlus shares this checklist for self-love.
Talk to a doctor. Many of the symptoms of midlife crisis are due to hormonal imbalances that can cause anxiety or depression. A doctor will be able to assess if you are a candidate for hormone replacement therapy, anti-anxiety meds, or anti-depressants.
Speak with a therapist. Someone to guide you through what you are feeling and explain where there are cognitive distortions and re-direct negative thoughts into more positive or productive ones.
Increase or connect with your circle of friends. If you put “all your eggs in one basket” and your entire life revolved around your children or a spouse, focus on making new friends who can relate to you and what you are experiencing.
Develop a new hobby or interest. Find something new to do that you actually enjoy with no ulterior motive other than the joy of that hobby or activity. If you chose something you did not do when you were younger, you won’t spend time comparing your “results” to that of your younger self.
Learn to be easy on yourself. Don’t compare yourself unfavorably to how you looked, performed or acted when you were younger. Learn from past mistakes but don’t dwell on them and berate yourself.
Exercise. This produces endorphins that will lift your mood. When your body feels agile, strong and limber, you feel better.
Read (or listen to) a book that empowers women. Especially one about a woman during mid-life, such as You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero.
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