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Reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Picture a “midlife crisis” and you’ll probably think of a middle-aged man impulsively purchasing a sports car, leaving his spouse and starting to see a younger girlfriend. Maybe this mental picture even involves him quitting his job to spend more time on the golf course.
The midlife crisis has become a staple of pop culture, appearing in countless TV shows, movies and other forms of media.
While the stereotypical midlife crisis similar to what’s described above does sometimes happen, most midlife dissatisfaction in men is different. For some, getting older can involve abrupt, major changes. However, for many, the signs of a midlife crisis are much more subtle.
Below, we’ve explained what a midlife crisis is, as well as how the common perception of midlife crises relates to clinically recognized mental health conditions.
We’ve also listed common signs of dissatisfaction and poor mental health that can occur in men as they enter a new stage of life in their 40s, 50s or 60s, as well as the options that are available for making progress and feeling better.
Before we get into details, one thing that’s important to clear up is that a midlife crisis isn’t really a recognized mental health condition.
By this, we mean that if you, as a man, are starting to feel dissatisfied with your life in your 40s, 50s or 60s, your mental health provider isn’t going to formally diagnose you with a midlife crisis and prescribe medication or a specific type of “midlife crisis management” therapy.
The midlife crisis is more of a social phenomenon than a specific mental illness. It’s a term that refers to the dissatisfaction, anxiety and feelings of depression or remorse that many men start to feel as they transition from the first part of their adult life into middle age.
During this period, it’s common to look back on things you may have planned and see that they didn’t come to fruition, or see your peers succeed in ways that might make you feel inadequate or as if you aren’t living up to your full potential.
The term midlife crisis was coined in the mid-1960s by Canadian social scientist Elliott Jaques. He observed that many of his middle-aged clients changed their behavior in response to coming face-to-face with their personal limitations and growing awareness of their mortality.
Although it’s normal to experience certain realizations with age and to change your thinking and behavior in response, the pop culture perception of the typical midlife crisis — a new car, divorce and younger partner, and an increased focus on personal appearance — isn’t really accurate.
In fact, research shows that only around 10 to 20 percent of men actually go through the typical “midlife crisis” as they get older.
However, many studies actually do support the idea that many people develop issues related to mental health in midlife. Although findings are mixed, some research suggests that a U-shaped curve in wellbeing that occurs during adulthood can reach its low point during middle age.
This change in your feelings, perception of yourself or mental health may spur you to take action and change certain aspects of your life.
Because a midlife crisis isn’t a clinically recognized mental health issue, there aren’t any specific symptoms that mental health providers use to identify this issue in men.
It’s important to note that many of the cliché “signs of a midlife crisis” aren’t reliable indicators of mental health or wellbeing. If you’re in your 50s or 60s and just want to buy a Corvette, or if you no longer feel happy in your relationship, this doesn’t mean that you’re mentally unwell.
However, some of the symptoms and behaviors associated with a midlife crisis can be similar to those of known, clinically recognized mental health issues, including clinical depression, anxiety and professional burnout.
Major depressive disorder (MDD) is the most common mental disorder in middle-aged folks. In fact, data from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) suggests that 5.4 percent of people aged 50 and older experienced a depressive episode in the past year.
Sometimes, a midlife crisis may be a type of existential crisis that leads to depression symptoms — a phenomenon referred to as existential depression.
This type of event can occur due to changes in your life, such as your children leaving home, or a significant setback, such as job loss. The death of a parent or other person close to you could also trigger an existential crisis.
During a period of existential crisis, you may question your life decisions and think about making changes to your life.
You may experience the following symptoms of depression in middle age:
A persistent sad, negative and generally empty mood
Increased irritability and a “shorter fuse” with other people
Feelings of anxiety, pessimism and hopelessness
Difficulty focusing on tasks or remembering information
A sense that you’re guilty, worthless or unable to be helped
Slowed movement, speech and decision-making abilities
Insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep) and/or oversleeping
Difficulty sitting still and a general feeling of restlessness
Changes in your appetite, eating habits and body composition
Reduced energy and a feeling that you’re physical fatigued
Aches, pains, digestive issues and other physical symptoms
Suicidal thoughts and/or attempts to commit suicide
It’s common and normal to experience some of these symptoms on an occasional basis, even if you’re not depressed.
However, if you experience several symptoms which are persistent enough to affect you on a daily basis for two or more weeks, it’s possible that what seems like a midlife crisis could be clinical depression.
Change your sleep habits, such as sleeping less, more or sleeping poorly.
Notice a decline in your level or interest in work or workplace performance.
Pay less attention to your appearance and personal hygiene.
Experience a significant amount of weight gain or weight loss.
Withdraw from romantic relationships or friendships and hobbies.
Engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking alcohol often or to excess.
Behave differently around other people, such as friends and family members.
Our full guide to the signs of clinical depression discusses these symptoms in more detail and explains how you can seek help. There may also be a connection between male depression and affairs, or marriage which could be a sign of a midlife crisis.
It’s actually pretty common to experience anxiety disorder in middle age. In fact, research from 2001 to 2003 showed that approximately 20.6 percent of adults aged 45 to 59 experienced clinically significant anxiety disorder in the past year, although precise numbers may vary from year to year.
Anxiety can develop after a stressful or negative life event. Certain medical conditions that tend to become more common in middle age, such as heart arrhythmias and thyroid conditions, may also play a role in the development of anxiety symptoms.
Common symptoms of anxiety include:
Finding it difficult to concentrate
Feeling irritable, restless and wound-up
Physical symptoms, such as muscle tension
A general feeling of tiredness and fatigue
Feelings of worry that are difficult to control
Difficulty sleeping and/or unsatisfying sleep
Some aspects of growing older, such as changes in physical health or an increasing amount of awareness and fear of death, could potentially affect the development of these symptoms.
Our guide to anxiety symptoms in men provides more information about how anxiety may affect your thinking and behavior throughout your life.
In addition to existential concerns and established mental health conditions, a variety of other factors may all play a role in the midlife transition that many men go through as they enter into their 40s, 50s and 60s.
These may include:
Unhappy relationships. Research suggests that relationship satisfaction often dips as people approach middle age reaching a low point at around age 40, but then increases until around age 65, when it plateaus. This decline may play a role in the midlife blues experienced by some men.
Changes in hormone levels. It’s normal for your levels of certain sex hormones, such as testosterone, to decline with age. This can change the way you think and feel, and may play a role in some behavioral signs associated with a typical midlife crisis.
Public messages about aging. Messages in pop culture and marketing can make the process of growing older feel far from glamorous. This may affect your self-esteem and sense of life satisfaction.
Financial concerns. Midlife is often the peak of a person’s earning potential. This is often a positive thing, but it may also produce concerns about saving for retirement and growing expenses, including for necessities such as healthcare.
Empty nest syndrome. This is a psychological condition that can occur when children move out of home — a common occurrence during a person’s middle age. It may lead to feelings of grief, loss and difficulty adjusting to a new role in life.
Going through a midlife transition can be a challenging experience. For some men, it’s a more smooth transition from one phase of life to the next. For others, it may be a difficult period that involves sudden, difficult changes and mental health issues.
Try the following techniques and strategies to successfully navigate the changes, worries and concerns that may occur in middle adulthood.
One important thing to keep in mind is that what people may perceive as a typical midlife crisis isn’t always a negative thing. In fact, for many people, the existential questions that tend to pop up in middle age can potentially lead to positive outcomes.
For example, concerns about your appearance, negative health-related habits or an increasing risk of chronic illnesses can all serve as inspiration to improve your habits and take your health more seriously.
Likewise, a sense that you’ve missed out on certain opportunities to enjoy life can inspire you to spend more time doing the things you truly enjoy.
It’s important to differentiate between the negative aspects of popular culture’s idea of a midlife crisis and the positive ones.
There’s nothing wrong with exercising more, buying new clothes or taking steps to make aging less obvious. It’s also a great thing to get out and enjoy life more, especially if you’ve spent the last few decades of your life dedicating most of your time to career development.
If your children have moved out of home, trading in the minivan for something a little more fun might even be a good idea, provided it’s financially sensible.
Since everyone’s needs and worries are unique, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to deal with a midlife crisis. In addition to the approaches mentioned above, other options include:
Traveling, including to other states or countries
Volunteering and taking part in charitable initiatives
Spending more time with friends, family and loved ones
Setting personal goals for yourself and working towards them
Letting people you trust know about your worries and feelings
The key is to focus on making positive, rational and realistic decisions, not impulsive ones that are driven by irrational fear or anxiety. Use your midlife concerns as a source of inspiration and you may find yourself feeling happier and more fulfilled.
When middle age brings up concerns that don’t have a potentially positive outcome, it’s important to seek professional help.
For example, if you think that you’re becoming depressed or developing an anxiety disorder as a result of an existential crisis, you should reach out to a mental health provider to discuss your symptoms.
It’s especially important to seek help if you have several of the depression or anxiety symptoms listed further up the page.
You can get help by talking to your primary care provider and asking for a mental health referral, by scheduling an appointment with a psychiatrist or psychologist in your city, or from your home with our online mental health services.
A mental health professional may recommend using medication or taking part in psychotherapy, or talk therapy, to improve your symptoms and quality of life.
Medications used to treat depression and anxiety disorders include antidepressants and anxiety medications. If you’re prescribed medication, it’s important to take it exactly as directed by your mental health provider. Some medications may take several weeks to start working.
Psychotherapy can help you to identify negative thoughts, emotions and behaviors, then change them to improve your mental health and quality of life. A variety of types of therapy are used to treat depression, anxiety and other mental health issues that can occur in middle adulthood.
Growing older can be a rich, rewarding experience, but like everything else in life, it can involve plenty of ups and downs.
As you enter the middle of adulthood, realizing that half of your life has already passed can lead to serious questions and worries. Many of these can be channeled into positive changes, but it’s also possible for some to lead to depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.
If you’re worried about your mental health in middle age, it’s important to get expert help locally or by using our online mental health services.
There’s nothing shameful in seeking professional mental health help. In fact, doing so can help you to successfully navigate the challenges of middle age and enjoy this new stage of your life to the fullest.