The phrase ‘midlife crisis’ is almost comical. Tell a friend or work colleague that you are gripped by one and they will probably roll their eyes and laugh. Yet the onset of middle age can be a profoundly upsetting experience. Statistics published in the UK in 2013 revealed that a quarter of the suicides that year were committed by men aged between 44 and 59.
So what is a midlife crisis? Those experiencing it will say things like ‘I have reached the top of the hill; there is nowhere to go but down’, or ‘I have lost all the energy and hope I once had’. But the midlife crisis must be distinguished from mere unhappiness, which can of course be experienced at any age. The midlife crisis usually includes one or more of the following: intense regret about the choices you have made; a sense of being trapped, perhaps by your marriage, children or mortgage; a longing to be younger, to go back and ‘start again’; a sense that time is speeding up; and even a feeling that the world is empty, insubstantial and unreal.
The midlife crisis can be dangerous. Some will do no more than squeeze into a designer T-shirt and quit smoking. Others will simply pay more attention to their appearance or seek out the company of younger people. But some become reckless. A gradual slide into alcoholism, or even drug addiction, is not uncommon. Then there is the danger of infidelity. If a marriage is unhappy and working to its end, this might be a necessary shake up. But more often, a moment of madness wrecks a 10 or 20 year relationship, usually hurting children or parents in the process.
Before doing anything so foolish, try adopting a new attitude to aging. Modern society’s obsession with youth persuades many that the first 25 years alone matter. But youth can be a hellish period of insecurity and raging hormones. For many, the pressure to choose a career, find ‘the one’ and decide whether to have children is unbearable. Aging has its advantages. By their mid-40s, most people know who they are and what makes them happy. They have usually reconciled themselves to their limitations and adopted a more realistic set of ambitions. The young expect a great deal of life and are often disappointed. With maturity, people learn humility. They have seen enough of life to know just how fragile and transient it is. This need not be a negative realization. On the contrary, handled the right way it can lead to a new sense of gratitude and joy.
If you are to navigate your way through mid-life, you must talk about your feelings. Men are especially bad at this. It may be that they fear ridicule or think themselves weak, but men are less likely to seek help. Instead, they allow the pain and resentment to fester and build.
Perhaps it is time to change your life. But that needn’t mean ending your marriage or embarrassing your children. Are there any positive changes you can make? Try channeling your frustration into something new. Explore your creative or spiritual side. The psychiatrist Carl Jung believed this so-called crisis was in fact an opportunity for self-growth. Why not try a course of therapy? This is not for the mentally ill alone; it can be undertaken by anyone. Many happy, well-balanced people undergo therapy in the hope of reaching greater self-awareness and peace.
Above all, resist the urge to live in the past. Thoughts then become repetitive and self-destructive. Not everything was better when you were a kid. Mindfulness would be a good way of avoiding this temptation. This technique, adopted from Buddhism, teaches you to see your thoughts not as facts but merely as something your mind does. Above all you learn to live in the moment, and that is the single most important lesson there is.