Some women find themselves facing a challenging (and possibly eye-opening) time anywhere between their 40s and early 50s — something that's been referred to as a "" since the '60s. "In some ways, we look for the midlife crisis," says , a psychotherapist and author of .
"And it is — on some level — a self-fulfilling prophecy because we really can experience a crisis throughout various phases of our lives. So I think it's when you're going through a transition and an adjustment during the mid-years and we slap the title 'midlife crisis' onto it," Dr. Ludwig says. These are possible signs that you're traveling down a bumpy road to your midlife.
"One of the things that can happen and identify the onset of a midlife crisis is feeling ill-fit for the life you're leading," says Dr. Ludwig. "There's a tendency to stop and pause during midlife and question whether you're on the right track." In other words, you feel the need to give yourself a strong evaluation about where you wanted to be in life versus where you actually are.
Perhaps you realize you've been following the dreams your parents set out for you or you've been abiding by the "rules" of society. "There's suddenly a stronger desire to listen to one's soul, and perhaps the crisis comes when you feel off-track," continues Dr. Ludwig.
However, keep in mind that a period of self-reflection can be positive, she adds, "because it can get you to eliminate those things that are no longer in sync with who you are today." Also, a discovered that individuals who experience either a quarter or midlife crisis by becoming ultra-focused on their purpose in the world were likely to find creative solutions for their challenges.
"This enhanced curiosity may be the 'silver lining' of crisis," stated the co-author of the research . "Armed with this knowledge, people may find the crises of adult life easier to bear."
As a result of soul searching, it's possible that you've drawn some significant conclusions about the state of your life, like perhaps that your marriage isn't as romantic as you had hoped or your career is no longer fulfilling. "The danger is when somebody makes an impulsive decision — like a knee-jerk reaction — based on these feelings [it might] not lead to therapeutic results," Dr. Ludwig says.
Acting before thinking about the possible long-term ramifications of leaving your spouse or quitting your job, for example, can lead you down a road of regret. "Overall, it's an avoidance of reality," Dr. Ludwig says.
"Women will come into my office and say, 'I feel like I'm going crazy,' 'I can't remember where I've left things,' 'I don't know why I walked into a room,' 'I have such a short fuse,' 'I'm angry all of the time,' or 'My kids and my spouse don't want to be around me,'" says , director of the Female Sexual Medicine Program at Stanford University School of Medicine's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
She says this sudden shift in personality traits may be due to a decrease in estrogen, which can begin anywhere between five to 10 years before menopause. (FYI: Menopause is defined as one straight year without a period.) "Think of it like PMS but on steroids, so that's why women feel like they're going through a 'midlife crisis,'" says Dr. Millheiser.
And like Dr. Ludwig, she is hoping to steer away from the negative stigma attached to this term. "Yes, going through perimenopause, menopause, or a midlife change can be very challenging because it may disrupt your entire existence," continues Dr. Millheiser. "But today, women no longer need to suffer with these symptoms." She strongly advises speaking with your physician if these mood changes feel significant to you.
If you're waking up in the middle of the night, then staring at the clock for hours on end, your hormones may be to blame. "Even if you're having a monthly period, you may notice some common changes associated with menopause because of a decline in estrogen and testosterone levels," says Dr. Millheiser.
In fact, the states that waning levels of estrogen during perimenopause through menopause can make a female more susceptible to environmental and other factors, which can further disrupt sleep and lead to insomnia.
"One of the wonderful things about youth is that you really think you have all the time in the world and the future is where all your dreams will come true," says Dr. Ludwig. "That shifts at midlife, so the future isn't necessarily where all of these positive things are happening. In fact, it can potentially be a scary time."
While it's natural to remove those rose-colored glasses, feeling jaded about what's in store or seeing nothing but a bleak forecast ahead can lead to a downward spiral. And believe it or not, it might be wise to take a life lesson from those twentysomethings, she adds. "Those in their youth see the future in a more optimistic way, and that's something we need to be deliberate about in midlife, because we've been culturally trained to believe in the 'deficit model,'" Dr. Ludwig says.
"Boredom — feeling passionless — can be a sign of a midlife crisis," says Dr. Ludwig. "The truth is, the pressures of adulthood can weigh people down at this time — they can feel stuck in a rut — where the opportunity to introduce fun for fun's sake can get lost."
A possible solution: Doing something outside of your typical routine that lights you up. For example, if you enjoy watching cooking shows about desserts, consider signing up for a cake decorating class. If listening to music soothes your soul, research upcoming concerts in your area.
"There are similarities between midlife and adolescents — they call it "middle-escents" — but it doesn't have to be a bad thing," Dr. Ludwig says. "It's about learning to embrace exciting experiences and newness into one's life while incorporating optimism and dreams, which we should be doing throughout our lives."
Do you have this nagging feeling that something in your life has slipped away — yet you can't quite put your finger on what that thing is? "I don't know if I would call it clinical depression, but there is a dealing of some degree of loss," Dr. Ludwig say. "The loss of a wish, the loss of the idea of who you wanted to be — it's a confrontation with reality that can leave people feeling disappointed and unsettled." For others, it could be that previous goals have been met (Corporate job? Check! A trip to Hawaii? Check!), resulting in a "Now what?" mentality.
Dr. Ludwig quickly notes the positive in this scenario: "At this point in life, we're wiser and we know ourselves better," she says. "So whether or not we've accomplished our goals, we can create new goals." Also, having the belief that there must be something more ahead can be a good thing. "Because we're never going to arrive at the 'there' place because there's always going to be a new 'there,'" she adds.
Wanting to look and feel your best is one thing, but staring into a mirror for hours to point out emerging lines and wrinkles could indicate a crisis. "And some people will go to extremes trying to achieve a look of youth or perfection," says Dr. Ludwig. "Sadly, they tend to ruin themselves — it's like that false plant that is too green and too perfect. This behavior is based in fear — fear of losing one's looks — but this is cultural brainwashing."
She adds that single people are likely to obsess more over their changing face compared to those in committed relationships (who tend to care more about their weight and being fit). "And this is true for both men and women — it's a response to physical changes that identify there's an inevitable shift going on, but it doesn't have to be worse," continues Dr. Ludwig.
While some women in their middle years become fixated on perfecting their appearance, others may trash their beauty products altogether or stop picking up their broom on a regular basis. "People should never give up on themselves, but if they do, they're probably more inclined to experience a midlife crisis," says Dr. Ludwig, who suggests finding an "older woman" role model who can serve as motivation. "Of course, not everyone is Christie Brinkley, but the fact that Christie Brinkley can look like that at 62 is wonderful. There is nothing elderly about her! That's nice to know, and I think there is a trickle-down effect." .
If you can't remember the last time you were in the mood for some one-on-one time with your partner, your hormones may be playing some not-so-sexy tricks on you. "Sex can really suffer when women go through perimenopause or menopause because of vaginal dryness and low libido," says Millheiser.
However, there is no need to toss out your pretty panties and crawl under the covers in your oversized pajamas. "You don't have to 'grin and bear it' because there are so many options today," she stresses. "Treatments are available, both hormonal and not hormonal, to deal with all of the symptoms associated with sexual pain."
Take a quiet moment to close your eyes and ask yourself this simple question: "How old do I feel?" If you consider yourself to be older than your years (or refer to yourself as being an "old lady" or "over the hill"), you might be in a midlife crisis.
And science backs up this theory: A found that simply feeling older predicts lower psychological well-being and lower life satisfaction compared to those with more favorable attitudes about aging.
Dr. Ludwig believes this negative narrative may derive from your environment. "If someone in their middle years feels old, I question if somebody is treating them like they're elderly or if they are reading from a cultural script that has been internalized," she states.
But if thinking about yourself in a younger light feels silly, it may help knowing that this thought process has become a growing trend. In fact, in 2016 discovered that many women in their middle and older years are likely to maintain youthful perceptions of themselves in order to enhance their emotional well-being.
Believing that all of the wonderful happenings that will occur in your lifetime have already taken place can be a sign that you're in crisis mode. "Again, it's about losing that sense of excitement," states Dr. Ludwig.
However, she says this belief is a fallacy. "Isn't it sad that we train people to think that the only time they can have happiness is when they're young — and it's so not true!" she continues. "The nice thing — and this is something we overlook culturally — is that many people have the best times of their lives as they get older. Why? Because your enjoyment with life has less to do with age and more to do with how gratified you are and how good you feel about yourself — and that can happen at any point."
Even though coined the term "midlife crisis" back in 1965, ongoing research indicates that this so-called "crisis" may not even exist. , happiness does not come to a screeching halt when you turn 40. Instead, there is an overall upward trajectory of happiness that begins in our teens and early twenties.
"I think it's important that we redefine the 'midlife crisis' and we make it potentially be [something] good," Dr. Ludwig says. "Sometimes in the crisis, you are evaluating what is no longer working in your life and trying to introduce people, places, and things that might be useful, of value, or bring joy."
Dr. Millheiser concurs, adding that middle aged women in the 21st century aren't like middle aged women from the '70s and '80s. "There's been a shift in attitude," she concludes. "Women in their 40s and 50s today are empowered and in better shape than they were when they had their children. They're really taking the bull by the horns and saying, 'I'm not going to let this bring me down!'''