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The Mid-Life Crisis

It affects many people around age 50 and it’s a phase marked by depression and anxiety

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Carl Jung first identified what is now known as the “mid-life crisis.” It’s often described as a time between one’s 40s and 60s in which people feel regret for missed opportunities and unmet goals; sadness over fleeting youth; dread of older age and diminishing abilities; general discontentment; and desire to reconnect with youth; and the desire to undo mistakes made in youth.

Though there’s not a diagnosis for “mid-life crisis,” copious anecdotal evidence indicates many people experience something like this.

But why?

Depression or anxiety at this age shouldn’t be accepted as a normal part of aging. It’s not, according to Geoff Hopkins, board-certified child psychiatrist who practices adult, child and adolescent psychiatry at St. Joseph’s Health.

“Many people see a decrease in anxiety as they get older,” Hopkins said. “If you experience an increase, it’s not normal.”

He describes patients with depressive disorder as having five of the following core symptoms for at least two weeks: persistent sadness, unproportionate guilt, poor self-image, difficulty sleeping, low energy, constant fatigue and thoughts of death and suicide.

Generalized anxiety disorder is not just being nervous but exaggerated worry about everyday occurrences. “You have fear that the worst will happen,” said Hopkins. “You show physical signs of stress like nausea, tension headaches, trembling and muscle tightness.”

The symptoms may last for six months, all the while the person can generally function fine, but not really enjoy life.

“For a lot of individuals at mid-life and progressing into retirement, there’s a lot of individual stressors,” Hopkins said.

Just as their physical stamina may begin to wane, they may have to face health challenges.

“As we get older, we have more risks for serious, chronic diseases that are age-related: heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, lupus, multiple sclerosis and stroke,” he said. “These are common as we get older.”

Mid-life adults may be helping their elderly parents while still caring for their teenaged or young adult children and possibly grandchildren. Some feel sad as their children move out and their bond weakens.

By this juncture, they may experience big changes at work.

“For those in a professional career, they’re either coming to the realization that they’re at the peak of their career and want to maintain that and create their legacy or they’re realizing that they’ll never reach that peak,” said Gary J. Dunner, psychotherapist in private practice in Syracuse. “Many who are 50-plus experience agism and may be let go.”

Many experience changes in or loss of important relationships at this time.

For people who are particularly controlling, facing so many changes at once can cause anxiety and depression. Instead of allowing the changes to contribute to depression and anxiety, Dunner recommends starting with proper self-care, including adequate rest, exercise, healthful diet, hydration and stress management.

Improving the outlook also helps.

“Learn how to understand your own view and place in the world and take it in holistically,” Dunner said. “Take yourself less seriously. Listen to others more.”

As needed, talking with a trusted friend or seeking therapy can help. Dunner likes mindfulness, meditation and emotional freedom technique as tools to combat depression and anxiety.

“They work extremely well without medication assisting individuals to reduce their level of anxiety and depression dramatically,” Dunner said.

He also thinks that it’s important to invest into the spiritual self in a meaningful way.

At mid-life, it’s essential to plan something to look forward to in retirement and to not leave a huge vacuum post-work.

Chris Battles, licensed mental health counselor and national certified counselor practices at Equanimity Counseling in Oswego, encourages mid-life adults to work to redefine success and happiness. “It may not be a happy retirement and sailing off into the sunset,” he said. “Maybe it’s helping support your children who may not be fully employed. It’s a matter of adjustment to what’s necessary rather than longing for what you could have been.”

Battles also encourages cultivating relationships and socializing, not only to stay connected and to belong to a larger group, but also “if we see other people going through this, we might not be so extreme in these remedies.”

Although it can be challenging, remaking life to what works — rather than an outdated ideal — can help bring more contentment. Unhealthful coping methods like substance abuse, marital affairs or risky behaviors represent extreme remedies. But moving toward a new goal, such as completing a degree, repairing or ending unhappy relationships, taking a big trip or moving to a different city, can help a mid-lifer move forward.

“It’s about the promises we make to ourselves,” Battles said. “It’s a time you could go through rebirth. Depression and anxiety rob you of feelings of power, control, and purpose. It can be a recalibration of everything: definitions of success, happiness, wealth and wellness.”