Midlife Crisis: Signs, Causes, and How to Overcome It

Over the years, we reach that stage where we feel that we have more years behind us than we have left to live. In short, a midlife crisis.
Midlife Crisis: Signs, Causes, and How to Overcome It
Leticia Martín Enjuto

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Leticia Martín Enjuto.

Written by Yamila Papa

Last update: 28 May, 2024

You may be afraid of getting older, of no longer being young, or both at the same time. The truth is that a midlife crisis is suffered by the vast majority of women and also by many men. In the case of females, starting menopause and the symptoms that it entails, both physical and psychological, are added to the scenario.

This crisis doesn’t appear just on the day the person blows out the candles on their 40th birthday cake. It may develop a little sooner or later on. Whatever the case may be, when it appears, it’s a time when the person analyzes what they’ve done with their lives and the pending issues that remain to be resolved.

In this article, we’ll learn, among other things, how the midlife crisis manifests itself, how to overcome it, and what research has to say about this phenomenon.

What is the midlife crisis?

It is a psychological event that usually happens to some adults between the ages of 40 and 60. Its main characteristic is the reflection on the existence and the reevaluation of achievements and goals. Driven by the awareness of their finitude and the desire to live a full existence, the person feels pressured to modify their plans to achieve their goals.

In this moment of crisis, those who suffer from it begin to doubt the direction they have taken in their life and the purposes they have set for themselves. This questioning produces anxiety and generates drastic changes in lifestyle. Although it is a disorienting process, full of mixed emotions due to unmet expectations, it offers an unparalleled opportunity for growth.

Signs of a midlife crisis

The way in which a midlife crisis manifests itself can vary from one person to another. As such, there’s no set of “symptoms” endorsed by science or by official mental health institutions. However, some signs that can be noticed are the following:

  • anxiety
  • nostalgia
  • irritability
  • impulsiveness
  • boredom
  • dissatisfaction
  • a feeling of emptiness
  • lack of motivation
  • sadness (depression)
  • indulgent behaviors
  • fatigue in the face of the usual routine
  • daydreams about another lifestyle
  • recurring thoughts about the past
  • drastic changes in appearance, relationships, lifestyle, or behavior
  • questions like “What if I’d chosen another career?… had children?… made a different decision?, etc.

Without a doubt, one of the most important signs of the midlife crisis is the need to be “young” again, that is, to feel 20 years old again. This leads to the search for new experiences, doing things that weren’t possible before for various reasons, dressing like a teenager, frequenting bars or clubs, etc.

This new attitude toward life can become a wonderful new awakening, a motivation that takes us out of our routine and enriches our lives. But it can also cause a great paralyzing nostalgia, which causes us to start thinking too much about what was, forgetting that we still have a lot of things to do.

The “stages” of a midlife crisis

It’s worth clarifying that the following “phases” that we’ll expose below aren’t recognized by the scientific community. The use we’ll give them isn’t official, and we don’t claim them to be representative of all cases. Their use is purely pedagogical to allow us to have a general idea of the expected evolution of this phenomenon.

  1. Trigger: Like any crisis, it begins with a triggering event, although sometimes this isn’t very obvious. Some triggers are divorce, the death of a loved one, unemployment, a fatal illness, dissatisfaction, or a lack of purpose.
  2. Reflection: The person begins to think and evaluate their life, review their goals, and remember their failures and the goals they never achieved. In this “phase,” a deep questioning arises regarding decisions, relationships, profession, the meaning of life, and any other aspect linked to the trigger.
  3. Crisis: This is the stage of conflict and internal tension. This is where emotions arise, such as sadness, regret, anger, anxiety, fear of the unknown, uncertainty, etc.
  4. Exploration: Driven by their reflections and conflicts, the person begins to look to find new ways of living and to change that dimension of their life in which they feel dissatisfaction. For example, they may participate in new activities, leave relationships, start new relationships, discover other passions, etc.
  5. Reconstruction: After approaching new goals, changing their lifestyles, and finding what they were looking for, the person rebuilds their existence, makes decisions that align with their new objectives or values, and adapts to them.

This process doesn’t occur in a way that’s as linear as it seems. Typically, these “stages” are overlapping and connected. The adult may go back and forth between one instance to another and experience various emotions, reflections, and changes during the process.

The causes of a midlife crisis

The reasons for this crisis are diverse, but the most frequent are insecurity, excessive responsibility, or routine. They also include having relational conflicts, realizing that mistakes have been made, boredom, or a lack of clear objectives. Let’s look at some of the other causes.

The death of a loved one

Losing a loved one (family member, friend, partner, etc.) is a shocking experience that, in middle adulthood, can lead to the onset of a midlife crisis. Death makes a person reflect on their own finitude and the meaning that they’re giving to their life.


Retiring is a significant event that involves a considerable change in identity and routine. Some people can’t see themselves beyond their work, so withdrawing can leave them feeling empty and anxious about their new role in the world.


This is another cause that can precipitate a midlife crisis. Separation not only implies a change in identity, it also implies the alteration of an entire family structure, especially if there are children involved. Divorce leads people to rethink life without their partner and come face to face with being single after so many years of living with another person.


Mortality and aging are usually one of the main triggers. As the man or woman approaches middle age, they become more aware of their aging process and that “time is running out.” Consequently, they begin to review their life and question what they have achieved so far.

Changes in responsibilities

Upon reaching middle age, both men and women may face the challenge of having to adapt to new roles that weren’t in their plans. For example, caring for sick parents, getting used to a home without children (empty nest syndrome), and new family dynamics, etc. These changes can generate dissatisfaction and doubts about the purpose of life.

Unfulfilled goals

Reaching the ages of 40 or 50 without having yet fulfilled the dreams you had when you were young can be very disappointing for many. Unmet goals and unrealized expectations are strong triggers for this crisis, which leads many to rethink what they’re doing and the life they’re living.

Gender socialization and midlife crises

Socialization based on gender is going to play a key role in the crisis, depending on the context and traditional gender roles of a society. So, the expectations placed on men and women influence the way they interpret and feel about their lives.

By tradition, and especially in more patriarchal cultures, men have been socialized into strength, success, autonomy, and self-sufficiency. In middle adulthood, the pressure to demonstrate success in their careers and in the financial sphere (a symbol of power) can trigger a crisis if they’ve failed in that attempt.

On the other hand, women raised in very patriarchal societies and families are educated with a focus on care, motherhood, service, and self-denial. In this context, a woman who introjects this model may experience such a crisis if she reaches her forties without a family.

However, thanks to the fight for gender equality, these differences have evolved. Therefore, it’s normal for women to also have crises because they’re not succeeding in their professional careers or because they’re not self-sufficient or independent, etc. Likewise, a man may come to have a crisis because he hasn’t managed to find a stable partner or build a family. Currently, gender socialization doesn’t fully explain midlife crises the way it did before.

Citizens now have greater scope to personalize their lives, making identifying a common cause for the crisis more complicated. Everyone who experiences a midlife crisis does so due to their own reasons and life experiences, as each person is the author of their own existence and their own discomforts.

How long does this crisis last?

Midlife crises don’t have a standard duration but vary from case to case. So, they may last from a few months or weeks to several years. It all depends on the person and how they deal with it.

There are those who go through the crisis very quickly; They’re capable of resolving the conflict and creating new meanings, purposes, and directions with relative simplicity. For others, the process is slower and longer; in addition, they avoid it and find it difficult to face the challenge that the crisis implies.

Overcoming also depends on contextual variables. For example, if the person receives support from family and friends, or if they’re in good mental and physical health, they may recover faster. Likewise, economic stability and the availability of resources play an important role in managing the crisis.

What can you do in the face of this crisis?

It’s essential to maintain a positive attitude. It doesn’t matter if you feel that you’re already getting older; it’s good to know that age brings experience, anecdotes, and knowledge. You still have many years ahead of you, and there’s no sense in spending them suffering.

Don’t forget to enjoy. The experience of having grown up and gone through many problems makes you even more interesting and prepared for what follows. You’ll have greater self-control and you’ll know the consequences of your actions. Remember that the best time is here and now. Below, we’ll leave you more suggestions.

1. Review your goals

As you already know, this crisis can be a consequence of a failure to meet goals. It’s necessary, then, that you take a few moments to evaluate your objectives and values. Make a list of your current goals and values and compare them to what you had before. Now, ask yourself if the values you currently have really reflect what you want and what matters to you. If not, it’s time to redefine them.

2. Protect your health

The level of stress, anxiety, worry, or sadness that you may experience during this period affects your health. Therefore, we suggest that you change your habits and do activities that improve your mental and physical health. For example, exercise, meditate, get enough sleep, express your emotions, spend time with your friends and family, go to therapy, etc.

3. Connect with your hobbies

Make time to do those hobbies that you’ve forgotten. Connect with what you still like. If you’ve stopped liking activities that you previously enjoyed, then it’s time to explore others. Try a new hobby, such as going for a walk, dancing, doing theater or sports, doing artistic activities, etc.

4. Take care and nurture your relationships

Meaningful relationships with friends and family are an invaluable source of support as you navigate this crisis. Seek refuge in them and spend quality time with them to strengthen the bond. Organize meetings to talk, vent, and ask for advice. Let yourself be helped and cared for by them, too.

5. Accept the change

Embrace the present and the changes it’s bringing you. Accept what happens, but don’t resign yourself to it. On the contrary, look for a way to improve. Practice gratitude so you stop focusing so much on what you lack. Write about what you’re experiencing and how this can help you grow as a person.

Is there really such a thing as a midlife crisis?

Up to this point, we’ve conceptualized the term “midlife crisis” based on popular knowledge that has been disseminated through the media, TV series, and movies. But what does science and research say about it? Do people really have a crisis when they reach middle age?

The truth is that research doesn’t support this crisis or recognize it as a universal phenomenon. A study published in Motivation and Emotion indicates that only 26% of people over 40 years of age have this crisis. Furthermore, it doesn’t appear as a consequence of age, but of significant events.

Experts in the development of middle age reaffirm that the “midlife crisis” can happen at any time during adulthood, as its trigger isn’t age, but events independent of it, such as the loss of a job, illness, economic difficulties, among others.

This famous crisis is more of a social construction fueled by the entertainment industry than a normative experience. It’s important to keep this in mind because, as Margie Lachman pointed out in 2015, promoting it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, says the researcher, it can be used as an excuse for bad behavior and generate erroneous diagnoses.

Midlife crisis: A period of reflection

In this article, we’ve learned that, despite the lack of empirical support, the “midlife crisis” is a term used to refer to a period of deep introspection and reflection when a person questions different aspects of their life. It doesn’t have a fixed duration or universal causes.

It’s important to take it as an opportunity to grow and rediscover what really matters. Thanks to it, some people can enrich their lives and live with greater wisdom. Every crisis marks a before and after that makes our existence fuller. You just have to know how to take advantage of the opportunity to learn and grow.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.