What Is a Midlife Crisis, and How Is It Different for Women?


The male midlife crisis is the stuff of clichés and Hollywood tropes: red sports cars, leather pants, and perky paramours. The female version, however, is talked about much less. Many of its symptoms—like sleeplessness, sadness, and anxiety—are chalked up to perimenopause. While that physiological transition, with all its hormonal fluctuations, can certainly bring emotional upheaval, a woman's midlife crisis is often more complex, with cultural forces and psychological triggers at play.

The good news is that middle age can also be a very enlightening and liberating period, says Barbara Mark, PhD, an executive coach in San Francisco. "This is a time that brings about self-reflection," she explains. We confront the question: Am I living the life I truly want to live?

"Some women move through this process with little incident," says Mark. "For others, it is a crisis." But understanding the transition can help you tap into your deep inner knowing, she adds—so you can emerge from it with greater clarity and peace of mind.

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Cultural Matters

It's no secret that we live in a society obsessed with productivity. But that go-go-go culture can feel especially harsh if your pace slows down or plateaus in midlife (say, your kids leave the nest, or you stop climbing the corporate ladder). "It's like our culture is saying, 'Oh well, it's all over,' " explains Martha Beck, author of The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self. "It's the way our culture sees the life course, and it doesn't see it right."

To challenge this deeply ingrained perspective, Beck suggests looking to other parts of the world where aging is celebrated. Take China, for example: "There, you accrue more prestige as you get older," says Beck. "You are the person to whom others go to for advice."

That respect is well deserved because we do indeed become wiser with age, says clinical psychologist and Health contributing psychology editor Lynn Saladino, PsyD. "Through the hardship of our experiences comes a broader perspective," she explains. Reflecting on the life lessons you've learned along the way may lead to a greater appreciation of your strengths (many of which you likely didn't possess 20, 10, or even 5 years ago).

Another cultural hurdle women face: maintaining our sense of attractivenessas we age, when the ideal of feminine beauty is a forever-young appearance. Try radically reassessing your personal definition of beauty, Beck suggests. Take note of things around you that you find visually pleasing, even if nobody else would agree. You might stop to admire the intricate folds in a ball of aluminum foil, or the delicate swirls in the algae on the surface of a pond. Eventually, you may be able to see the beauty in your crow's-feet and laugh lines, too.

It can also help to bask in your self-assurance, says Saladino. "As we age, our increased confidence and calm adds tremendously to our attractiveness. Being comfortable in your own skin often gets easier over time, leading to an effortless beauty that was likely hard to achieve as a younger person."

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Psychological Elements

It's natural to begin reevaluating how you spend your days at roughly the midpoint of your life. If you've been caring for teenagers or elderly loved ones, you might feel depleted. Perhaps you're frustrated with your career, or longing for a greater sense of purpose. This period is an opportunity to refashion your life, says Saladino. It's a good time to get off autopilot and be more deliberate about your decisions. "Then, lean into the optimism of becoming a great version of yourself," she says.

To architect your future, it may be useful to begin with your past, says Beck. Think back to when you were a young child and had zero responsibilities. What did you choose to do with your time? (Beck herself recalls drawing, reading, and playing outside.) Those activities will likely make you happy now, too. Imagine a scenario that allows you to engage in a grown-up version of a childhood pastime, and assess how your body feels in response, Beck says. Does your breathing deepen? Do you experience a sensation of freedom? Those are good signs.

You might also ask yourself some tough questions: Who do you want to spend time with? What are your core values? What makes you feel fulfilled? How will you take better care of yourself? Once you've set your goals, take lots of tiny "turtle steps" toward them, says Beck. Since the steps are small, it's no big deal if you fail. "Small steps and repeated failures are the way to make something happen," she says. 

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Biological ChangesĀ 

In the years leading up to menopause, it's impossible to ignore the role female hormones play in our lives: "They're all over the place," says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine and Health Advisory Board member. "Some days we make no estrogen, and others we make double the amount. Some days, our breasts are sore. And others, we might have hot flashes. This variability and unpredictability can trigger depression and mood swings."

Fortunately, these troubling issues diminish or disappear entirely with the onset of menopause (which in the U.S. occurs, on average, at age 51). In the meantime, try being open about your symptoms with your girlfriends, who are very likely going through similar experiences, says Saladino. Your night sweats may not feel quite so maddening when you realize you are not alone.

Confide in the right friends and you'll be met with compassion and solidarity, adds Beck, which can only deepen your bonds. "Our culture is so competitive. But if you get vulnerable and tell the truth to women who deserve to hear it, you'll have a damn fine time." 

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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