The Midlife Crisis: Myth, Reality, or Stress in Disguise?

While both men and women can experience a midlife crisis, the term is most often applied to men. The midlife crisis may or may not have a hormonal basis, but it is certainly a reality. During this time of life, typically in the late thirties to mid-forties, men begin to question the direction their lives have taken. They wonder if they've missed out on things. They are tired of their jobs, feel their relationships have stagnated, and fear that they have lost interest in life.

What a man does in response to his midlife crisis depends on the man and the intensity of the feelings, but you've all seen the stereotypes on television and in the movies: the divorce, the twenty-something girlfriend, the red sports car. Of course, it doesn't always work out this way. Sometimes, the response is depression, withdrawal, anxiety, or an increasing dissatisfaction with daily life. Sometimes, men change careers at this point in life and go for their dreams.

What does the midlife crisis have to do with stress? Years of chronic stress due to unresolved relationship issues or job dissatisfaction can build up to the final breakdown that is the midlife crisis. Additionally, the midlife crisis becomes a source of stress because of the changes it has effected in life.

Who says you can't change your career? Just don't do it on a whim. Plan the change by researching the market in your field of choice, learning everything you can, getting any necessary degrees or certification, having a solid business plan, securing any necessary capital, then giving it everything you've got.

What can you do about it? First, before you get to your midlife crisis, learn to manage your stress. This can subvert a midlife crisis; after all, if your life is going just the way you want it to go, you won't have any reason for a crisis.

If you're already heading full speed into yours, however, you can help to soften the blow by preparing for the stress-to-come:

  • Make a list of all your unfulfilled dreams. Look at it and contemplate it. Which of the dreams are unrealistic, things you know you'll never do but just like to dream about? You can cross those off your list for now (or put them on a different list).

  • Look at what's left. What have you really wanted to do, always intended to do, but haven't yet accomplished? Think hard about these items. Are they things you really want or things you just think you want? Relax, close your eyes, and visualize having these things. Sometimes we like the idea of something — getting a doctoral degree, having a drop-dead-gorgeous partner, being extremely rich — but when we think about what it would take to get there, we realize it isn't really worth it. Which items do you think probably wouldn't really be worth the effort of getting there? Cross them off the list (or move them to a different list).

  • Look at what's left. Why haven't you accomplished these dreams yet? What would you need to do to make them happen? Start thinking about what you could do to really make these dreams come true. Make a list of steps. If you have a partner, encourage her to make her own list, then talk about how you might both reach your dreams together while you are still young (young is a relative term, after all).

  • If your dissatisfaction lies with your relationship, this is the time to do something about it, and that doesn't necessarily mean leaving the relationship behind. Take steps to revitalize your relationship. Break up your routine. Take a trip together. Change things around in the bedroom. Be romantic. Put some real attention and focus into your sex life. If you aren't both ready for these changes, discuss the reasons why. If you have past issues to work out, work them out. A professional therapist can be very helpful.

  • Stop doing things you don't like and don't really have to do. If you really, truly can't stand your job, find a new one or start your own business. More and more opportunities exist for self-employment today, and more and more people prefer to stay close to home and redirect their energies to their homes and to living more in line with their dreams and desires. Can you get by on less money? Then, do it. If you cringe at the thought of that committee you are on, that group you joined, or that club you are in, then let it go. Don't waste your life doing things you don't like that aren't necessary.

  • Give to others. All this self-examination can make you feel selfish. Balance it out with a conscious effort to give your time, energy, or money to people who really need it. You could devote some time to a charity that is meaningful to you or to a cause you believe in, or you could spend more time with your partner, talking to your kids, or playing with your grandchildren.

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