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Overcoming a midlife crisis: Tips against the crisis

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  • What is meant by a midlife crisis?
  • At what age does a midlife crisis most often occur?
  • What triggers a midlife crisis?
  • What helps with a midlife crisis?
  • Can you prevent a midlife crisis?
  • What is the difference between a midlife crisis and depression?

“Typical midlife crisis,” is what people quickly say when a man suddenly seems to slip into a crisis in the middle of his life and possibly completely changes his life again. But what exactly does the term mean? Does this “man’s midlife crisis” really exist? And what can help you get out of there? We discussed this with Professor Dr. med Hans-Christian Deter from the Berlin Charité Medical University Clinic with a focus on psychosomatics.

What is meant by a midlife crisis?

“In the ICD, the official classification of diseases, the midlife crisis does not appear, in contrast to depression, for example. Nevertheless, the term describes very well a phenomenon that often affects men in the middle of their lives and with a high level of suffering can go hand in hand,” says Professor Deter.

This midlife psychological crisis affects men more often than women. “Women tend to have better self-awareness and deal more aggressively with the processes associated with aging,” says Dr. Deter, “Men usually don’t want to acknowledge aging for a long time, are less aware of it or suppress it.” As a result, they do not admit their fears, worries and problems to themselves and those around them for a long time. This creates a high level of suffering, which then appears to be released suddenly and often violently, with changes that sometimes completely turn one’s life upside down. Or allows the person affected to slip into depression.

At what age does a midlife crisis most often occur?

“A midlife crisis usually occurs between the ages of 40 and 55,” says Dr. Deter. This is also proven by numerous studies, for example those compiled by the National Bureau of Economic Research: After that, a man’s life usually follows a U-shaped pattern, with its lowest point around his 47th birthday. This means that after the midlife crisis, mood generally improves again.

What triggers a midlife crisis?

Young people usually start adult life with goals and wishes. “By the time they’re in their mid-40s, most men have been in the same job for at least 15 years, have had a steady partner for years and often have obligations to children and the bank,” describes Professor Deter. “The first physical aging processes are beginning, all of that helps them realize that they have, at best, reached their middle age.” This leads to you comparing your former ideas for your own life with the current situation, in a phase of life in which many men are exposed to enormous professional and financial pressure.

Since very few people’s lives live up to all of their own expectations, this can definitely develop into a life crisis. Professor Deter determines whether this reflection in midlife actually triggers a psychological crisis and how severe it is based on these three factors:

  1. Individual development: Man asks himself: How far have I come? To what extent have my ideas and wishes come true, am I on a life path that fulfills me?
  2. Partnership development: People question how the partnership has developed and whether you are still happy in your relationship? “Not only men, but also women sometimes break with their previous lives in midlife and leave their partners,” explains Dr. Deter, “In my consultations I often have men who find it difficult to cope with separation from their partner in mid-life.”
  3. Professional development: Does my job fulfill me, am I satisfied with my position? “For many men, the chances of advancement become fewer after their 50th birthday,” says Dr. Deter, “Many have been working in the same job for a long time, find the workload to be high and the pressure of competition from younger people strong.”

If the interim balance of life is predominantly negative, it can trigger great dissatisfaction, sadness and even despair. Financial and family circumstances can also create a feeling of powerlessness and of being trapped in a situation that is perceived as unfortunate. The term “midlife crisis” sums up all of this very appropriately.

So it is not the case, as is often mistakenly assumed, that middle-aged men suddenly experience a hormonal change and therefore leave their old lives behind in order to start all over again. “The male hormone testosterone declines much more slowly than its female counterpart estrogen,” explains Dr. Deter, “The extent to which hormones play a role in the development of the male midlife crisis has been little researched, but they are unlikely to have as pronounced an influence as they do in women.”

What is certain is that the gradual decline in testosterone levels from around the age of 40 by 1 to 2 percent per year can lead to physical aging processes such as loss of muscle mass and weight gain and sometimes also to exhaustion and fatigue.

What helps with a midlife crisis?

“The most important step in getting out of a midlife crisis is recognizing it,” emphasizes Dr. Deter, “This is often difficult for men in particular.” You should realize that you are in a life crisis and that you have to do something now.

Next, acknowledge that you may need help. Most people often can’t do it alone. In this situation, it is important to find out which adjustment screw in your life you should turn in order to find a way out of the crisis. “Get support from your partner, family and friends or even medical help from someone who can look at the situation with a professional, neutral eye,” advises Dr. Deter.

Contact points include family counseling centers, medical or psychological psychotherapists or couples therapists. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to call for an emergency consultation.

Dr. Deter: “Midlife crisis is a good bridging term that should wake men up to consciously address their problems before the symptoms worsen and depression, a heart attack or possibly suicide result.”

Men in particular often wait too long until the level of suffering is too high. “Suicides by middle-aged men often come as a complete surprise to those around them because they usually cover up their distress for a long time,” says Dr. Deter. Statistically speaking, men often commit suicide in their middle years, and unlike women, where suicide attempts are more common, such crises in men are more likely to end in death.

Therefore, after extensive personal and/or professional advice, you should always make a decision and try to find a solution. “Of course it is best if the liberation occurs in harmony with the family, which is why it is important to involve the partner in finding a solution,” says Dr. Deter, “But if the partnership problems cannot be solved, it is also okay to separate.” A job change or a sabbatical year is also better than slipping into a long-term depression, even if it involves financial losses.

What is important is that a change takes place that opens up new perspectives on a more satisfied life.

Can you prevent a midlife crisis?

Not only can you do it, you should do it. “A midlife crisis can lead to mental and physical illnesses,” says Dr. Deter, “Chronic stress from a lot of work and little recognition, for example, can contribute to a heart attack, and some aspects of a midlife crisis also play a role in the development of clinical fatigue syndrome or depression.”

The best way to prevent it is to become aware of your needs early on and talk about them. It sounds simple, but it is still a big step for many men. But the sooner you admit to yourself that you are on the wrong path, the sooner and easier it is to correct it again.

Sport also helps. It lets you experience your own body strongly and positively. Walks or light running sessions help you get some distance from everyday life and sort your thoughts.

What is the difference between a midlife crisis and depression?

“As long as you can continue to work and carry out your role despite high levels of suffering and struggle, it is more of a midlife crisis,” explains Dr. Deter, “If you develop sleep disorders, no longer go to work, are desperate, and can barely manage to leave the house, it is most likely already depression that urgently needs to be treated professionally.”

But it doesn’t have to come to that. Be consciously aware of yourself and your life situation as you get older and see where you can and should fine-tune. When you hear the term “midlife crisis”, you and those around you should not think of the cliché of an aging man in a sports car with a young partner next to him, but rather take this term seriously, pay attention to the symptoms and set the course in your life in good time to successfully overcome this life crisis.

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