MidLife Crisis- Is It an Epidemic?

Below is an excerpt from Dr. Fred Shane’s Keeping Your Cool. Click here to buy the e-book

The term mid-life crisis is used to describe a period in our life cycle in popular and scientific literature. What does it really mean and does everyone experience it? Is it just a euphemism?

The term mid-life crisis has generally been accepted as reflecting a time in the life cycle loosely defined as between forty-five and sixty-five where one becomes acutely aware of the fact that one’s DNA is finite and one’s time on this planet is not infinite.

When I think about the lives of the many people whom I have treated in this age group, I feel that the crisis typically develops when it is precipitated by a significant stressful situation usually involving relationships, alteration of financial status or a major assault on one’s health.

As well in this age group all of us are likely to experience significant loss in terms of parents,friends and spouses. This may have a profound impact on our outlook and cause us to take stock of our lives. What does it mean to take stock? Typically people stop, look at their lives and may make decisions to move on in terms of their jobs, to leave their spouses and the places they live. In other words the changes range from minor to momentous in nature.

Mid-life crisis may result in a more positive way of dealing with the world, reestablishing a vision of one’s life, or one simply may sustain a state of inertia with ultimate stagnation. This is the time in one’s life when one can use this period to catalyze growth or remain paralyzed. To change, one inevitably takes risks. There is a potential for disappointment. But, as they say, weonly come this way once and life is not an audition.

The following vignette is representative of a ‘mid life crisis’. Saul settled into the session with a deep sigh. “Well doc, I’m fifty-four and thought I’d like to discuss this with a pro like you. I’m an academic – college prof. I’ve taught English for about twenty-five years. Can you believe it? The truth is, I’m burned. I’m just tired of the same old, same old. Not that I don’t enjoy the students and my colleagues and other aspects but there’s the politics, the power struggles, the publish or perish mentality, the whole ivory tower is grinding me when you look at the big picture. I’m well respected and established with a solid reputation built over the years in my department.”

He was healthy. He was in a stable long term marriage. His two children were grown and involved in their own lives.

“Yeah doc, the money is good and my pension is good, but I have to stay to age sixty to really maximize it. You know I haven’t saved a great deal of money. My wife’s a high school teacher. What probably precipitated this was the death of my father last year. He was in his eighties, an academic like myself and worked most of his life. My dad and I were very close. He was my mentor, my friend and my father. He was also a professor of English and my role model in many ways. It was a really tough loss for me. It’s not as though I’m clinically depressed as you people would say, but I’m sort of numbed at this juncture of my life. My dad taught until he was in his early seventies and I remember a very similar period in his life where he started questioning what he was doing. He was not a great risk taker. In fact he wasn’t a risk taker at all. Even when he retired he stayed close to home and travelled little. Fortunately he had a good ten years of quality life after that. I just don’t want to go down the same road.”

I queried, “what are you afraid of happening if you paddle up another stream?”

“I don’t know doc. I guess I’m a bit like my old man in that respect. I need to see the horizon.”

I explored with him whether he had had any fantasies as a younger man of doing anything other than teaching at a university like his father did. He started to talk about how part of him had wanted to work in a third world country helping the poor and teaching there. He said he had just been too anxious to create a new chapter in his life. I asked him whether he had had sabbaticals and whether he had one coming down the pike.

“We get one every seven years or so. My next one is actually due in six months. I thought I’d do some research, stay close to home, read, maybe travel and tour around the country to visit some family.”

I indicated to him that this opened up an opportunity for him in my eyes to explore new vistas. There were several international agencies that would appreciate someone like him with his background and skills to connect with them. “As well, why don’t you take some inventory in terms of your fantasies like climbing Everest or walking across the Sahara Desert?”

The professor sat back and said, “you know doc, maybe it’s some food for thought. Perhaps my feelings have been influenced by my father, being comfortable, being predictable and being safe. Let me think about this and get back to you. I have to talk to my wife and weigh a few things.”

Therapists Notes 

Saul had been comfortable for decades in his secure predictable world. No doubt his life had its share of intrinsic and external rewards. He had a strong loving father whom he emulated and who obviously had a major influence on his life. What had happened to him was certainly an element of burnout. It was not as though he was not able to navigate a new terrain in his life but the identification with his father’s voice inside him was very strong. Another voice kept reverberating, saying, “hey Saul, is that all there is?”

He had done the right things in his life. He had contributed to the community in a significant manner and fulfilled his commitments to his family. Now in middle age he was daring to weigh options. He was experiencing an upheaval in himself with a sense for potential of rebirth and creativity in his life.

In our session I attempted to point out to him his connection with his father and tried to demystify the anxiety and fears he had about change. For many individuals to invoke change in their lives at this stage can be very difficult financially and emotionally. The opportunity to create new dimensions and explore new horizons in middle age is an avenue available to many of us. Of course the price to be paid in terms of risk is much greater for some than others. I heard from Saul shortly afterwards. He had discussed his feelings with his wife and children. They had been very supportive of any changes that he wanted to create. By the time he spoke to me his wife was already arranging to take a leave of absence. He consulted with a number of agencies regarding working in a third world country and teaching. He was negotiating a six month contract to work in a struggling community. He sounded excited on the phone.

“Doc, I’m breaking out” he said. “Can you believe it? We’ll send you a card.”