Uneasiness about midlife anxiety
How does midlife anxiety happen?
The other day, my husband and I were at a Chinese lunch buffet. Somehow we got to talking about age and he was just joking around and said: “Well, in a couple of years you’ll be over the hill.” That didn’t really sit well with me. For one, I don’t feel like I should be over any kind of hill.
It sounds like I will start using a walker and playing bingo with my girlfriends. And second, who decides when I am over the hill? And what hill are they even talking about?
His comment, although meant jokingly because he is four years younger than me, really made me think. Does 40 mean I should start re-assessing my life goals? Have I done enough up to now? Should I be thinking about retirement plans? Are there things I should change right away because in few years it will be too late? Without knowing it, I went down the rabbit hole of midlife anxiety.
Taking midlife anxiety serious
“Over the hill”. I think nobody really wants to hear that terrible saying. Or any of the daunting connotations it comes with! “You’re past your prime”. “You’re officially old”. These are just some of the not so funny things you might feel when you’re reading that “funny” birthday card on your 40th birthday.
“Here comes 40. I'm feeling my age and I've ordered the Ferrari. I'm going to get the whole mid-life crisis package.”
- Keanu Reeves
It’s no wonder that many people report increased anxiety around their midlife milestone, whether that be at 40 or 50. There are so many things culminating at this point in our lives. A “midlife crisis” seems like an inevitable right of passage nearly everyone goes through. So, is midlife anxiety a hyped-up hoax or is it a legitimate state of concern that we need to take seriously in life?
What is midlife anxiety?
The pace of life has increased more and more in the past years with the advent of more technology and everyone’s insatiable need for instant gratification. We move fast in our lives and we have a lot of responsibilities to cover. Work demands more and more of our mental and physical time. Kids are participating in more and more extra-curricular activities. And you are the only one holding the whole thing together.
By the time we reach midlife, we can be at a peak of very serious responsibilities that seem to come from all sides. You may have a mortgage to pay. Even though they may be all grown up, you are responsible for raising decent human beings and maybe paying for their education. And maybe you are the sole breadwinner or share in that responsibility. At the end of the day, life seems so much more complicated than when we were just cruising with some friends on a Friday night...and the biggest concern was looking cool, parked in front of the 7-11.
Yes, things have changed drastically. Most of us would not even recognize our high school selves. And it is at this point in life that so many people tend to take stock of how life has gone for them so far. Kind of like half-time in a soccer match. Stop, take a run down of the first half, and make changes. And for most people, this taking stock at half-time comes with a lot of anxiety.
So, what are some of the things that give us anxiety around midlife?
Feeling midlife anxiety
There can be many things triggering feelings of anxiety in your 40s and 50s, but here are some of the most common ones. This is related to the kind of life transitions we usually face at this point in our lives.
Money in retirement and work
Perhaps you are at your peak earning stage in your career and you are desperately trying to rake in all the benefits to fill up that retirement account. You’re a senior employee and your responsibilities in that job and the number of people that rely on you are only growing day by day.
Perhaps you are at the opposite spectrum with work, and you are frustrated that you are still only in a mid-level position and never seem to have enough of your paycheck left over to save. You are frustrated because you always thought you’d be in a more senior position by now, with more benefits and better hours.
Or, like me, you might own your own business. And let’s be honest...that can be a huge struggle as well. There might not be time to do a lot of the things you thought you would have done by now. And there might not have been enough profit to put a lot of money away for retirement. In any case, you might feel the anxiety creeping up on you.
How our parents are ageing
Perhaps your parents are getting up there in age and this brings a whole new world of worry to your daily life. You watch their health carefully and make sure they are seeing their doctors and taking their medications correctly. Will their health hold up?
Some of us are caring for our parents in our homes and struggling with issues of boundaries and space, feeling overwhelmed by their close presence. Some of us may see the big question looming of what to do when they can no longer live independently. Will you have to put them in a home? Will they be lonely? Can they (you) afford that?
And some of us are struggling with the extremely difficult task of being a loving caretaker for someone who has a degenerative disease like Alzheimers, where every day can be a shocking or devastating experience. Whatever your personal situation is, seeing your parents age is a scary thing. You have relied on them all your life and they have been there for you. Seeing them getting frail and ill can cause a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.
Will our grown kids mange okay
If you have kids, then you will already be familiar with the constant changing relationship as they grow up and become independent. Sometimes it can be heartbreaking. Sometimes it can bring you to tears with pride, but likely, you will always have a bit of anxiety about how they will do and how they will manage in life.
Perhaps you question their choice of spouse to help them through the hard times. Maybe you worry about them financially. Perhaps you are seeing some red flags when it comes to their child raising techniques and you just don’t know if or how you should bring it up.
Being a parent never really ends as we feel all our kids’ struggles and successes with them through life. The more serious and permanent their “grown-up” decisions get (marriage, kids, mortgages), the more anxiety it can cause us too.
Our own health
Nevermind caring for our ageing parents. We also have enough health concerns of our own to keep us occupied. Some of us may be dealing with diseases and conditions of our own that require constant monitoring, possible surgeries, or many doctor’s visits. Even without defined health conditions, it can be hard to take that step from doing nothing and just hoping we stay healthy versus taking on that preventative exercise routine.
We’re tired…. I get it. No one wants to go for a quick run after work when you can barely spell your own name after work. Perhaps that’s what keeps you in a cycle of guilt when you see that you still haven’t lost those 5 pounds your doctor urged you to consider. How will your health hold up if you keep going at this pace and how does that make you feel?
Health and lifespan of our partner
If you’re lucky enough to have a life partner, then you will inevitably also be lucky enough to worry about their health… because that affects their wellbeing and lifespan… and that greatly affects you. Perhaps you’ve been nagging at them to try and shed those 5 pounds. Maybe you’ve been reminding them that bacon is not a meal (at least not every day 😉
It’s hard to think about our own mortality, nevermind the mortality of a life partner we may feel we can’t live without. These are difficult, looming thoughts. At this point, many of us have been part of a grandparent’s passing. And we may have seen one partner left behind and not faring very well.
Understanding that this is coming for our parents and for us as well is a scary thing. Whereas we don’t worry much about our mortality in our teenage years, this seems to change once we hit midlife. I am so much more aware of my husband’s health and I am constantly thinking about what health changes we should make. I never thought about these things ten years ago, but my view on life has definitely changed.
Did we reach the goals we had set for ourselves?
Maybe you thought that by the time you hit 40 or 50 things would look different? Maybe you pictured a bigger house, a better career, or even a more interesting partner? It can be hard (even devastating) when you are forced to take stock of where you are in life. Perhaps it was that class reunion, or seeing an old friend on Facebook that made you measure up and compare where you’re at. Maybe it’s all the images in the media showing us of where we “should” be at age 40 or 50 that has you upset and frustrated.
“My skin doesn’t look that smooth”. “I can’t afford a car like that”. “Wow, my thighs do not look like that after having two kids”. These are stressful rabbit holes we can go down when we come to one of those comparative milestones in life. It can be hard to take an honest look at where you are compared to where you “wanted” to be at that age.
Will you ever have enough money or enough time to do those things you dreamed of? Will you ever achieve what you had planned to be done by now? And you might even feel like time has run out and you will never get to experience some of the things you had dreamed of. The realization of consequences our life choices have manifested seems to become much more apparent as we go through midlife.
Midlife anxiety symptoms
With all these serious factors culminating at this point in our lives, it’s no surprise that anxiety levels can be increasing. The decisions we make seem to have ever more grave consequences on our lives. And we seem to have ever more people depending on us. Watch for these symptoms that might be a sign that you have midlife anxiety, or are experiencing a midlife crisis.
Things you can do
I think the first thing to remember if you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, is that most of us will experience some form of anxiety in our midlife. It’s a natural milestone to take stock of where we are and what we’ve achieved. It’s when these symptoms start to negatively affect or endanger us or those around us that we need to pay attention and possibly get some help.
There are many things that can help alleviate the stress of midlife, but my top recommendation would be to talk to someone. That can be a close friend or a therapist, but I think the value you’ll get from another perspective can be invaluable. There are a lot of things to deal with at this point in your life. You have a lot of responsibilities to juggle. Some anxiety is completely understandable. If you find yourself overwhelmed by and buried under anxiety though, consider some of these methods.
(Again) Talk to someone
This can help you bring your focus back to what matters. You might also be able to find a group of people in your community that are helping each other through this difficult point in life. I have a lot of conversations about midlife with my husband and my family. Everyone has a different point of view and all of it helps me put my anxiety in perspective.
There were times where I felt like talking to my loved ones was not quite what I needed. I ended up spending some time on session with a coach and I found that extremely helpful. Sometimes we get so caught up in our lives that an objective outside voice can be helpful. You can find a therapist, psychologist, counsellor, or coach who can help guide you at this stage of your life.
Take time out
If you’re starting to question a lot about your current life, job, partner or more, take some time out of your daily routine to really reflect and evaluate things. Perhaps you need a solo road trip or a visit back to your home town. Maybe you just need an afternoon hike alone. Take some time to reflect and listen to your feelings, no matter how irrational.
Especially in midlife, it seems that we need some time to think. And this usually works best when we are not distracted by work, family, or daily problems. For me, I love to just go for a drive and listen to music. With my phone on silent and no messages coming in, I can just take a breather and relax. Maybe you want to spend the afternoon at the spa, or on the golf course. Whatever works for you, make sure you self-care.
Maybe this is the chance you needed to make your health a priority. Start an exercise plan, or get help from your doctor and/or a trainer to start a program. Maybe you start small, but every bit of exercise is an investment in a better future and a healthier you. It’s totally worth making a priority.
This point really hit me hard after browsing Facebook one evening. Some people I went to high school with are in great shape and look fantastic. And it made me think a lot about my own health. With a job where I spend hours on the computer, I do not move as much as I should. So, I set up my online training program again and started with just ten minutes a day. It is all I can manage right now, but it is a great start to a healthier me.
Write about your midlife anxiety
Writing has often been a great recommendation for sorting out emotions and finding true feelings. Just sit down in a private place with a pen and notepad or laptop and let your thoughts pour out. Don’t judge what you see, just understand that this is how you feel.
One of the therapeutic tools I have been using is this blog. I spend a lot of time speaking with family and friends about interesting topics. And in every blog post I write about things that affect me as well. I put my own thoughts and feelings into what I write and it helps me work through a lot of different situations.
Focus on the positive and be grateful
Sometimes even a good thing can seem like a “normal” thing after enough time. Take some time to really appreciate the good things and people in your life and be grateful for their presence in your life. Maybe make it a point to let some people know how much you appreciate them. It can be a welcome shot of positivity out of the blue. Remember, they might even be dealing with similar anxieties you are dealing with.
Volunteer to beat midlife anxiety
Maybe the perspective you need in your life will come from participating in the community and giving back to others. Sometimes volunteering can bring us an unexpected gift of purpose and gratitude we didn’t have before. There are so many opportunities to volunteer that I am sure you can find something that speaks to you.
My great passion is animals. At the moment, my work schedule makes volunteering impossible, but I would love to become a foster family for kittens and volunteer at the local shelters. Maybe you have a cause that is close to your heart like a cancer run, a local thrift store, a retirement home, or the local food bank. Whatever you like, make it a point to give back to others, and you may find a purpose in your life you never even thought about.
Tackle those regrets you can still change
If you find yourself dwelling on something that you know could still be changed, maybe it’s time to evaluate whether you should make an effort to make it happen. Perhaps you left an argument unresolved many years ago. Maybe you regret never visiting the town your parents grew up in in Portugal. Or maybe you know you should be shedding a few pounds for your health.
Have a look at these thorns in your side and see if there is a reasonable way you could still remedy this regret. Make a plan and take action...there’s no time like now. I toyed with the idea of moving to Europe for nearly ten years. I always had some excuse of why now was not the right time. Eventually, my husband and I just went for it and today I feel I really needed to do that. I would have thought about it for the rest of my life and would have never known if I missed out on anything.
Mourn your losses and move on
It is around midlife that we can really start to pinpoint a few decisions that got us to where we are now. Some of those decisions may have been brilliant… and some not so much. Remember that what’s done is done, and every decision was just a small part of what brought you to where you are now. Many decisions in life cannot be taken back, and dwelling on them can only harm your momentum going forward.
If you’re hung up on something that cannot be changed now, try a “letting go” meditation or exercise like releasing balloons or burning paper to symbolize your release. Although understanding where we come from and how we got to where we are now is an important part of who we are, letting that negatively impact our lives is not helpful for leading a fulfilled life.
Feeling anxiety is never a nice feeling. But it can act like a finger pointing to something that needs to be changed in order for you to be happier. Perhaps it will be like a powerful opportunity to tweak the course of your life in a more positive direction? Maybe it will help you be more conscious of your savings? Or perhaps it will help you get back in touch with some old passions, or learn a new skill or hobby?
Mid-life can be the point in your life where you evaluate past goals and set new ones that are appropriate and meaningful to where you are now. Although looking back can be a lot of fun, too much dwelling on the past and any regrets you might have may play right into that midlife anxiety. Make sure you evaluate your life based on your own happiness and not based on what others think.
You have worked hard to get to this point and even though there may be things you want to change, take some time to appreciate all the things you have achieved.
Mid-life should be about celebrating yourself and how far you have come. All of us have achieved something by the time we reach mid-life. No matter how you think this stacks up to anyone else you know, you deserve to be recognized for all you have done already.
So, the next time you hear “Over the Hill” remember that going downhill is actually the most fun. All the hard work of climbing up is done, and there is only the fun and adventure of cruising ahead.
Take mid-life as a point to celebrate yourself and your achievements and set the course full steam ahead for new adventures.