Riding the U-Curve: Strategies to Survive the Middle-Age Lows

Friday, July 31, 2015
midlife-crisisThe mid-life crisis has become something of a cliché – associated with men and women in their 40s behaving badly, buying fast cars and using Botox. But there’s no doubt that the mid-point of a person’s life can be challenging.
“At this time of life, there are a lot of things going on – career changes, relationship ruptures and changes in family dynamics – it’s a fork in the road,” says Michael McClam, MD, a psychiatrist who treats patients in Menninger’s Professionals in Crisis program, many of whom are in their 40s and 50s.
That’s the age many people hit bottom in the happiness “U-curve,” according to a growing body of research. The good news is that after we hit 50, happiness starts to rise again for most people. The trick is riding that U-curve – learning to live with the unique challenges inherent to mid-life. Dr. McClam offers these strategies:

Take care of yourself, as well as others

People in mid-life have so many roles and responsibilities – parent, spouse, caretaker of an aging parent, employee, friend – that they often neglect to take care of themselves. “A basic foundation of mental health and well-being is self-care, including proper nutrition, exercise and time for relaxation and play,” Dr. McClam says. Research emphasizes that your physical health plays a central role in improving your resilience to stress and depression. “Even if you don’t think you have time for yourself, make it a priority.”

Nurture your relationships

If you’re struggling with this stage in your life, don’t go it alone. “The sense of being connected to others and belonging to a supportive family or group of friends gives you someplace to turn to when things get rough, and to celebrate when you have successes,” Dr. McClam says, adding that the high-achieving patients he treats have often neglected their relationships to achieve success, and as a result, feel isolated in mid-life. If you find yourself in the same boat, seek new connections in groups that share your interest in an activity, faith, cause or community.

Create a wellness plan

Take some time to reflect on what is important to you at this stage of your life, and create a wellness plan to support it. This is a strategy Dr. McClam uses with his patients, but also has potential for people not in treatment. Include your goals for your work and family; what gives you purpose or meaning; what triggers you to feel unhappy or stressed; and who or what helps lift your mood and feels good. Seeing all these elements on paper, “gives you a roadmap to better navigate a balanced, healthy life, and helps you identify your sources of support,” he says.

Find hope in the future

When you’re in the throes of a mid-life crisis, or around someone who is, it seems to last forever. But you can find solace in knowing that in most cases, mid-life crises pass. Kids are launched into adulthood. Parents have more time to enjoy each other’s company. Careers are well-established. “For more perspective, talk to someone who is older than you and who has gone through mid-life. It can really give you some hope to hear, ‘I’ve been where you’ve been, and now I feel better.’”

Is it more than a mid-life crisis?

In some cases, a mid-life crisis is more serious, and is a symptom of underlying or undiagnosed mental illness. Dr. McClam says many of his patients have long struggled with anxiety or depression, but they reach the breaking point in mid-life. Over the years they may have found ways to deal with their problems, such as abusing alcohol or drugs. “They have been strong for so long, but by middle-age their way of coping has become ineffective,” he says.
If you find you are coping with the changes of mid-life in a negative way, or feel overly depressed or anxious, please seek the help of a mental health professional.