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The mystery of the mid-life crisis

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The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross theorized that an individual goes through five distinct stages of grief in reaction to trauma: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Amplified, this applies to the human experience in general. In life, as time takes its inevitable toll and one moves into the downward curve of the aging parabola, the common reaction is that of denial. This is the beginning of the mid-life crisis. The possibility of getting old is rejected, the notion of fading youth drowned out by the more pressing concerns of everyday life. With physical deterioration, aches and pains, less fitness, realization becomes inevitable. Resultant frustration with one’s own body, the inability to withstand the same endeavours as one could in earlier life, denotes the second phase: anger. The third stage, bargaining, is what the majority associate with a mid-life crisis. Perhaps a new car, and with it, a sense of renewed youth, or often an affair, to rekindle lost flames of romantic passion.  The narrow lens through which the psychological phenomenon is perceived focuses on this tertiary phase, meaning that this crisis of mental health, afflicting many adults across the globe, becomes the brunt of a joke. Indeed, this can mean that depressive episodes during the fourth development are grossly overlooked, seen as the somewhat pathetic symptom of a realization that materialistic coping mechanisms do not suffice in filling emotional vacuousness. The extent of neglect is so extreme that the mid-life crisis is not recognised as an official mental health diagnosis. So why is it that such a common experience has become fodder for banter rather than serious cause for worry?

There are many culpable factors for the modern trivialisation of the mid-life crisis. One such factor is the lack of medical speciality guiding people’s navigation the years in-between paediatrics and geriatrics. Psychiatry, in refusing to classify the crisis as a recognized diagnosis, entirely demeans the phenomenon, and belittles sufferers to such an extent that seeking professional help becomes undesirable. It is easy to elude the consequence of the issue, labelling it a non-problem that will only lead to an increase in Ferrari’s stock and a rise in the number of Botox surgeons. However, this cliched perception fails to acknowledge the severity of the most common symptom of the mid-life crisis: infidelity. The mental breakdown endured at middle age is the reason why divorce statistics skyrocket on the arrival of one’s 40’s, tearing families apart and leaving inevitable psychological scarring for all involved. Mark Jackson, professor of medical humanities at Exeter University, highlights that “the kind of compulsive infidelity, which occurred in men and women at around the age of 40, was regarded as the key determinant of that breakdown”. Both professional analysis and social data identify the legitimacy of the mid-life crisis, and yet the general view of it is as a laughingstock. This reveals a key flaw in public opinion regarding the mental adversity concurrent with middle age.

The term ‘mid-life’ crisis was coined by Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jacques in 1965, precipitating a cultural obsession with the phenomenon during the 70s and 80s. Media-driven exhaustion of the crisis caused it to become a stereotype, a storyline rather than a disorder. Even more recently, television shows such as Breaking Bad have induced distorted impressions of the midlife reality, while portrayals of reaction to aging in films like American Beauty leave an unsavoury taste in the mouth. What popular entertainment generally fails to explore however, is the depressive turmoil that one suffers in the shadows following confrontation of their own mortality.

Another aspect of our warped perception of the mid-life crisis is more gender orientated. General opinion, largely guided by media presentation, is that transitional struggles during aging are predominantly experienced by men. Any symptoms of female crises are solely attributed to menopause, without considering the possibility that women too suffer from the same psychological tumult as men, unrelated by any changes occurring in their physical makeup. While discourse may mock the male experience, the female mental shift is ignored, languishing in the silhouette cast by the huge biological upheaval endured during menopause. The limelight fixated upon physical change in middle aged woman results in huge neglect of any mental shift, meaning that female mental health becomes a footnote in discussion of the mid-life crisis. 

Despite television caricature, lack of concern and general lampoonery of the topic, the core truth of the matter remains: mental adversity of any kind should not be branded as unimportant. The mid-life crisis is not a toddler-esque tantrum about the difficulties of getting old, but a psychological phenomenon denoting the sudden sensation of emptiness and futility caused by a longing for lost youth paired with a desperate rejection of inevitable mortality. The gravity of such feelings, while undoubtedly harrowing for the sufferer, is only consolidated by their potential fallout, wreaking havoc on marital stability and bearing a knock-on effect on the mental health of children and other family members alike. The problem of the mid-life crisis is a serious one, and should be treated as such by the psychiatric community.

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