Say the words "midlife crisis" and suddenly a cliché pops into your head: a man in his late 40s or early 50s, buying a shiny red sports car to prove to someone—himself, probably—that he's still young, hip, and cool. This is mostly thanks to media portrayals of a midlife crisis, as depicted in movies like American Beauty and even the timeless rom-com, Father of the Bride Part 2. As a psychological phenomenon, the "midlife crisis" became a popular term after a 1984 book by journalist Gail Sheehy called Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life defined it as an anxiety around the idea of mortality—basically, thinking "is that all there is?" to life. Sheehy's book posited that men and women both inevitably experienced this crisis period, some time between ages 37 and 42.

Over time, the definition has expanded, evolved, and changed pretty significantly, including inventing the "man buys sports car, has affair" Hollywood version. Nowadays, there's some debate of how common or useful the idea of a midlife crisis even is. "So much has changed in our culture that the term has lost much of its meaning," says Vivian Diller, PhD, a psychologist in New York City. "This is partly because we live so much longer. It used to be, 'I have so little time left.' Now it's 'I have so much time left. Do I want to live life this way?'"

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of the Psychology Today blog "Fulfillment At Any Age" argues against the term entirely, that a more accurate phrase might be "ego integrity." "This refers to a confrontation with mortality, your sense of meaning in life, your feeling of purpose, your connection to others, and a concern for your welfare,” she says, and it can occur at any age.

The cause of a midlife crisis is usually physical aging.

As much as the phenomenon does exist, Diller says that for women stereotypically, a midlife crisis is spurred on by seeing the first major physical signs of aging in her body, including graying hair, wrinkles and, most notably, menopause. But it can also be caused by a kind of existential quandary: wondering what is my purpose?

Diller says this might happen when our children are all grown and have left the house, or if our parents don't need to be cared for, and we need to find new ways to fill our time. You're no longer beholden to the needs of everyone else, and are left to finally care for yourself, only to discover you don’t know what makes you feel vital.

The age of a midlife crisis often coincides with menopause for women.

As Diller mentioned, menopause can come with a major emotional reaction, and can even take the form of a midlife crisis. "More often than not, the trigger is not being able to have children anymore," she says. "That's when you think: I have to start preparing for the next chapter of my life." Though the age of menopause varies greatly, this would put the general range for a female midlife crisis anywhere from 35 to 55—a bit different than Sheehy's guarantee that it will come between 37 and 42.

The key sign of a midlife crisis is taking drastic actions.

The kinds of effects or symptoms you might see from this idea of midlife crisis really depend on the individual, says Diller. "The response can be either a fight or flight," she says. "Fighting it would be: I am going to do everything I possibly can to delay the aging process." That could include plastic surgery, a later-in-life pregnancy, hiring a personal trainer to get in great shape, or trying a dramatic hair color. Flight, in this case, is more akin to denial that the changes are happening, and can include reactions like withdrawing from social activities or even symptoms of depression.

Read the full story here: Think You're Having a Midlife Crisis? Here are Some Signs to Consider


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