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What triggers a midlife crisis?

A midlife crisis is a transition period that can occur in middle adulthood, often between the ages of 40-50 years old. It is characterized by feelings of dissatisfaction, sadness, anxiety, or disappointment with one’s life. While not everyone experiences a midlife crisis, it is estimated that 10-20% of adults do. Some common triggers for a midlife crisis include:

Changing Priorities

As people enter middle adulthood, their priorities often shift. Things that used to be important like career success or material possessions may start to feel less meaningful. Individuals going through a midlife crisis may start questioning if they are on the right path and what really matters most to them. This shift in priorities can cause substantial stress and prompt significant life changes.

Fear of Aging

Many people struggle with the physical and emotional signs of aging that start to occur in middle adulthood. Changes like weight gain, loss of youthful looks, declined energy levels, or onset of health problems can be difficult to accept. Fear and anxiety related to one’s own mortality are also common. This can trigger a midlife crisis where people desperately try to cling to youth.

comparing oneself to others

Seeing friends or peers achieving major milestones or seeming to “have it all” can lead to comparisons. Feelings of inadequacy, regret, or envy may arise when reflecting on differences between one’s own life trajectory and that of others. This can cause some individuals to spiral into a midlife crisis, questioning their accomplishments and choices.

Empty Nest Syndrome

Many parents struggle when their children grow up and leave home. Adjusting to an “empty nest” and loss of the parental role can be challenging. Without children at home to care for, some people find themselves unsure of their purpose. The significant life change of children moving out combined with grief over the loss of daily parental responsibilities can therefore contribute to a midlife crisis.


By middle adulthood, some find themselves bored with the routine they have established. They may feel stuck in a mundane job or marriage lacking excitement. Craving novelty and change, this boredom with the status quo can motivate some to make dramatic changes like quitting a job or having an affair. This desire to feel inspired again leads to a midlife crisis.

Discontent in Marriage

Some people realize in middle adulthood that they are no longer satisfied in their marriage. Factors like lack of communication, increased emotional distance over time, or resentment may become apparent. This discontent can spur a midlife crisis where people reflect on missed opportunities from their youth or consider divorce. Marriages that fail to meet expectations are a common trigger.

Career Dissatisfaction

Many adults find themselves unhappy with their career path in middle adulthood. After decades of effort, some realize their job is unfulfilling or holds little meaning. Settling for financial security over passion is a common regret. Job loss or being stuck in an unsatisfying career can fuel a midlife crisis based on intense longing for more purpose in one’s work.

Financial Stressors

Stress related to finances is a known contributor to midlife crises. Whether due to instability like job loss, unexpected costs, or regret over past decisions, financial woes can create pressure. The crushing weight of debt, inability to afford retirement, or general money-related anxiety provoke crises centered on righting financial wrongs.

Lack of Accomplishment

As people enter middle adulthood, some grow troubled by a sense of underachievement. Looking back, they may feel they failed to reach certain goals, missed key opportunities, settled too early, or did not reach their full potential. These feelings of disappointment can bring on a midlife crisis motivated by a desire for accomplishment.

Physical Changes

Hormonal changes associated with midlife like menopause or andropause can have psychological effects. Fluctuations in estrogen, testosterone, and other hormones have been linked to mood disorders like depression. Additionally, changes like erectile dysfunction have psychological impacts. Bodily changes can thus contribute to the dissatisfaction and distress of a midlife crisis.

Common Behaviors

While the triggers may vary between individuals, some common behaviors are associated with those experiencing a midlife crisis:

Impulsive Decision Making

In an attempt to feel young, inspired, or reduce anxiety, people may make hasty decisions. This can include quitting a long-held job, moving locations on a whim, having affairs, or making major purchases. These impulsive choices provide short-term relief but usually fail to resolve the root causes.

Obsession with Physical Appearance

Some become hyper-focused on looking young during a midlife crisis. Behaviors may include excessive dieting, increased exercise, plastic surgery, more provocative clothing, buying a flashy car, or dating younger people. These allow people to symbolically cling to youth.

High-Risk Behaviors

Seeking excitement and new experiences, some engage in out-of-character high-risk behaviors. This can include reckless driving, extramarital affairs, gambling, drug/alcohol abuse, or impulsive trips. These provide thrills and escape normal life.


Increased selfishness and self-absorption focused on one’s own fulfillment are common during midlife crises. People may seem unable to empathize with others’ feelings and pursue self-serving goals like affairs or abandoning responsibilities.


Some relive youth by listening to music, visiting places, or connecting with friends from their adolescence or early adulthood. Linking back to a time of life they long for provides comfort. Becoming “stuck in the past” is a way to avoid facing the present.

Withdrawal and Social Isolation

The psychological distress of a midlife crisis may lead some to pull away from friends, family, and social circles. They attempt to retreat inward while they address feelings of unhappiness or discontentment. This isolation can worsen mood disorders like depression.

Common Triggers Common Behaviors
Changing priorities Impulsive decision making
Fear of aging Obsession with appearance
Comparing oneself to others High-risk behaviors
Empty nest syndrome Self-centeredness
Boredom Nostalgia
Discontent in marriage Withdrawal/isolation
Career dissatisfaction
Financial stress
Lack of accomplishment
Physical changes


While midlife crises cannot always be avoided, some proactive steps may help minimize the triggers:

Reflect on What Brings Joy

Periodically examining your values, passions, and sources of meaning can help ensure you remain on a fulfilling path. Make necessary adjustments before reaching a crisis point.

Focus on Health

Attending to physical and mental wellbeing through diet, exercise, stress management, and regular check-ups can help you tackle aging gracefully.

Set New Goals

Challenging yourself with ongoing personal and professional objectives provides a sense of purpose and achievement. Milestones to look forward to can reduce boredom.

Prioritize Close Relationships

Investing time and energy to nurture intimate bonds with a spouse, family, and friends builds a support network to see you through challenges.

Develop Interests

Pursuing hobbies, learning new skills, volunteering, or traveling helps maintain passion and enjoyment of life so it does not become mundane.

Get Help if Needed

Seeking professional counseling or support groups at the first signs of a crisis can help you gain perspective and avoid poor decisions.

Practice Gratitude

Consciously focusing on blessings and what is going right fosters appreciation for what you have versus what is lacking. This reduces discontentment.

Embrace the Positives

Focusing on the privileges that often come with age like financial stability, professional accomplishments, and increased wisdom helps frame aging in a positive light.

Communicate with Loved Ones

Sharing feelings, hopes, and challenges with those closest to you allows them to provide support during difficult periods of transition and change.

Coping Strategies

If you find yourself in the midst of a midlife crisis, some strategies to manage the transition include:

Give It Time

Refrain from making any radical changes. Allow the crisis phase to pass to gain perspective before enacting major life changes.

Separate Wants from Needs

Determine if feelings of longing or boredom are due to needs not being met vs. chasing unrealistic desires that offer false promises.

Evaluate All Areas of Life

Take stock of your whole life context – marriage, parenting, career, social network, health, finances, skills, passions. Assess what is going well versus what needs work.

Reframe Perspectives

Rather than view aging and change negatively, reframe it as an opportunity for growth. Focus on the freedoms age and experience bring versus perceived losses.

Make a Life List

Catalog specific goals and dreams yet to be achieved. Break these down into steps and pursue one passion at a time.

See a Therapist

Professional counseling provides constructive support and guidance to help weather tumultuous challenges and minimize poor decision making.

Address Health Needs

Visit your doctor to rule out any physical contributors like hormone changes, depression, erectile dysfunction, or other medical issues impairing wellbeing.

Communicate with Your Partner

Share relationship challenges or unmet needs openly with your spouse or partner to proactively improve the situation together.

Find Purpose

Seek out meaningful volunteering, mentoring, learning, or social opportunities that offer a sense of purpose and contribution.

Limit Risky Behavior

Be self-aware to avoid impulsive decisions you may later regret. Opt for less extreme changes to create desired growth while maintaining stability.


A midlife crisis results from dissatisfaction with the natural aging process, longing for purpose, or perceived lack of accomplishment. While the specific triggers and behaviors may vary between individuals, some common themes exist. Being proactive by caring for physical and mental health, pursuing passions, strengthening relationships, and having realistic expectations can help prevent reaching a crisis point. If a crisis does occur, giving it time, avoiding extremes, reframing perspectives, and seeking help facilitate navigating the transition through thoughtful rather than impulsive choices to emerge wiser and more resilient. With effort, middle adulthood can be reframed as an opportunity for revitalization rather than crisis.