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Midlife Crisis: Transition or Depression?

What do you do when a midlife crisis turns into depression?
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WebMD Feature

What's a midlife crisis? It's the stuff of jokes and stereotypes -- the time in life when you do outrageous, impractical things like quit a job impulsively, buy a red sports car, or dump your spouse.

For years, midlife crisis conjured those images. But these days, the old midlife crisis is more likely to be called a midlife transition -- and it's not all bad.

The term crisis often doesn't fit, mental health experts say, because while it can be accompanied by serious depression, it can also mark a period of tremendous growth. The trick, of course, is to realize when the transition is developing into depression so you can get help.

Defining Midlife Crisis

Beginning in the 1980s, the term midlife crisis got a lot of attention, says Dan Jones, PhD, director of the Counseling and Psychological Services Center at Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C. He has researched adult development and transitions.

"It was never a formal diagnostic category," he says of the term midlife crisis. And the age at which midlife crisis strikes can vary, he says. When midlife occurs depends on whom you ask and partly on such factors as how long they expect to live.

A midlife crisis might occur anywhere from about age 37 through the 50s, he says.

By whatever term, the crisis or transition tends to occur around significant life events, he says, such as your youngest child finishing college, or a "zero" birthday announcing to the world that you're entering a new decade.

"The death of parents can be a marker, too, for these midlife events," Jones says.

Midlife Crisis: His vs. Hers

Men and women are equally likely to experience a transition or crisis, Jones says. "But it looks different in both genders," he says.  

"The stereotype is a man buys a red sports car," he says. That's not always the case, of course, but Jones says men do seem more intent on wanting to prove something.

Men might gauge their worth by their job performance, he says. They may want to look successful, for instance, even though their achievements don't measure up as they had hoped.

"Women often get validity through relationships," he says, and that's true even if they've had a lifelong career. So at midlife, they are likely to evaluate their performance as a wife, mother, or both.

The Midlife Crisis as a Normal Stage in Life

The midlife transition is looked on, more and more, as a normal part of life. Yale psychologist Daniel Levinson proposed in his well-regarded theory of adult development that all adults go through a series of stages. At the center of his theory is the life structure, which is described as the underlying pattern of a person's life at any particular time.

For many people, the life structure involves mainly family and work, but it can also include religion and economic status, for instance. According to his theory, the midlife transition is simply another, normal transition to another stage of life.  

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