Midlife mayhem and magic – thoughts and dreams for everyoneTue 27th September 2022
Midlife (by which I mean your 40s and 50s) is a magic- and mayhem-filled time of change and opportunity. As I navigate my own midlife waters, with its attendant dips and eddies as well as joys, I have found it important to question and be curious about the stories that are told about midlife, and to look beyond the surface of simplistic ideas, such as the U-curve of happiness, to the truth and complexity that exists in what are increasingly unique midlife experiences. For all the shared circumstances, there’s much that is specific about your life at this time. Let’s take a closer look.
If we are to step into our older lives with wisdom and resilience, it serves us to use the time and challenges we face in the midlife stage to hone our ability to see our lives and ourselves with clarity. It is a time for developing new skills and expanding the range of feelings. So many of us have been ‘on’ for thirty-odd years by our 50s. Maybe it’s time to rethink a few things? Midlife is an ideal time to pause and reflect, to see where you are and what you want for yourself next. This stage asks, nay, often demands, that we deepen our awareness and understanding of ourselves and our lives, as well as others. It is in midlife that we integrate the lessons of our life to date, become aware of the complexities and truths of our life, not as we wish it were. Doing this, we can approach later life with our minds clear and our hearts open.
Midlife physical changes
The midlife decades are marked by many shared as well as unique experiences. The list of possible physical and emotional midlife changes is quite long but can include:
Mood swings/anxiety/panic attacks
Changes to sex drive/libido
Changes to urinary habits or genitals
Aches and pains
Irregular or missed periods
People in midlife experience significant physical and emotional changes either through hormone shifts or through illness or accident. You may have to relearn the body you live in. Poor sleep and feeling unwell can lead to feelings of fatigue, and a tiredness that a few deep sleeps doesn’t shift. Your legs or back may ache, or you may experience inexplicable low moods. Be honest about the pace you can go right now. Trust that this is a season for rest and that likely it will change, maybe not, but even so, fighting only makes it worse.
Not all feelings are messages, however; sometimes they are askew hormones that need addressing, and a doctor who can be trusted to listen is a good place to start. Know that it is okay to seek help but be prepared that it can also be hard. Waiting lists can be long. There are one-to-one support services and helplines that will do their best to listen and support you. Some support listed below.
It can be useful to think about a network of support from a range of avenues – things you can do yourself, how others can help (practically and emotionally) as well as food/movement, removing stressors (like alcohol) and medicines.
Midlife and women/people assigned female at birth
Around the mid-40s, people can notice a real shift in their menstrual cycles. This is perimenopause and the symptoms are aligned with those listed above. If these changes happen before the early/mid-40s, it is early menopause.
As with the tendency to illustrate pregnancy with morning sickness, there’s a tendency for the media to focus on hot flushes, but two in ten will never experience them and they are not a common or persistent symptom for many. Nausea and light-headedness are just as common, yet less often talked about. What helps is to know what is usual for you and if you are feeling unwell or less yourself in your 40s (and 30s) to certainly consider perimenopause as a cause.
Common perimenopausal symptoms are also common midlife symptoms – is it life, or is it the menopause?
How do we address this hormonal shifting? Do we even need to? As always, the answer is complex. A GP might tell you that it is a ‘natural’ thing that can be ‘lived with’, but how much attention is being paid here to the structural and systemic demands on us as individuals? I’m sure it is very possible to ‘live through’ symptoms such as insomnia and memory lapses/brain fog if you’re not also juggling a job, maybe a family, pets, relationship challenges as well as ageing parents. This is often an age when you have acquired many responsibilities and cannot slow down. The key is to educate yourself about your options and advocate for the treatment you would like.
I know that, for me, I was feeling good and then I got hit by symptoms that felt very far from usual for me. Knowing what your ‘usual’ is can be helpful.
The key is to understand what the feelings are about – are they a signal that changes are needed, or are they just a hormone shift? Or a bit of both?
HRT (MHT) is an option that should be investigated with care and awareness of your own family medical history as well as awareness that the risks have been overstated in the past. Start seeking advice here and here and here.
More rest, a slower pace and a review of your responsibilities might help. Can you delegate more? What resources are to hand for support with day-to-day tasks and responsibilities? What fears or concerns are driving the busy-ness? What problems are holding you back/causing big issues? Are they structural and out of your control or can you make changes? As always, having people you trust to listen to you is a great help. And if the medical support you receive is less than helpful, please seek alternative support or referrals. Persistence pays off.
Midlife and stories
The narratives we tell about life events can shift in midlife. A loss (of friendship, job, partner, or children leaving home) can be felt as bigger than it would have been at 25. And there are genuine systemic challenges and cultural prejudices to negotiate which can impact job-seeking or dating.
Much of it is about the story, though: the gap between what we think our life should be like and how it is can start to seem very wide. Many people cannot bear the gap, or the losses seem too large, and there are many ‘deaths of despair’ in this period, deaths caused by alcohol and drug misuse, death by suicide.
There is much evidence that social and cultural factors shape our experience of midlife and ageing. Check out Becca Levy’s book on ageing and this paper on how stereotypes impact behaviour. Simply put: our outlook and expectations shape our experience.
Dominant stories about ‘midlife crises’ and poor mental health can get in the way of people seeking the help they need. It is not ‘normal’ to feel depressed in midlife. Please seek help if you are at all concerned. Many of us also need to revise our coping strategies: those that have served us in our 20s and 30s may begin to fail us now. Movement, enough sleep and enough to do, as well as enough time to do nothing, are all simple and yet often tricky to achieve. There are more tips and ideas at the end of this piece.
It is also worth spending some time reflecting on what stories you have heard or ‘know’ about the midlife period, and considering how these compare with the lives of those around you.
Midlife and responsibilities
It is wonderful that there is so much more awareness now of the burden of emotional labour, as well as the harm that can be caused by the emotional, physical and practical challenges of caring, whether that is for friends, family or others. Interestingly, studies have shown that some amount of caring (less than around 20 hours a week) can actually make you feel better, but any more than that is linked to stress and illness. There are also studies that challenge the concept of care as only a ‘burden’. An overview of Roth’s work is here.
However, there is vast inequality when it comes to care and the demands of caring. Care is often not recognised for the vital work that it is, nor is it compensated for anywhere near appropriately in most settings.
Who in your life has caring responsibilities, and how much? How can these responsibilities be shared, reduced, shifted? What can be let go of? What untapped resources are there? If you are a carer yourself, consider contacting AgeUK or Carers or joining an appropriate support group. If there are those in your life who are doing more than feels good for them, consider how they can be supported. Everyone deserves to be able to work towards their dreams and not be held back by care responsibilities – not just a privileged few. We need to be able to have honest, difficult conversations with those around us to start shifting things on a wider scale.
Midlife and mental health
The U curve: myth not reality
Most people have seen that curve – the one that says midlife is the bottom of a U-shaped curve of wellbeing and life satisfaction. The reality is, shock horror, more complex than that.
Various longitudinal studies, conducted over time, have shown the opposite. That people in their 40s and 50s are happier than they were in their 20s and 30s. So, as with the ‘myth of decline’, it is worth taking a look at what the ‘science’ is behind the headlines. What ‘stories’ have you heard about getting older? What might be worth questioning about them? What story do you want to be able to tell for yourself?
It is vital, as we approach and settle into in midlife, to be aware of our own choices and patterns, as well as the experiences that have shaped us. Trauma is often dismissed but it’s so important that we know our selves, accept and honour the truth of how we feel and how we got here. We need to see our story to date clearly. Only then can we do the work of letting go of what no longer serves us.
In midlife, an idea explored in my first novel, Appetite, rings ever truer: ‘feeling shitty won’t kill you but the shit you do to stop feeling shitty just might…’ We must be honest about what we do about how we feel, and why we respond that way to our own emotions; only then can we make any changes we need to. Remember: feeling bad is hard, but it’s better than pretending you don’t. I think Oliver Burkeman captures much about the challenges of day-to-day life in his latest book 4,000 Weeks. I highly recommend it, or there is this article which is a good overview.
Midlife and sexuality
Midlife can be a time of seismic shifting for many people in relation to their body, its needs and desires. On a physical level, vaginal dryness and soreness, loss of or difficulty achieving and/or maintaining erection, as well as changes to orgasm, are all very common (stat). The impact of this may be significant, on both an emotional and a relational level. In this section, I suggest that it might be helpful to move away from pathologising language like ‘dysfunction’ and recognise that libido and our sense of our sexual selves shift over time.
Changes to desire
Consider the expectations and assumptions you have about desire, sex and libido and how these are at play in your experiences. For example, it is okay to feel less sexual, but some people experience this as a huge loss. Processing this emotionally as well as seeking practical help is a good multi-level approach.
We can also consider how a step towards expanding our definitions of intimacy can be helpful. What new experiences and sensations might become available to us if we expand our idea of what intimacy includes? It is worth considering the sexual power dynamics at play and lean into this (read more on that here) as well as to work on some ‘yes, no, maybe’ lists for intimate and physical experiences.
Changes to fertility
Some people experience changes to fertility as a loss. This loss needs to be felt and grieved. Change like this which is outside our control, and which limits our choices in fundamental ways, can be incredibly challenging to deal with, and we need to acknowledge this. It can be really hard to accept that certain experiences and options are no longer available to us. You may need extra support to help develop some new tools as well as other forms of support if this is proving challenging to you and impacting your day-to-day life.
Some people feel more aligned with their assigned gender, others even more separated from it. Heather Corinna is great on this: read more here.
The questioning that can come at the midlife stage can support people in peeling away layers to reveal a new, or forgotten, truth about the self.
The gaze of ‘the other’
Many people have complicated feelings about receiving less attention, wanted or unwanted, sexual or otherwise. Feelings of invisibility are very real for many people, of all genders, in midlife. Here in the UK, our society and culture celebrate youth, and much of midlife experience is invalidated or simply invisible.
It is, I’m afraid to say, down to us to change that, by being visible if we can and choose to be. Being fully ourselves, whatever that looks like, is not easy but, please, take the risk, or continue leaning into that if you are.
Personally, I’ve felt relief at being liberated from the need to be approved of and to receive the male gaze (I literally just stopped caring, at about 44, what anyone else thought of how I looked or presented myself – one very big bonus which it makes me smile to write down) but this is not everyone’s experience by any means. And that’s okay. You’re allowed to grieve these changes. Try to notice some of the gains as well as the losses.
Midlife mood and energy shifts
Irritability is a sign of things being out of alignment and can also become a way of being. It needs to be seen and acknowledged and then addressed as well as possible. What situations and circumstances contribute to this feeling? When? How often? Is it connected to poor sleep, or something else? Try to get a sense of how often you are irritable and see if you can shift that with some changes to activities or how you are thinking about certain tasks, responsibilities or people.
Anger and rage
Anger is valid but can become a way of avoiding other feelings (fear, pain, sadness) – a shield for other complex feelings and needs. As above, try to notice when and where it is happening and how often – know your number on the ‘anger scale’ and test out how that can be shifted. Be kind and curious.
Not feeling like yourself, or: Dude, where’s my mojo?
Many people talk of ‘not feeling themselves’, of losing their spark as well as a diminished ability to access joy. The key is to understand that there might be underlying issues and address these with the support of a doctor, or experiment with change until you find something that works for you. It can help if you understand the threads that make up the feelings – we must untangle in order to see clearly what is going on. This likely will need time, space and some sense of calm or perspective.
Acknowledge what is going on and why. You might not be able to change much, but seeing it all clearly is a great place to start. Once you can see the situation with clarity, address what can be addressed.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time
(Full prayer here https://www.verywellmind.com/the-serenity-prayer-62614)
Midlife and change
New car, new hair, new partner, new life? Our feelings can cause us to question our choices and where we are. It is important to recognise the difference between a bad day, week, month or year and a situation that needs to fundamentally change.
Being aware of the law of unintended consequences is also important. Adult lives tend to be complex, and moving one piece will impact on the others, often in ways that you cannot imagine or anticipate. This is not said to keep you still or stuck, but as a gentle reminder that change can be challenging.
There can also be a lot of stigma, internal and external, around desiring certain changes. Again, it’s important to notice this and to work through whether it is serving you or not.
When it comes to change, we cannot escape the issue of power. Who gets to make change? And why?
Ensuring that we are living according to our key values can help us make sure that we are living and loving in a way that is not going to be buffeted around by short term crisis. More on values-based living and loving here and here.
Midlife magic that is also mayhem
Midlife invites us to both soften and harden. It demands that we define some edges by finding, and speaking with firmness, our yes as well as our no. It also invites us to let go of the idea that we can manage all the things, keep everything flowing and moving if we just work a bit harder, try a bit more, be a little more this or little less that.
The difficult questions that our lives have been asking can become deafening, and the ways in which we avoid (either through being busy, doing too many things, or by doing too little) become less useful.
By saying no more often, you might cause mayhem. By saying yes, you might also cause mayhem. By giving fewer fucks you might upset a few, or many, people. Be kind. But be honest. Now is the time to be you in all your messy, glorious idiosyncrasy. A values-based approach will never let you down. Kindness, clarity and anger, as well as firm boundaries, are gifts for all ages. They’re often easier for us to find once we’re in the midlife days of magic and mayhem.
Life does not give us all its gifts at once – Homer
What gifts is midlife offering you? What magical powers have appeared in your treasure chest? They might not be the ones that you’d like, but they are the ones you have… how do you feel about that? What are you going to do with those right now?
Cause more mischief. Own your magical midlife powers.
We get more unique as we age, not less. What’s unique about you, right here, right now? Celebrate that – Whitman it up! Make ‘I celebrate myself, I sing myself’ your mantra today and every day.
Midlife tips for all
Get enough rest. Yes, that might even mean saying no to things you’d really like to do as well as learning to say no to things you are being asked for. Fill your own cup first with regard to energy and rest. Think about what resistance comes up when you read that. Think about who in your life always seems to be thirsty…
Figure out what feels good for you to eat and when. Eat enough of what is genuinely feeding you as well as enough of what you need to feel emotionally sated and well. I trust you to know what that looks like. And if you feel like you can’t trust yourself, check out this piece on intuitive eating and Laura Thomas’s work.
Figure out what movement feels good for you. Think about weights, even just bodyweight, as part of your movement. Stretch. Find things you love to do and do them as often as you can manage. Put it to the top, not the middle or bottom, of your Things To Do list.
Reduce or stop drinking alcohol, stop smoking/vaping and/or be aware of the effects on your body of stimulants (sugar, caffeine). None of these things are ‘bad’ (though arguably smoking, and drinking to excess, are very harmful but that discussion is beyond the scope of this piece) but I invite you to consider what really helps you feel better and what might be getting in the way. Support on addressing addictions can be hard to reach out for, but change is very possible, and if any of these areas are a concern, please reach out for help. See below for suggestions of where to go.
Seek help if any of the symptoms, or other issues, are affecting your everyday life. Midlife is not ‘the beginning of the end’; it’s not ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ to be always in pain or depressed or anxious. It’s yet another transition and it does not have to be totally painful and miserable. Suicide stats are terrible for this age, especially among men. Please reach out if you need support. List of resources below.
Assess your ‘should’s’. I invite you to consider: what sticks are you still beating yourself with? Which ones can be put down, slung into the woods or used more productively as a prop for a window or a toy for a pet/child? What activities, experiences and feelings do you think are ‘not for you’ because of your age or how you look/feel? Read more here.
Consider your possibilities. Consider what change(s) you need. Is it menopause/midlife – or is it life?
Question your vision of the future. As mentioned earlier, midlife is seen by many as ‘the beginning of the end’. This is truly not the case. Consider your own assumptions about what mid and later life look like. Take a look at Levy’s book on how your thinking changes how you age.
See yourself, your life and your needs as clearly as possible. This is not an easy one. But it is important to bring some clarity of vision to all of yourself, your places and roles in the world. This is simple to write and not simple to do. It is a life’s work, but I promise you that future you is already thanking you for doing it.
A swirling combination of mayhem and magic marks midlife. Take some time to consider your own midlife gains and losses. What changes are happening right now and what is likely ahead? What resources might you draw upon to support you? What simple changes might help you right now?
Pauses in the day to check on your breathing as well as meditation can support awareness and clarity. Allow your anger and frustration to be felt too. These feelings may be ‘hormonal’ or they may be telling you something about what you need. It’s your responsibility to feel into that and figure it out as well as you can. Writing, journaling and/or making time for any preferred creative practice can support seeing things clearly. As writer and writing coach Victoria Erickson (www.victoriaerickson.com) says: ‘Writing is ultimately a form of movement. Moving stagnant energy, moving grief, moving your arms and hands, moving forward, moving your heart, moving others, moving back into truth and alignment.’
Simple gratitude practices can be helpful. Note three things that you are grateful for. Keep a gratitude journal or jar (more ideas here). Send notes of appreciation to friends and family, chosen or not.
Time in nature can be restorative. Even just natural imagery makes a difference if that’s all you can access right now.
Most of us could use more time for ourselves. Midlife might be the time that your body is insisting you take it. It might only be a few years but it’s also part of the marathon that is life (luckily) for most of us. A slower pace and a willingness to say yes to yourself and no to others more often will stand you in good stead regardless.
I am painfully aware that we don’t all have the power and privilege to say yes and/or no when we need to. Nor the power and privilege to get the help we deserve. The environmental issues we face now as well as the political/economic situation of so many is utterly devastating and brutal. If you can, and it’s appropriate for you, channel your rage or fear into activism, education and supporting others. Making sure you don’t overcommit or burn yourself out is vital. I feel for all of us. Together we can work magic amongst the mayhem.
If you would like to explore any of these issues through one to one coaching, please email me email@example.com or book a meeting here.
Further reading and resources
NYT on perimenopause (paywall piece)
Menstruation and women – Oprah article
Hell Yeah Self Care – great zine on self-care by Meg-John Barker
Feel the Feelings – great zine on staying with feelings by Meg-John Barker
London Friend – LGBT+ support line
MIND – support line and advice
Calm – support