Top Tips for Navigating Midlife
Midlife is a time of both looking back and wondering what the future holds. This busy time of life is loaded with many responsibilities and roles. Juggling work and family life can leave little time for taking care of one’s health and well-being. Stress can accumulate if left unattended. The sheer number of tasks connected to maintaining a household and balancing finances, keeping up with the demands of the workplace, and taking care of children and other family members is staggering. So how does one cope with it all? Even though this picture may appear unmanageable, there are active steps you can take to make midlife the best years of your life.
1. Take Time to Slow Down
Staying on automatic-pilot and trying to accomplish far more than you have time and energy for is sure to deplete your health, especially over time. In fact, our bodies need to reach a relaxed state, otherwise, being constantly in high gear can have detrimental effects on our health. For example, the ‘stress hormone,’ cortisol, can be over-produced when we remain in an elevated state of arousal (e.g., stressed, anxious, wound-up, and emotionally-charged). Being in overdrive also negatively effects our capacity to think clearly and problem-solve. Have you ever felt so stressed that it was difficult to make a decision? This is a signal that it is time to pause, breathe, relax, and wind down.
Integrating some down-time into each day gets us into the habit of slowing down. Learn what your signals are that it is time to take a break. Incorporating daily down-time boosts the immune system, helps maintain well-being, prolongs life, helps us make decisions, and improves quality of living. Slowing down can be a five-minute break or an hour to wind-down before you go to sleep. Even pausing to take a deep breath and rejuvenating with a short walk contributes to balancing physiological and emotional flow throughout the day. The more you incorporate slowing down rituals into your day, the easier winding down becomes. Remember to be patient with yourself as you learn to slow down.
2. Deal with Regrets and Embrace Life Lessons
Going through life wishing different decisions were made, certain opportunities were taken, or a different path was followed detracts putting energy and focus on living in-the-moment and on planning for the future. I do not think I have met one person who did not have at least one regret. After all, it is human to wonder about “what if….” However, living in the shadow of one’s life narrative is not that productive or healthy. On the positive side, if we choose, instead, to learn from our life history, this can be quite empowering. Learning from our experiences and life lessons can help us make better decisions. Life involves trial-and-error learning. We cannot possibly know for certain the exact outcome of every decision we make. As far as I know, we do not have a crystal ball. Let go of the idea that decisions were flaws or mistakes and replace that idea with the philosophy of learning from experience – life lessons.
There are many paths in life that no one prepares us for, and, we are certainly not born knowing it all. Who teaches us how to interact with others? We learn this over time through life experience and exposure to different situations. In other words, perceiving life as a journey that takes us in many directions can help relieve the burden of making perfect decisions. Recognize regrets, come to terms with them, and channel energy, thinking, and efforts toward the rest of your journey.
3. Prioritize What is Important to You
Acknowledging that it is not humanly possible to do it all or to have a to-do list as long as a football field is a healthy first step in determining what is important to you. This takes self-understanding and awareness of what has meaning and purpose. The beauty of midlife is the wealth of prior experiences that one has to learn from and to use to help them make priorities. Reflecting back on life, ask yourself, “What did I enjoy?” “What felt fulfilling?” “What would I like to do differently?” Midlife is a great time to make a commitment to living a life that is right for you and not a life lived to please others or to satisfy popular cultural values and lifestyles.
4. Build and Maintain Quality Relationships
We all need that one person with whom we can be ourselves, vent, celebrate, and grieve. Since life can be unpredictable despite how much we plan and stick to a routine, a curve ball can head our way. It tends to be, especially, in these times when we need support, love, care, and compassion. Some individuals have told me that it is difficult to meet new people during midlife. Losing track of old friends, moving frequently, having little leisure time, devoting long hours to one’s job, and spending time with family can leave little time for friends. However, it is an important investment for emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical well-being. When friendships are built on kindness, respect, and understanding, there tends to be mutual understanding that time is limited, but precious. It becomes, therefore, less about the amount of time spent with a friend, rather, the quality of the time is valued.
Meeting new people and creating new friendships takes creativity and sometimes means stepping outside one’s comfort zone, e.g., joining a club or group to meet others with a similar interest. Searching the Internet for in-person and on-line discussion groups, using social media, taking a course, and volunteering are just a few ideas for meeting new people during midlife.
5. Manage Stress Before It Piles Up
Letting stress pile up only wears you down. Have you ever had one of those days where it seemed as though you were faced with one challenge after another? Paying attention to signs that stress is wearing you down and becoming unmanageable is key to learning how to manage stress. Some of these signs or signals include changes in your health, difficulties sleeping, anxiety, depression, strain on relationships, and difficulty concentrating and problem-solving. Keep in mind that signs of stress are different for everyone. For example, some people avoid problems while others try to solve multiple issues all at once. Neither of these approaches are healthy over the long term. Putting things on the back burner or avoiding them fuels the piling up of stress and strain. This differs from taking time to sleep on an issue or reflecting on alternative solutions. In contrast, multi-tasking and taking on too many tasks can lead to burnout. Sometimes when we try to take on too many activities, we end up mastering few of them. It can feel like life is turning into a treadmill. After a while, life can begin to feel as though it lacks meaning and a sense of genuine purpose. Narrow down and prioritize to-do lists, life goals, and learn to say “no thanks.” These are healthy steps toward stress and well-being management.
6. Give Life’s Journey Direction and Meaning
Just imagine taking an uncharted trip – no map, no idea of your destination, and no compass. How do you think you might feel? What might you be thinking? On the one hand, at first, this could be experienced as an exhilarating adventure. On the other hand, it could feel quite unmanageable and empty. Meaningfulness and a sense of purpose are paramount in midlife. Having a passion(s) in life augments purpose and meaning. Getting up in the morning with a life direction and then taking steps toward your destination improves quality of life, happiness, and health. It will feel rewarding and rejuvenating to be living the life you purposefully chose. Life’s direction is facilitated by setting goals geared to various life domains: health, career, education, family, residence, volunteer activities, and interests. Goals help provide a focus, generate empowerment, and boost self-esteem.
Navigating life’s journey in healthy ways helps us enjoy moments, celebrate successes, and face challenges.
© Debbie Grove, PhD, 2011