Midlife Got You Down? Focus on Resilience

We can keep the emotional 'muscle' of resilience strong by practicing certain behaviors, so when crisis hits, we have our emotional-survival toolboxes at the ready.
Dehydration is an unusual side effect of stress. (Photo: holbox/Shutterstock)

You might not call it resilience, but you recognize it when you see it — it's when you come home from a rotten day at work and go for a run; it's when you didn't get the job but keep sending resumes out; it's when you FaceTime your best friend to complain and cry about your latest romantic disaster and end up laughing at yourself.

Resilience is defined by social science researchers as "the capacity to positively adjust to difficult life experience," but the rest of us might call it "dealing with stuff without going nuts." The good news is that we all tend to get better at it as we age. Which is important, because midlife comes with a new and increasingly complicated set of challenges.

It's important to understand why midlife is different from the time that came before it and the time after. "Its most characteristic feature is its position between a time of life with predominant growth, addition, perfection and gains and a part of life life associated with decline, restriction and losses," writes University of California at Irvine professor Dr. Jutta Heckhausen in her widely cited book, "Adaptation and Resilience in Midlife." In midlife, we have to "manage the joint occurrence of growth and decline," Heckhausen writes.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Age Lab has identified some key areas where stressors pop up in midlife:

  • Participants in their 40s were most likely to identify stressors surrounding the maintenance of work-life balance, or managing family and parenting.
  • In their 50s, both men and women were most likely to mention stress related to caregiving for an older relative, and many also noted that marriage, separation or divorce served as another source of stress. Work also served as a major stressor among men in the Boston group.
  • Among women in their 60s, primary stressors included caregiving, work and money. Among men in this age group, stressors revolved around money and finding work.

How resilience can help in midlife

Stressed out worker
Not all stress is bad, but that doesn't mean stress should be constant. (Photo: KieferPix/Shutterstock)

Besides practice — the life experience of overcoming personal difficulties is one way we learn resilience — researchers say we can keep the emotional "muscle" of resilience strong by practicing certain behaviors, so when crisis hits, as it inevitably will, we have our emotional-survival toolboxes at the ready.

“There is a naturally learnable set of behaviors that contribute to resilience. Those are the behaviors that we gravitate to more and more as we age,” Dr. Adam Grant, a management and psychology professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania told the New York Times. He, along with Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, wrote the book "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy."

Practically speaking, what does that look like? Categories of resiliency responses, according to the MIT Age Lab team, include: "self-efficacy, perseverance, internal locus of control, coping and family and friends. People typically said they relied on more than one type of strategy; no one relied on simply one source." Real-life examples include some of the ideas below:

Heal from stress, but don't try to eliminate it

Stress isn't all bad. Moderate amounts of stress can be good for the body and mind, allowing us to push ourselves further than we would have believed possible. It can keep us motivated and ensure we pay attention to details. But that doesn't mean stress should be constant. Learning how to take healthy breaks from stress (whether at work or home) could involve a vacation, time each week away from your spouse and kids, designated days or times per week that you turn off your devices, a regular meditation program or anything that gives you genuine time off from the cause of your stress. It's that time when important personal growth, which contributes to resilience, has a chance to happen.

"Stress is the stimulus for growth, and recovery is when the growth occurs," Dr. Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, told the New York Times. “That’s how we build the resilience muscle.”

If you have a few minutes, check out this Tedx Talk by Janet Allen, who owns a counseling clinic and has been a professional mental health counselor for the last 25 years. She has a lot to say about resilience and happiness:

Get outside your own head

Doing things for others (if that's not what's causing your midlife stress in the first place) can be a valuable way to get into another version of reality where you are not the center of things. Giving to others — volunteer work, for example — is one option. If the idea of more needy people in your life sounds less than ideal, there are plenty of citizen science projects or local ecosystem restoration projects to consider.

Choose positive challenges

Especially if you're stuck in a rut or burnt-out, you might be surprised to find that a new challenge can be a way to fight stress and build resilience. Pick something unrelated to the area of your life causing you stress and outside your comfort zone.

For instance, if you're caring for an aging parent, you could try an acting class; if your work projects require a high level of attention to detail, hiking a nearby high peak could be a good challenge to think more big picture. If your attention is pulled in many directions each day, something more focusing, like creating a ceramics collection or completing a silent meditation retreat, could be a way to both challenge yourself and recover from your everyday stresses.

The ideas above are just a few examples of how to cultivate resilience in middle age. For more, check out one of the books mentioned above and explore what's possible.