The unique stresses of Midlife can produce fear and overwhelm which can adversely affect our well-being, our brain chemistry, and our decision making. What’s different about midlife stresses is that they often unwittingly prompt unresolved issues and can trigger feelings and thoughts about the past as we naturally reflect on where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re going.
For example, perhaps as we watch our children age, their burgeoning adulthood triggers in us a memory of what it was like for us at that age. It could be as simple as seeing their relationships unfold that may prompt us to see what seems to be lacking in our own; or it could be comparing college experiences, reminding us of the decisions we made back then that resulted in the life we find ourselves in today. It could be that our aging parents are triggering us. Instead of playing the role of the familiar son or daughter, we find ourselves suddenly taking on a role of being a caregiver. Perhaps our own health, or some physical limitations that are beginning to show up more often, could jolt us into remembering more agile days. Such triggers, and others like them, can evoke unpleasant memories or remind us of our own shortcomings and mortality. At the same time, we’re trying to keep the gears of daily living moving smoothly yet we can’t help but see and feel the different areas of our lives changing.
For many, these changes and triggers over lap and boundaries become muddled and even foundations that we thought were sturdy and dependable begin to feel like they’re shifting from under our feet. It’s no wonder that these stresses can set off some basic fear responses. And with fear, we go straight to the primitive part of the brain where we do one of four things: we fight (we become combative or argumentative, posturing and becoming positional), we flee (get me the hell out of here!), we appease (let me do whatever I need to not rock the boat and to tell myself it’s not that big of a deal) or we freeze (we shut down or retreat and just wait it out till we’re distracted with something else). When this fear response happens, part of our brain (the amygdala) is hijacked so it makes our responses more reactive, or more depressed and less intentional, and prohibits sound decision making. These types of responses lead to further stress. So, I’m here to share some simple steps to help sort through the plethora of overwhelm, to help you alter your brain chemistry and to help you become healthier at handling the stresses of Midlife:
- First step is to accept your confusion, frustration or overwhelm. Normalize it by reminding yourself that this is common during this stage of life. All your feelings are valid and they are messages that you want to pay attention to. Also, take a moment to notice what fear response you go to: is it the fight, flee, appease, or freeze tactic?
- Second, name your feeling(s). Naming something is the first step in taking something internal and subjective to making it feel more external and objective. Verbalize it or at least, write it down.
- The third step is to name what triggered the feeling. So, for instance, say you take a deep breath and rather than running to buy an airplane ticket to anywhere or downing that whole bottle of wine, you identify your feelings and name it (or them) like, sad/shame. Then you identify that the trigger was attending a sports game at your child’s college. You remembered how lonely or isolated you felt back then and perhaps you ended up drinking a lot at sports games and it didn’t usually end so well. So, you identify the feeling(s)–sad/shame and then name what triggered the feeling(s)–your child’s college sports game.
- The fourth step is to take action and talk to someone and share your feelings. This step moves you further into a state of trust.
- The final step is to see if any further action is required. Using the previous example, perhaps you owe an apology to someone from your college days—since that was the trigger. You could either reach out to them directly or even write a letter to them (even without sending it). Taking ACTION can help you regain your clarity and confidence (and further boost your brain chemistry) so you are more readily available to handle the other responsibilities in your life.
Each of these steps are scientifically proven to shift the neurotransmitters in our brain. To now be aware that we can change our brain chemistry from that fearful, distrustful, primitive, cortisol producing part of the brain (that wants to fight, flee, appease or freeze) to where oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin is generated at the prefrontal cortex is life changing! When we operate from this area of the brain where our higher functions live, we are more able to envision things, to have empathy and to make better decisions with integrity. So, instead of wanting to run away (or be argumentative, or shut down) from these sad, lonely, angry or confusing feelings, we can use these steps to transform our understanding, to feel better, to sort through some of the messiness of Midlife in healthy ways and to make wise decisions that will serve us well in the future!
Please feel free to share this, ask me any questions, or comment. I’d love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org