By Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW
Midway through our first therapy session a woman I'll call Julie laughed ruefully: “Five years ago if you’d have told me I’d be seeing a shrink I’d have said you were nuts!” The 55-year-old mother of two college-bound teens added, “I still don’t know why I’m here, but I do know there’s this gnawing feeling there should be something more.”
Julie is indicative of many of my patients who are facing life transitions – empty nest, career shifts, widowhood, divorce, age-related health issues – and seeking a purpose for their second half.
Since statistics state a 50-year-old female has a life expectancy of 83, clearly there are miles and miles and miles to go till the fat lady sings. Making decisions about how to spend those decades can involve, among other tasks, coming to terms with past choices as well as weighing future ones.
With all this reevaluation often comes self-condemnation: “Why have I stayed stuck for so long in a stale marriage?” “I hate the things menopause is doing to my body”, “Why didn’t I take my tennis skills seriously before arthritis set in?” “No one wants to hire a 54-year-old when they can get a 24-year-old for half the money.” Is it a surprise that depression, while not a natural part of aging, is on an uptick among Boomers?
Yet Boomer women sometimes feel ashamed to seek therapy. Shouldn’t all their accrued life wisdom and experience prepare them for handling problems on their own? However, ask yourself if that's that what you would say to a loved one who was in emotional turmoil. You would likely entreat, "Don’t let stubbornness or fear keep you from seeking a trained, impartial counselor who can help you stop running in psychological circles and give you relief and clarity."
When Should You Seek Therapy for Midlife Malaise?
What follows is obviously not an exhaustive list but it’s a good starting point:
Highwire EmotionsWho doesn’t have a bad day or two? But if you continue to feel stuck, lost, locked in ruminating negative thoughts, and/or mired in debilitating anxiety, you should seek help. Medication may or may not be required but a mental health practitioner can help assess what is going on.
Psychological Impact of Physical Changes Perimenopausal women are at increased risk of major depression, according to the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation. This depression can last for up to two years after your periods end. Menopause can also lead to sexual discomfort because of diminished lubrication. For the latter, a therapist specializing in sexual issues can be of immense service.
Food Swings Recent studies point to the incidence of midlife women suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia rising 42 percent from 2001 to 2010. The cause can range from societal pressure to look young and fit to relationship issues and loss.
Crisis Management Perhaps your marriage is ending, or you need to decide if you should end your marriage. Or the pressures of parental caretaking are taking their toll. Or, as happened with my patient Julie, your imminent empty nest may be forcing you to confront other problems you've allowed to lie dormant in the distractions of day-to-day life.
Existential Crisis Perhaps a role that has occupied most of your life is ending. Who are you if not a fulltime mother or corporate executive or wife? Or you haven’t felt alive in ages and lately you feel totally worthless. Therapy can enable you to gain more awareness of unconscious defenses that have kept you “safe” but unhappy.
I am not saying therapy is the solution to all your woes. However, it can help you start asking the right questions and introduce you to tools to help you find the answers.Consider attending Women at Woodstock: A Retreat for Boomer Women http://womenatwoodstock.com/. You can read my ThirdAge article on the retreat here: http://www.thirdage.com/aging-well/a-woodstock-for-boomer-women
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a NYC-based therapist, speaker and author of 3 books, including "The Complete Marriage Counselor": Relationship-Saving Advice from America’s Top 50-Plus Couples Therapists (Adams, 2010). Her website is www.marriedfaq.com. She will be one of the “Expert-Connect” experts at Women at Woodstock, offering advice on finding new love after 50. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.