Two months ago, 45-year-old Maria* lost her mother. Back in Dubai after the funeral, she found a major change in her personality. Usually calm and composed at most times, she found she was losing her temper frequently and for even minor issues. Small mistakes her kids made were enough to set her off. Flaring up with her colleagues and picking fights with her husband on the most trivial matters began to become commonplace.
‘Usually I’m a very easy-going, fun-loving person,’ she says, ‘but I’d suddenly become someone I couldn’t recognise and would have hated. There was this constant nagging in my brain that I was doing something wrong but I just couldn’t pinpoint it.’
She also realised she was losing weight and her blood sugar and pressure levels were low.
Her husband urged her to seek professional help. The therapist helped Maria realise that this was her way of releasing the grief of losing her mother. Coupled with her health problems, Maria’s system simply couldn’t cope with all the issues that had bombarded her at once, resulting in her experiencing what psychologists term ‘midlife rage’.
Maria may not be alone.
For most women above 40, or in their ‘midlife’, bouts of anger, unprecedented emotions, feelings of emptiness are a natural part of the ageing process, says Mandeep Jassal, counselling therapist at Priory Wellbeing Centre.
‘The term midlife is typically the ages between 45-64 years. “Midlife rage” is a sensationalised term that often downplays the changes women go through during this time,’ she says.
There are many factors that can impact how women manage a shift in their emotions during this time. ‘These can also, unfortunately, lead to negative repercussions in a woman’s day-to-day life and cause a detrimental imbalance in their overall mental health and well-being,’ says the expert.
What are the signs of midlife rage?
Feeling a loss of value and purpose, a change in sleeping patterns, changes in emotional responses and physical changes are all indicators of this phase. The changes can be extremely stressful and can be expressed by women in both a verbal and/or physical manner... displaying uncharacteristic behaviour such as screaming or shouting, an urge to hit out, sulking, excluding others from a social group, storming away from a situation are some of them.
According to Mandeep, women sometimes also experience similar issues in their 20s. ‘During these years, women quite often enter the education system or work force, experience changes in relationship status and identify and work towards long-term goals. Juggling myriad responsibilities such as their career, accommodation, health and finances can be extremely overwhelming for many,’ she says.
While anger is typically regarded – and more socially accepted – as a ‘masculine’ emotion, many men are in fact less inclined to admit or show the emotional need causing the ‘midlife rage’. ‘They tend to put on an act of stoicism instead,’ explains Mandeep. ‘They are therefore less likely to seek support from mental health professionals. In contrast to women, men tend not to ruminate on the cause of their anger and will express their “rage” response and release it.’
Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia, agrees. ‘Often, back in their home countries, women [in their 40s] might have been occupied with household chores, managing kids’ schedule etc, among other things. When they arrive in the UAE, many of these activities are usually delegated, and they end up having more time on their hands, [and] a feeling of worthlessness sets in. This leads to an internal crisis, and irritability and anger can arise,’ she says.
Dr Saliha mentions the case of a 38-year-old housewife with three kids who sought her help for anger management issues. A European, she had quit her job to join her husband in the UAE about two years ago. Here, she had two house helps and a driver who did all the errands that she once used to do back in her home country and she felt useless and unproductive and didn’t even enjoy her social life anymore as a result of these feelings. ‘She came to see me because she was lashing out at her husband and her children for the slightest reasons that didn’t warrant that reaction.’
After a couple of sessions, the main reasons for her rage were identified as grief over losing her life back in Europe; insecurity that her husband who travels a lot would neglect her; resentment in her marriage about having to move here for her husband and not having something of her own; and a morbid feeling that time was running out and there was so much she still wanted to do but felt ‘trapped’.
‘During therapy, she said she was not taking charge of her life and that made her feel out of control and like a victim. She wrote down a few personal and professional goals and identified the values that she wanted to commit herself to for the next part of her life.’ She also enrolled in a culinary school – something she always wanted to do but didn’t have the time for.
She also started couples’ therapy to work on the issues and fears within her marriage, and even started travelling with her husband during some of his work trips upon his insistence.
‘Soon, she felt a lot more in control of her life, happy with her decisions and secure in her relationships – and her anger subsided,’ says Dr Saliha.
There are many forms of psychotherapy that can benefit patients. Identifying the triggers and what makes you feel rage are the first stepping-stones to making changes that can benefit you, say experts.
According to the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (an executive non-departmental body of the UK’s department of health) guidelines, cognitive and behavioural therapy (CBT) is the recommended treatment of choice for managing feelings of rage.
‘Every case is different and situational but we have to realise that anger and rage are typically symptoms of depression, anxiety or burnout. No one is angry for no reason. There are underlying issues that result in a person having rage during this time in their life. Identifying the issues properly will provide a definitive solution,’ says Dr Saliha.
Midlife rage becomes a problem when it starts to impact areas of a woman’s life that she values immensely, such as relationships with family, friends or peers, experts say. These relationships begin to show signs of tension when she tries to focus on work or leisure activities that take her away from them and the resulting guilt and the fact that she is unable to meet expectations causes rage.
More women are recognising the challenges they are experiencing and are now reaching out for support. ‘We are also seeing a greater awareness of the value in understanding mental health and well-being and a reduction in the associated stigma that can be attached to reaching out for support,’ says Dr Saliha.
She shares the story of a 51-year-old mother of two. ‘She had been enjoying a high-profile career as a lawyer before she chose to be a stay-at-home mum when she and her husband moved to the UAE 12 years ago. With her daughter away at university, and son in the last year of school, she was at an emotional crossroads. To add to her stress, her husband’s office was preparing to transfer him to another country. Almost overnight she began experiencing a myriad emotions – of frustration, loss of belonging because they were going to be uprooted again, loss of purpose because her daily role as mother was not required, a loss of direction as returning to previous career was not an option.
‘Her symptoms were irritability, sleep disturbance, being withdrawn, fatigue, quick to fight with minimal reflection.’
Luckily for her, a few weeks of CBT helped her understand and manage her emotions. ‘Now she is looking forward to the move and searching for job prospects in the new country,’ says Dr. Saliha.
That said, homemakers are not the only ones who might experience midlife rage. ‘Midlife restlessness can impact any woman,’ clarifies Dr Saliha. ‘It typically happens to people who feel they are not living a life that is consistent with their inner truth. This could be a businesswoman who wished she was an artist instead, or a homemaker who always wished to have her own business.’
Some women who suffer a midlife crisis may also find themselves being aggressive towards people, dropping old friends, being hyperactive, and indulging in substance abuse or infidelity.
‘When they have tried to solve their inner angst through external means (like those mentioned above) and still find themselves depressed, moody or anxious, they get even more confused. They might also get feedback from friends or colleagues that they are acting unreasonable,’ she says.
Midlife rage in women is not necessarily a recent phenomenon, states Dr Saliha. ‘It could have existed decades ago but was not identified properly. There were also social stigmas that did not allow women to express their emotions.’
She feels that today, with the rise of social media ‘there is added pressure on women to ‘appear’ to have a fulfilling life, thus women are becoming even more depressed.
While Dr Saliha believes there is no “treatment” for midlife rage specifically, she says there are treatment plans to manage the behaviours and symptoms such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and stress. ‘We would also teach them parenting, time-management, relationship skills. It depends on what is at the root of their midlife rage. Many people find that when they address the deeper issues that surface during midlife, their rage and associated symptoms subside.’
Psychodynamic and analytical therapies can help address deeper issues resulting in midlife rage. These therapies focus on addressing the root of the issues rather than managing the symptoms. They delve into early childhood relationships, and how they influenced the person’s personality development as well as behavioural and relational patterns that resulted in the person adopting unhealthy or dysfunctional beliefs about themselves, their relationships and the world at large.
Dr Saliha provides the example of people who may develop a co-dependent way of being in relationships in childhood. ‘This type of relation pattern can negatively impact a person’s well-being and impede their ability to live life on their own terms,’ she says.
‘These types of issues require a lot more insight-oriented work, and take slightly longer than behavioural therapies because we are unpacking deeply rooted patterns and beliefs.
‘If they become very destructive in their life, and it starts to impact their professional as well as personal lives, we might recommend medication in addition to therapy. If they are coping [well] on their own, [we suggest] books they can read, and workshops they can attend. These can help people live their life with purpose, meaning, and authenticity.’
Reasons for midlife rage in women
Living inauthentically: By midlife you have lived enough years to know whether or not you have been living consistently with your true self. If it feels like you have been living only for other people, the inauthenticity weighs more heavily on you. You also know a lot more about yourself so the tension between what you are doing versus who you are is very strong. This can lead to depression in many women.
Parenting difficulties: For women that have children, typically by midlife those children have reached their tween and teenage years. Parenting preadolescent and adolescent children has always been a challenge for parents, but because of the pervasive use of technology, parenting has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. This new way of parenting with technology has added other layers of complexity that those women never experienced and don’t feel equipped to handle. The speed, pressure and that lack of skills often result in anger and rage.
Relationship problems: During midlife people that got married in their 20s may experience boredom or frustration. Those that got married due to family pressure realise that it is not what they want and seek divorce. This can result in rage and anger. People who got married late are probably in the beginning stages of their relationship and that can come with its own issues. Having relationship problems can cause a lot of stress on a person and that can take away resources from other parts of their life, just adding more pressure on the woman.
Health problems: Thyroid issues, insulin resistance, infertility, obesity, changes in hormone levels and more serious issues like cardiac problems and cancer can surface during this time in a woman’s life. Many of these will have irritability, anger as part of their presentations.
Not living the life they had imagined: This is basically the midlife crisis. When the woman looks at her past and realises that she has not done many of the things that she wanted to do when she was younger. Parts of her that seek expression surface during this time. These thoughts create anxiety that time is running out.
How to find peace and stay calm
If you are having a midlife meltdown or feel you are on the verge of it, follow these tips by Dr Saliha Afridi.
Stillness, silence and solitude: Take time out to sit alone in a quiet place so that you can connect with yourself. Life is asking something of you, but you will not know what it is unless you sit down and listen.
Meditation: By meditating you are developing the ‘observer’ muscle, which is going to play an important role in helping you learn more about yourself and why you are unhappy. This also helps you regulate your emotions as well as untangle what is your mind versus your intuitive voice. The intuitive voice will be your guide through the next half of life.
Journal: This is again about developing a relationship with your inner self and your values. The world is very loud, and so sitting down with your thoughts is key to help figure out your way forward. Write about the things that are important to you, your dreams, your values – and don’t be afraid to question everything you know about yourself.
Do life 2.0: Look at all the parts of your life that are not serving you and update your priorities. This might mean you have to let go of relationships that are no longer serving you, change the way you live day to day, forgive some people, let go of baggage you have been carrying etc. You basically have to re-evaluate your life and see if this is how you want to spend the rest of your life.
Take responsibility of your own happiness: We often wait for others to make us happy or to make things possible for us. We go from our parents, to our partners, to our friends or our colleagues, hoping that others will make us happy, and at midlife the frustration really builds up. It is at that point we need to understand that no one should and will take responsibility for your happiness. You have to learn to figure out what makes you happy, ask for it, or go get it.