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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 29 January, 2020
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Men's health: Feel a mid-life crisis coming on? It's time for an action plan

Many men struggle to cope with the challenges presented by middle age, writes psychotherapist Karl Melvin.

Karl Melvin Psychotherapist

AT 51, THE last thing my client expected was to be sitting across from me in the therapy room. His marriage on the rocks, he was aware of the need to find better ways of relating with his wife and kids. He was tired of shouting and couldn’t suppress the tears in his eyes as he spoke of the moments of anger where he was unnecessarily hard on others and himself.

At this stage of your life, the trials of marriage and parenting rise to the top of the list of problems. If you have any children, there is a strong chance they are hitting the 12 to 19 age group. Your own stress levels have reached an all-time high. Relations can become strained, both with your kids and your partner.

This can also be a time of self reflection, looking back on life to find a sense of accomplishment and understand any decisions or mistakes made in the past. What will you be remembered for? What will be your legacy? Is it too late to make big changes in your life?

Other issues men within this age group might face include:

Empty nest syndrome

As your adult child moves out, you might find you have more alone time, more time to ruminate over the negative aspects of your life. You might also to start pondering on some of their big regrets in life.

Throughout the years, you may have lost touch with a lot of friends and mightn’t have many people to talk too, you might also start feeling like your life is lacking direction or purpose. If you strongly identify with the role of being a father, you may lose self esteem as your child’s independence means you are no longer needed.

Divorce and separation

Close to 10% marriages in Ireland end in separation or divorce. Time that was once taken up with parenting is now freed and possibly bringing to light old relationship problems as old buried hurts may resurface, leading to vulnerability and depression.

Unemployment

Job cuts are a global problem. Having experience redundancy first hand, I can remember the feelings of uncertainty about my future, the stress of the interview process, and the loss of the circle of work friends I had known for years.

Financial strain, loss of identity or direction in life, starting over fresh, concerns about retirement, making the right choices and worrying over losing social circle – these are all very real concerns for anyone facing redundancy or early retirement.

Caring for the elderly

We all feel like children around our parents and when they start aging and become unwell the emotional burden is twice that of any other situation.

Worrying for their health, guilt over not being there for them, the extra financial pressure, stress from family members or carers who are not doing their part and time needed to arrange care can put a strain not just on your own mental and physical health but also on your relationship with your partner and children.

Reduced social network

Increased isolation is a problem that is present in every age group and it takes great efforts and self-awareness to take action and try to re-engage with friends new and old.

Questioning family roles

When men come to counselling for help with their relationships, I like to spend time reflecting on their family of origin. What was the environment like? Was it hostile? Did your parents struggle with each other, with health, with their esteem or with their own family of origin?

We all have basic needs, such as love, support and security. If your parents had these in short supply, maybe you had to change your natural responses to get these needs met. For example, maybe you stayed at home to help your father or mother instead of going out and having fun with friends.

Maybe you held back expressing your opinion to avoid hurting a parent’s feelings or prevent a row. Maybe you suppressed your emotions to maintain stability in the home. Maybe you sacrificed your wage to help out a parent with financial issues to avoid guilt-trips or other emotional blackmail.

Ultimately, you may have adopted a role, such as the surrogate father or peace keeper to control your parents/siblings behaviours, which wasn’t the real you. Unable to just be yourself around your family can lead to feelings of uncertainty in your own skin, depression and heartbreak as you were not loved for who you are. The emotional damage can then bleed into your adult life causing huge issues with the new family you are trying to create.

shutterstock_400373191 Source: Shutterstock/Piotr Marcinski

Ageism

Ageism is alive and well across the globe. Thankfully there are movements towards embracing the ageing process and promoting the creativity and wisdom that comes with walking this earth for many years.

Despite this, there is a view in society that older people have nothing to offer and are less relevant, especially to the younger generation who are more interested in life achievement over life experience and have little respect for the knowledge older people have to share.

Health issues 

As the body weathers the storm, the storm can still take its toil. If you lead a reasonably healthy lifestyle i.e. never smoke, drink infrequently, limit fried or sugary food, exercise regularly you might be lucky to avoid any health risks.

This said, we live in a society where bad food is everywhere and cheap. Cigarettes are one of the most addictive and easily accessible substances on the planet. Alcohol is the go to substance when people want to relax. Sugary foods have gone from a treat once a week to the treat after each meal.

Exercise has gone from enjoying and exploring your body to being a painful chore which you “have” to do. Sleep has become a battleground for an overactive worrying mind and constant tossing and turning which would be fit for any gymnastics class.

All this aside, I haven’t touched on the physical effects deep psychological wounds can have on the body: high blood pressure due to carrying anger, shallow breathing, extreme tension, chronic tiredness due to emotional state, and skin conditions such as psoriasis which has been described as the skin screaming to be heard.

Your action plan

It’s time to take action.

If you’re reading this, then chances are you are worried about someone you know and are not sure what to do or you are in this age group yourself and looking for change but are not sure where to start. Either way, it’s important to stay grounded and focus on simple solutions rather than mull over the problems.

Children moving away

Giving your children the freedom to live their own lives is the greatest gift you could give. But where does that leave you?

If it bothers you so much cutting the apron cords, then its time to look at your own childhood. What is it about separation that hurts? Have you had experiences in the past where someone very close you left you?

Has your child moving out triggered grief in you which you have tried your best to avoid? What fears do you have around separation? Are you a chronic worrier who needs to control loved ones actions for your own piece of mind?

If any of these apply to you, this is the time to step up and do the difficult emotional work which many avoid; to reflect on the negative events in your past and how they are impacting you future. This is not easy work, but can be deeply fulfilling if done correctly, preferably with a qualified therapist.

Letting go of a relationship

Many are realising it is never too late to find true love and choosing to break free from the societal norms and start fresh. Being single at any age is scary but facing the thoughts of starting from scratch and going through the dating game can put anyone off leaving a miserable yet secure marriage.

You need to do an honest appraisal of your marriage. Is it working? Are you both happy? Are you free to speak your mind? Do you need permission to do anything? Are you intimate anymore?

When my last relationship ended, I made a conscious decision to stay single for a long period. I spent that time looking back at decisions made which lead me to the place I was at then.

I did the difficult work of rebuilding my self-esteem so I could love myself enough to choose the “right” girlfriend. This wasn’t easy, there were times I felt very low, but such is life and we always have to move forward, even when we are looking back.

Start a new career

What is your dream job? Mine has always been psychotherapy, being driven by the desire to make a difference in the lives of others. In order to do this I had to start again. I went back to college and invested in my own growth.

It was a scary process and I often felt overwhelmed by the information overload and thoughts of being responsible for the mental health of another human being but I kept going.

What fears are holding you back? Is it the criticism of family or friends? Is it the lack of job security? Write down all your fears and challenge each one.

If you fear criticism from your family slowly tell each member separately and see how they react. If they react badly, then so what? The worst has happened, but has much changed?

The fear has been realised, but you are still here, no one has died and you decide: Do you proceed and challenge the next fear or do you step back, regroup and formulate another plan? Whatever you choose, make a choice and act on it.

shutterstock_400528072 Source: Shutterstock/Minerva Studio

Break free from parents

Working with the child inside all of us is a key part of my approach as a therapist. The child who is terrified of losing his parents, who is deeply bound to the family unit and is terrified of being alone in the world.

When I mention the term “inner child” to people, I sometimes get funny looks but as soon I delve into past memories and the subsequent past feelings, my clients begin to connect and begin the process of healing the hurt and grief of their childhood experiences.

This can be a liberating process and one can find a freedom never experienced before. One book I would recommend is John Bradshaw’s Home Coming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, which explores the topic of acknowledging and healing our childhood wounds.

Hang out with friends

Re-establishing a lost friendship can be a powerful healer as being around people from your youth can remind you of who you once were.

The energy, the focus, the fun, the fearlessness, all the things which life has tried to take away but you can take back now with a new awareness which only the wisdom of age can give. It can be nerve-wracking picking up the phone to an old friend but my clients are always happy they did it after.

Spend time with the right age group

You can’t force anyone to respect you: they either will or won’t but you can increase the odds by spending time with people of a similar profile to you, who are in the same circumstances and seeking the same respect. They can validate the issues you are facing, acknowledge your achievements without needing to undermine your esteem and mirror any improvements you decide to make.

Understanding the generation gap is important to relating to people of different ages. What makes them different from you? What esteem issues are they facing? How can you promote healthy self-respect within them?

What kind of adult relationships or role models have they had in their lives? This knowledge might help de-personalise their attitude and find new ways of connecting.

Know your body

One of the few regrets I have in life is not paying closer attention to the food I was eating and the negative consequences it had on body. What we put inside ourselves has a direct impact on how we feel and how we feel has a direct impact on what we do.

Excess weight, fatigue, lethargy, stomach pain, joint ache could all be directly linked too poor diet – and that’s not including the impact of alcohol and other toxins on the body.

If this sounds familiar, it’s time to start prioritising your health. Keep a food diary, record what you eat and how it makes you feel. Load up on healthy fruit and vegetables. Sleep and exercise.

Find your authentic self

We all wear masks. In different circumstances, we have to try to conform to whatever society expects of us. What would happen if you said exactly how you felt about an issue? If you decided you didn’t want to help someone? If you decided to not answer the phone to someone?

Challenge your beliefs and expectations of yourself. Are they making you happy? Making honest decisions is a liberating experience – and you should try it more often.

Karl Melvin is a psychotherapist based in Aspen Counselling in Lucan, Dublin. He works with adults of all ages suffering with issues such as depression, anxiety, grief and bereavement and specialises in helping people break free of dysfunctional relationships. He regularly publishes mental health articles on the website Toxic Escape

Read: Relationship breakdowns: 11 tips on helping your children cope

Read: Have a problem controlling your anger? Here are tips to keep it in check

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About the author:

Karl Melvin  / Psychotherapist

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