How sleep, stress and happiness feel a little different in midlife

Less than a fifth of Americans say they have actually experienced a midlife crisis. And yet, there are still common misunderstandings that people have about quarantine.

I study midlife, and especially how people at this stage of life experience sleep and stress. In my research, I have also discovered that quarantine brings both opportunities and challenges.

Are we already there?

It is difficult to determine exactly when the quarantine begins. Compared to other developmental periods – such as childhood, adolescence, and adulthood – midlife is longer and includes more diverse social roles. There are fewer published studies of midlife than studies of childhood and old age. Researchers therefore still know little about the timing and unique experiences of this stage of life.

Quarantine can start at different times for different people.

In the 1990s, people generally agreed that 40s started at 35. It moved to a later age. Now Americans might say that quarantine starts at 44 and ends at 60. Increased life expectancy and medical advances may have contributed to this change.

Today’s adults live longer and healthier lives than previous generations. Also, the demands of establishing a career while raising a family have increased. This is why some researchers have begun to refer to the period roughly between 30 and 45 years of age as “established adulthood”, distinguishing it from midlife as it was previously understood.

Chronological age is just one way to define the onset of midlife. Psychologist Margie Lachman emphasizes examining some life transitions and social roles that commonly occur in midlife as a way to find definition.

So many roles, so little time

Midlife is a time when individuals occupy the greatest number of social roles. The average American adult in their 40s typically has four key roles – paid worker or homemaker; spouse or partner; relative; and adult child. Having multiple roles can provide more opportunities to develop resources such as income, self-esteem, relationships, and success. But people also have to divide their time and energy between these multiple roles.

Risk factors for end-of-life illnesses also appear in midlife. Slower metabolism, weight gain and hormonal changes are common. Also, women experience menopause, which involves hot flashes and emotional ups and downs. Middle-aged men are more likely than younger men and women to develop sleep apnea.

All of these factors are closely related to sleep, so it’s not surprising to find poor sleep among middle-aged adults. Sleeping less than six hours a night, having poor quality sleep, and other sleep problems are common.

Juggling roles

However, age-related physical changes aren’t the only threat to sleep. The struggle of middle-aged adults to juggle several often incompatible roles also causes stress. Stress has negative consequences on sleep, such as chronic insomnia. Even worse: stress can result from poor sleep. So sleeping badly or being stressed can create a vicious cycle and cascading health problems.

Sleep and stress both affect emotions, so you can expect low levels of happiness in your 40s. Research confirms this. Fewer people are happy during quarantine than older and younger groups. Yet, it’s important to note that midlife also involves growth, including spikes in work productivity, better financial decision-making, and greater wisdom.

Although researchers were able to identify general patterns of degraded sleep, increased stress, and decreased happiness in midlife, experiences vary from person to person. For some people, there may be more growth than decline, or a balance of both. Indeed, some research shows that personal growth is linked to well-being during midlife.

By now, it’s already clear that midlife is a pivotal time that determines the trajectory of aging. This is why self-care during quarantine is particularly important, despite the busy schedules brought about by more roles. It’s hard to overstate the importance of getting enough sleep and managing stress. Doing these things could help individuals turn a “midlife crisis” into “midlife potential.”

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts, under a Creative Commons license.

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