Life stage crises and psychotherapy
We all have to negotiate stages in life when our worlds significantly change. We may be very aware that things are just not quite right for us, but we can also be unaware of these changes. We may be aware of the fact that we are struggling to adjust, especially if the circumstances of our lives explain our distress in themselves. Perhaps we are experiencing a relationship breakdown or a bereavement, for example, at the same time as going through early adult or mid-life experiences, in which case we may be experiencing both loss and developmental change simultaneously. This can make it very difficult for us to cope with our everyday lives.
From the time that we are born we have to navigate developmental changes and challenges, such as learning who our carers are, building muscular strength and developing motor skills. We learn how to lift our heads, use our arms, to sit, to stand, to walk, to talk, to feed ourselves and manage our bodily needs. Later we have to manage separations from our nearest carers and experience the wider world as we form relationships with others, apart from our parents or carers and siblings - other family members, other children, professional carers, teachers and so on.
The developmental stages of children are well documented, but it is easy to forget that we are passing through changes throughout our lives, from puberty and adolescence and establishing independence, through early adulthood on to more mature adult experiences, such as establishing our identity, managing relationships and jobs and possibly becoming parents. How we live with ourselves and relate to others is directly affected by this navigation through our own life story.
Then we have the more commonly acknowledged 'adult' challenges including the famous 'mid-life crisis’. We may find ourselves working, bringing up children, caring for parents and others at the same time. We are well and truly in the middle, with our own needs a long way down the list of priorities. Being neither young nor old, we may experience a great sense of loss and hopelessness as we become conscious that youth has gone and cannot be recovered and that ageing and dying lie ahead.
Later life brings more change as we continue to age and experience a very real and often troubling awareness of our mortality. Some of us will be reminded of this in unavoidable ways, for instance by life-threatening illness or the death of people close to us, but also by changes in our bodies such as the menopause and loss of mobility or function. It is worth noting here that changes such as the menopause, pregnancy and puberty can affect our mood and our state of well-being in profound and unexpected ways. They have both a physical and psychological impact and can trigger the loss of a confident and secure sense of identity and equilibrium as well as, occasionally, more severe mental health difficulties.
As we move into our later life stages some of us will have to manage the major shift from working to retirement. Whilst this can be a time of renewed interest in life after the rigours of working, it can also present us with the challenge of restructuring our lives and finding new ways of making life meaningful and rewarding. If we have had families and relationships are good, we may have the pleasure of watching our children and grandchildren find their way through their lives. But we may not have taken this path and could be troubled by the absence of successors, the breakdown in communication within the family, or indeed be full of concern for our families if they have troubles of their own.
And finally we have to contemplate the end of our life and the end of the lives of our nearest and dearest. We may be frightened of how this will happen and what it means to us, or simply be feeling alone.
This of course is painting a bleak picture of the individual’s journey through life. We all negotiate some life stages better than others, maybe even simply experiencing intimations of changes as they occur over extended periods of time, without becoming unduly depressed or anxious. However, it is likely that most of us will have a little difficulty somewhere along the way and it may be helpful to remember that whilst many experiences are uniquely our own, many are also shared. Remember that talking about our troubles and to have them recognised can help us to endure them.
Psychotherapy is often seen as a treatment for depression, anxiety and other psychological difficulty that might even have been diagnosed as a recognised mental illness. The purpose of this article is to point out that we may experience unease or distress that cannot be labelled so easily. We may simply wish to find out about ourselves, without a medical referral or the prompt of a major crisis, by talking in an emotionally honest, private, philosophical and explorative way with a psychotherapist.
Whilst we may be wary of walking into the unknown territory of our inner and unconscious selves, taking the lid off Pandora’s box or baring our souls to a stranger, understanding ourselves in the context of our own world, our particular experiences and relationship with that world may very well provide us with an insight that will help us to step more lightly through life, whatever stage of it we are in.
Sarah Fahy, Stort Psychotherapy.
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