By Karen Asp
Tell your friends that you're having a midlife crisis and they're likely to think you're joking. Everyone has heard the one about the husband who blew his savings on an expensive sports car, but we're less accustomed to discussing the difficulty women have making the transition. Reaching that point in life doesn't have to bring on despair -- in fact, if you do a bit of soul-searching and take the right steps, it can be a positive force.
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1. BOOST YOUR BODY IMAGE. It's no secret: Confidence flags as everything else sags. Crow's-feet, gray hairs and even a little tummy bulge are natural signs of aging. For many women, self-esteem plummets during middle age.
Take Action: Look in the mirror and focus on the physical attributes you like about yourself. For instance, "I have a nice smile-it's warm and friendly." Create a new, self-affirming mantra such as "I am getting older, but I know I will always have a lovely smile." Train yourself not to judge your appearance by the way you looked 10 or 20 years ago.
2. GO FOR A WALK. Exercise might improve mental health by helping the brain cope with stress. In one study, researchers found that participants who exercised regularly and vigorously were 25 percent less likely to experience depression during the next five years.
Take Action: Find a fitness regimen that's fun and appeals to your personality, so you won't lose motivation. If you love to dance, for example, try a Zumba class.
3. EXPLORE NEW-OR OLD-PASSIONS. Long-married couples might worry that they will find themselves with nothing in common once the children have grown, but recent research published in Psychological Science shows that marital satisfaction actually improves after the kids fly the coop. All of a sudden, your time is your own again, and you get to spend it as you like.
Take Action: Return to some of the favorite activities you've put on hold or try new ones, either as a couple (drive across the country in an RV) or solo (take a cake-decorating class).
4. START A STRESS JOURNAL. Organizing your thoughts can make this transition more manageable.
Take Action: Feel overwhelmed? Jot down what you're doing. Flip through your journal every week and see if you can spot what's driving your stress. If it's a lack of personal time, make a list of five things you want to do and schedule 60 minutes each week to tackle at least one of those tasks.
5. RE-EVALUATE PRIORITIES. Midlife is a great time to ask yourself, "What's my purpose in life?" and "Am I moving in the right direction?" You also might ask: "What mark do I want to leave on society?"
Take Action: On a sheet of paper, make three columns: What I've Accomplished, What I Hoped I Would Accomplish and How I Can Reach My Goals. Be sure to balance the negative and the positive so you don't come down too hard on yourself.
6. TAP INTO YOUR NETWORK. Maintaining and developing friendships is key right now. Middle-age women who saw more than six friends at least once a month (either separately or as a group) reported being significantly happier and had better overall psychological well-being than their peers with fewer friends whom they didn't see as often, according to a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Take Action: Don't be afraid to open up to trusted pals about what you're experiencing. If you don't feel comfortable discussing this with friends, find a therapist or psychologist who can help you work through the transition.
When should you seek help?
Some feelings at this life stage could indicate a more serious issue such as depression or a hormonal imbalance. Consult your doctor if you experience any of these:
• Change in eating habits
• Change in sleeping habits
• Pessimism or hopelessness
• Restlessness, anxiety or irritability
• Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, including sex.
• Physical aches or pains such as headaches or gastrointestinal issues
Sources: Margie E. Lachman, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Lifespan Initiative on Healthy Aging at Brandeis University in Massachusetts; Joan McFadden, PhD, retired professor who taught at Ball State University in Indiana and Utah State University; Terri Orbuch, PhD, psychologist in Detroit, research scientist at the University of Michigan and author of Finding Love Again; Mona R. Spiegel, PhD, psychologist and certified life coach in Monsey, N. Y.; Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of The Search for Fulfillment