ADHD and the Midlife Crisis Crisis
Midlife crises impact more than half of adults with ADHD, according to a new ADDitude survey that ties impulsivity and emotional dysregulation to dramatic upheaval in individuals’ 40s, 50s, and 60s.
The film industry has dedicated a whole genre to it. From Lost in Translation and Sideways to American Beauty and Thelma and Louise, it has captivated our cultural psyche since Dudley Moore chased Bo Derek to a remote beach in Mexico. I’m talking, of course, about the midlife crisis — that emotional and psychological inflection point encountered between ages 40 and 60, when the undeniable truth of our mortality smacks headlong into our unrealized dreams and ambitions.
The concept of the midlife crisis began a century ago with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who argued that greater self-awareness and self-actualization in midlife leads to a fear of impending death. Critics challenge whether mortality-related anxiety is actually to blame for the drastic life changes so commonly associated with midlife crisis: divorce, job loss, and convertible acquisition.
Research suggests that 10% to 20% of adults will experience a midlife crisis.1 Among adults with ADHD, that number is considerably higher: 59% of men aged 40 and older, and 51% of women aged 40 and older said they have experienced a “period of emotional turmoil in middle age frequently characterized by a strong desire for change,” according to a recent ADDitude survey of 1,829 adults with ADHD.
The 690 women and 228 men who responded in the affirmative shared stories of career upheaval, infidelity, divorce, money problems, substance abuse, and burnout. For some, the change was more like a “midlife catharsis” that was long overdue; for others, it was traumatic.
“I divorced my narcissistic ex, started graduate school to become an educator, met the best man I’ve ever known, fell in love (for real this time), and earned two black belts during about an 18-month span of time,” wrote one 49-year-old mother in Washington.
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“I didn’t feel I was able to function in the world,” wrote a 49-year-old male who rated his ADHD symptoms as “life-altering” in his 40s. “I left a seven-year relationship with my partner and stepdaughter, quit my job with no other job to go to, and went to live at a Buddhist monastery.”
These may seem like extreme examples, but the root causes of these crises — namely, ADHD traits like impulsivity, emotional dysregulation, and restlessness — form a ribbon snaking through many of the ADDitude survey respondents’ answers. Indeed, 81% of men and 71% of women who said they have experienced a midlife crisis attributed it to ADHD symptoms and attributes.
“I believe my midlife crisis was a perfect storm of life-stage dissatisfaction, perimenopause, a poor relationship, and the upsurge of previously well-masked ADHD symptoms due to stress, hormonal deficiency, and increased emotional dysregulation (oh, and lockdown!),” wrote a 53-year-old mother who quit her job and divorced her husband of 28 years. “I experienced a peak in my impulsivity, libido, mood changes, and interests in new and varied topics, which I pursued in ways that my husband saw as distractions from the marriage. I needed new stimulation and to get out of old situations that were no longer serving me.”
Here are more stories of ADHD’s impact at midlife, from ADDitude readers reflecting on their experiences:
“I made a lot of impulsive decisions that weren’t thought through,” wrote a 43-year-old man in the UK. “I cheated on my long-term partner, split up with her, had multiple short-term relationships, sold my house, and invested all my money into a new business without adequate planning that ultimately wasn’t successful and got into a lot of financial debt.”
Emotional Dysregulation and RSD
“I had been driving in the rain my whole life,” wrote a 51-year-old Minnesotan who divorced her emotionally abusive husband. “When midlife hit, I was suddenly navigating rush hour with tornado warnings, hail, and zero visibility. I could no longer manage… To say that my ADHD symptoms of RSD, depression, anxiety, working memory, and overwhelm affected me is an understatement.”
Restlessness and Boredom
“I had created a comfortable life for myself by achieving all of my major goals, but then became extremely restless, feeling like the rest of my life would just be spent maintaining my current success,” wrote a 43-year-old male with ADHD who quit his job, ended a long-term relationship, moved, and “essentially started over.” “There wasn’t enough to look forward to, not enough variety or excitement to be had. The novelty of my previous successes had long worn off.”
“Lately, I want to quit my current job of 27 years, move out of my home of 22 years to another state, and make other life changes like opening my own business,” wrote one 53-year-old woman in Illinois. “I feel this is a result of many things, but namely my ADHD disorganization and emotional dysregulation have heightened my anxiety to a whole new level.”
“I quit my job, abandoned a lot of responsibilities, and neglected friendships,” wrote one 44-year-old mother in Pennsylvania. “Eventually, I got sober in AA and realized during that first year of sobriety that I have had ADHD since childhood.”
“Life feels like it doesn’t work,” wrote a 51-year-old mother in Vancouver, Canada. “How I organize my time, my life, everything is impacted by ADHD. Challenges with self-care and health issues brought on by decades of untreated ADHD make it exceptionally hard to get into a routine that works and is consistent. Life feels harder than ever with perimenopause, teens with ADHD, and my own mother with failing health and untreated worsening ADHD.”
“It wasn’t a crisis so much as I reached my limit,” said a 57-year-old woman who escaped an abusive marriage, moved, found new work, filed for bankruptcy, and continues to fight. “I sought counseling and learned that I wasn’t a terrible person; I was in an abusive marriage with a covert passive-aggressive narcissist. I stopped second-guessing myself, feeling shame and self-blame, and not trusting what I saw or valuing how I felt.”
“I’m not sure ‘crisis’ is the right word here,” wrote one 56-year-old Californian who divorced her husband. “I believe it took me until I was 29 to gain the confidence in myself to make the change. And it made my life so much bigger. I would call it midlife bravery. I was never in crisis.”
Regret and Shame
“I had massive burnout due to not being diagnosed earlier and thinking I was a useless waste of space, even though I was taking care of my chronically ill wife and two kids and holding down a full-time job,” said a 44-year-old man with combined-type ADHD in the UK. “I could never relax or rest because, as soon as I stopped, I just wanted to get high or drink as it felt like the only way to calm my mind. I became a shell of my former self.”
Midlife Crisis: Next Steps
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1Lachman, Margie E. (2003). Development in Midlife. Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 55:305-331. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141521