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How to Survive & Thrive During Your Quarter-Life Crisis

“If we don't change, we don't grow. If we don't grow, we aren't really living.” —Gail Sheehy

Young woman sitting in a cafe

Image courtesy of Benedict Tahjar

If you’re in your 20s or early 30s and really struggling with stress, anxiety, depression and feeling pretty much overwhelmed by life in general, you may be going through a quarter-life crisis.

It’s a real and increasingly recognized process that more than 50 percent of people go through in the first decade of adult life, and while not defined as a mental illness, can certainly spiral into episodes when your mental health is impacted.

Read more: Quiz: 4 Questions to Find Your Ikigai

What exactly is a quarter-life crisis?

In her Netflix special, comedian Taylor Tomlinson, who is halfway through her 20s, describes a quarter-life crisis as the time that you’re “too old to party, too young to settle down.”

Giving a different perspective, psychologist Oliver Robinson explains that “it’s essentially any transitional episode that a young adult experiences that typically lasts a year or so, during which time they are emotionally unstable. Anything from changing social groups to breaking up with a partner comes with an overriding sense of grief which has to be dealt with in order for that person to move on.”

He adds that the crisis often serves as a crucial turning point in a person’s life. This change in direction often includes a career move.

Read more: What to Do if You Want to Change Careers, But Don’t Know How

Who is at risk?

More women than men in their 20s experience a crisis episode, at 49 percent and 39 percent respectively, Robinson found in a separate study. Triggers for men were reported to be work-related, while it was more common for women to experience crises due to relationship and family matters.

Still, it’s age that’s the common denominator. 

In fact, psychology instructor and career coach Rebecca Fraser-Thill tells Bloomberg’s Elizabeth G. Dunn that a quarter-life career crisis actually makes sense. “In early adulthood, we tend to gravitate toward careers modeled on the people closest to us: what adult family members do for a living or what our friends plan to do. Our 20s take us through a process of ‘individuation,’ where we gain a better sense of our own values and talents. That’s when the itch sets in.”

The decade between childhood and adulthood (the latter still typically defined as being when you’ve settled down and started having kids) is confusing at best, and psychologists say people today are suffering more than previous generations did, writes life coach Ran Zilca. “For instance, the average age for the onset of depression has dropped from late 40s or early 50s, where it was 30 years ago, to mid-20s, and it’s expected to drop further.”

Read more: The Top 4 Predictors of Women’s Overall Job Satisfaction

Am I having a quarter-life crisis?

There are certainly symptoms you can look for if you think you may be heading toward or already in the depths of a quarter-life crisis. Generally, you’ll be dissatisfied with your life choices, direction, and quality. A sort of, is that it? feeling might permeate much of your outlook.

Specifics may include:

  • A lack of purpose, meaning and fulfillment

  • Struggling with pressure from parents

  • A desire for autonomy—you don’t want to be just a cog in a machine

  • Feeling overwhelmed by everyday life

  • Option paralysis—there are so many options open to you, you shut down

  • Striving to achieve the perfect work-life balance, and seemingly always falling short

  • Social media makes you feel less-than and panicked

Read more: It’s Hard to Change Careers—These Companies Are Making it Easier

How to make smart career moves during a quarter-life crisis

In order to move through and beyond a quarter-life crisis, you may need a little objective advice. In his book, The Quarter-Life Breakthrough: Invent Your Own Path, Find Meaningful Work, and Build a Life That Matters, Adam "Smiley" Poswolsky, says he felt trapped in his perfect job at the Peace Corps in Washington, DC. Promoted often, he travelled, he had health insurance and job security and was making $70,000 at the age of 28. He was miserable.

It took him a year before he did anything about it, and in his book, he tells other young people that it’s okay to leave a job everyone else thinks is awesome, and that it’s okay to not know exactly what you want and to invent your own path. His 10-step workbook is a valuable (free) guide to how you can turn your crisis into a breakthrough.

Read more: How to Set a Really Good SMART Goal

Clinical psychologist Lara Fielding says “technology as a constant source of reassurance may also be paradoxically contributing to reductions in a necessary amount of tolerance of uncertainty.” We’re a generation of instant gratification Googlers, searching online for immediate answers. The problem is that when you’re entering adulthood, with its new realities and uncertainties, there is no dependable source of absolute information, and our intolerance of uncertainty causes fear.

Fielding offers an exercise that helps you develop skills to tolerate uncertainty. While tolerating uncertainty won’t solve your quarter-life crises, it can make going through it less stressful and bring clarity to decision-making.

And if you’re at a complete loss as to what you want to do with your life and what you’re actually interested in, career change coach Alice Stapleton says take action anyway. Explore everything. Take courses and go to conferences, read job profiles, interview people about their careers, think about why you read the books you read, why you watch the shows you watch and listen to the music you do to determine your interests. You may just find the spark necessary to change your life.

Read more: How to Make a Vision Board

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By Stephanie Olsen

Contributor

Stephanie Olsen is a freelance writer and copy editor. She writes about everything from women’s issues in the workplace and Ethiopian coffee culture to facilities management and expatriate life. Laughs uproariously at her own jokes.  

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