How to Navigate a Quarter-Life Crisis
It was three minutes to midnight, and I was lying in bed in a mild state of panic. I’m a little embarrassed to admit why: I was a few short moments shy of turning one year older, and suddenly the weight of my career choices, relationships, and life decisions felt like a crushing force. Believe me: I know how ridiculous that sounds. I used to scoff at the idea of a quarter-life crisis. At the time, it seemed like a smart headline to capture the attention of dramatic 20-somethings riddled with stress. That is, until it happened to me.
The so-called millennial meltdown isn’t new, but fresh research suggests the phenomenon exists and is prolific. This month, Harvard Business Review declared the late 20s as the scientifically backed “worst time in your life” (the team’s words—no writer embellishments here), and findings from the University of Greenwich reveal almost half of women experience some form of crisis before age 35. But it’s not all bad news: The same study found that 80% of participants looked back on it as a positive phase that made them feel in control of their future.
Stop and take a deep breath. These are the best science-backed ways to navigate a quarter-life crisis, from someone who knows.
When researchers tried to pinpoint the emotions during that meltdown moment, they defined it as feeling “locked in” to something, be it a job, relationship, or both. “It’s an illusory sense of being trapped,” says Dr. Robinson. “You can leave but you feel you can’t.”
Sound familiar? Perhaps for the first time, you’re realizing the gravity of your decisions. Dating carries the weight of a potential serious relationship, a new job can alter your entire career trajectory, and avoiding your finances can have major repercussions. The danger of this hyperbolic pressure is that every decision, even the small ones, becomes overwhelming.
When I was able to articulate each aspect of my life that caused stress, I could see a clear path to start making changes. In my case, the decision to upend a career in publishing to travel the world for six months was the ultimate disruptor. While it seemed romantic at the time, the reality of returning to sleep in my childhood bedroom was a rude jolt back to reality. This was not the life I’d envisaged after college.
To fight that feeling of stress and anxiety, consider the context of your concerns. What else is going on in your life that’s contributing to the issue? Identifying each stressor can help to lift some of the burden.
Data-driven psychology company Happify examined 88,000 people for resilience indicators. They found that stress levels experience the sharpest incline during the late 20s, and even though it continues to rise until the 40s (great), people’s emotional response declines. In other words, life gets harder, but we develop the skills to deal with it. The reason your 20s feels difficult is because you haven’t learned how to respond to the stress quite yet.
The solution could be surprisingly simple. Larry Smith, a professor at the University of Waterloo, believes self-talk is the key. Making excuses or telling yourself you’ve fallen short of expectations can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy, he argues in his TED Talk. Be conscious of your thoughts, and if you find yourself dwelling on negativity, ask yourself what a friend would say. How would they console you?
Lying on my bed as the clock edged toward midnight, I was torn in two directions: thinking about missed opportunities in the past and the benchmark I hadn’t yet hit in the future. The problem with focusing on the past or future is that neither is tangible or within your immediate control.
The fix: Focus on short-term goals with this procrastination hack. A Princeton article calls it the “Swiss cheese” approach, which involves breaking down one large task into smaller portions with achievable short-term goals. If you want to change careers, write down the names of people who could offer advice; if you want to move overseas, start listing deadlines to contact recruiters. It’ll make you feel more productive as you achieve each small task, and encourage you to be present-minded, a quality linked with greater happiness.
This year’s class of celebrities is a fierce one: 28-year-old Blake Lively is pregnant with baby number two, 23-year-old Karlie Kloss has a YouTube channel and charitable food business and is studying at Harvard, and 25-year-old Jennifer Lawrence pockets a $52 million salary. It’s enough to give anyone an inferiority complex.
While disconnecting from social media might not be a realistic long-term strategy, being more mindful about your use or taking a mini hiatus could help. A Danish study found that people who stopped using Facebook for a week reported feeling significantly happier, more decisive, enthusiastic, and less worried.
Now’s the time to map out the next steps. Dr. Robinson suggests the final and most important stage of the process involves “developing new commitments that are more in tune with personal interests, aspirations, and values,” to end the quarter-life limbo.
In my case, this meant getting serious about chasing career opportunities overseas and learning how to transition from a traveler back to myself, without feeling the tug of regression. Robinson recommends focusing on your values, which could have shifted since high school. Ask yourself what you’re passionate about, what you find rewarding, and what small changes you can make now to alter your path.
Want to know how this story ends? One month after my midnight meltdown, I was offered a role for a company I’d admired since college and boarded a one-way international flight to New York City to live. While my quarter-life crisis was a hurdle, I know now it was completely necessary. Why? Those rare, vital moments of temporary fear propel us in a new direction. Without it, I wouldn’t be writing this article from my new office in Manhattan.
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