How to Handle a Quarter-Life Crisis

woman sitting near water looking stressed

If you are between the ages of 18 and 30, and you’re feeling anxiety, depression, or are unsure of your identity or direction, then heads up: you are not alone! You could be facing a quarter-life crisis.

This is more than just “being in a slump.” In fact, this stage of life is increasingly recognized in the field of human development and mental health as a critical time for young adults.

What’s a quarter-life crisis? 

The term might be new to you, but research into the phenomena has been circulating for nearly 20 years. A quarter-life crisis is “an emotional crisis among twenty-somethings—the sense of desolation, isolation, inadequacy, and self-doubt, coupled with a fear of failure.” This is often spurred on by the transition from formal schooling to the workforce, when the choices of jobs, places to live, friendships can be overwhelming. And once in a job, twenty-somethings are facing more job stress than ever before, but paradoxically less likely to take vacation days

Why is this a difficult period of life? Ran Zilca, the Chief Data Science Officer at Happify, Inc., described the findings of a large research study on this topic:

“We found that people experience a sharp increase in stress levels in their late twenties and early thirties. Stress levels increase more moderately during the thirties and forties, remain steady for about 20 years, and then drop sharply as retirement comes around. Yet even though the intake of stress continues to rise into the thirties and forties, the person’s emotional response to it declines.” 

Four phases of a quarter-life crisis

In essence, successfully getting through the stress of early adulthood developed the resilience necessary to more easily overcome stressors later in life—kind of like putting money in a savings account so you can enjoy it later.

Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself in one of four phases of a quarter-life crisis identified in a University of Greenwich study of 200 recent university graduates:

  • Phase 1: You’re in a relationship, job, or social group that you realize is not the right fit for you. You experience “an inner conflict…a desire to leave, but at the same time…a feeling that such a change would signal a failure of being a responsible adult, and possibly mean hurting others in the process.”
  • Phase 2: After considerable internal debate and anxiety, you separate from the commitment that is not working for you. This brings on a sense of loss of identity or uncertainty about what’s next.
  • Phase 3: You start to explore your identity in more depth and experiment with new ways of being, new habits, and new structures— all while trying to sort through what you really want and feel.
  • Phase 4: You start to live in a way that is more authentic to what you truly want rather than what others might have wanted for you. 

Moving forward

So you’re in the muck: unsure of what’s next, not clear on how to get out of it, and not confident you have the skills to do it. First, recognize it for what it is. Stop blaming yourself for not moving forward the way you had expected you would, and give yourself a good dose of self-compassion

Next, it’s time for exploration and action. A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring highlighted four key techniques for beating the quarter-life blues: 

  • Get support in finding direction and focus.
  • Create an action plan of no longer than five years with clear, short-term milestones.
  • Take time to reflect (for example, in a journal), develop greater self-awareness and challenge your negative beliefs. 
  • Develop useful tools and new skills, such as the ability to be more assertive or the ability to cope better with setbacks.

To act on these suggestions, you could convene a regular gathering of others in your age group; rethink and regroup on your daily habits; or pick up your journal and write down what you’re thinking and feeling. Finding connection with others and knowing that this is part of the cycle of your life will remind you: it gets better with time.

Three reasons for concern in the social-impact space 

If you’re a manager in the social-impact space, this may apply to you, even if you’re not facing a quarter-life crisis yourself:

  • Your employees might be struggling. If you have employees who are young adults, chances are, several are feeling the effects of a quarter-life crisis. And chances are even higher that those who are affected are hiding their resulting depression and anxiety from others. Become familiar with the signs of emotional distress and reach out to all your young adult employees, whether or not they look like they’re struggling. Help them connect with one another, and ensure that your health insurance benefits include support for mental wellness.
  • Your strategy might need refreshing. If your organization serves young adults, perhaps you have already noticed that they are desiring your services for longer than you expected. Similarly, if your organization provides mental health services, you might have noticed a surge in young people coming to you for support. Are you serving the right population? Do you have relevant knowledge about what your program participants are facing? Dig in and see how the quarter-life crisis might be affecting your target community.
  • Your succession planning might be impacted. If you’ve got some rising stars among the bunch, don’t assume they’ll still be there in five years to take the promotion you hope to offer them. Invest now in initiatives to support their evolution as leaders. Set an example of trust and openness so they know they can bring their authentic selves to their current role and any future jobs in your organization.

Scary as it sounds, you can overcome the quarter-life crisis. You just need a little knowledge of this particularly rocky stage of life, and to accept its ebbs and flows. In the end, if you listen to yourself in the process, you’ll come out of it with more self-awareness, purpose, and a life that more fully reflects your true desires and values.

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