Surviving Your Quarter Life Crisis: Strategies and Support

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The term quarter-life crisis refers to anxiety and self-doubt that some young adults experience during their mid-to-late 20s and early 30s.1 This period is often marked by transitioning out of college and into the workforce, often accompanied by changing roles and increased responsibilitie

Adults during this stage of life have often begun careers, entered committed relationships, become financially independent, and started families. For some, it might seem that they have finally reached many of the goals they have been working toward.

For others, this period is sometimes marked by feelings of uncertainty. They might find themselves questioning their choices, identity, and relationships. They might feel stuck and stymied by a lack of progress or question their overall life direction. 

"Young adults are basically told this should be the best and most exciting time of their life. When the reality of life isn’t as picture-perfect as they thought it would be, it can create massive amounts of stress and anxiety," says Carrie Howard, LCSW, CCATP, an anxiety coach and founder of Thrive Anxiety Solutions.

A quarter-life crisis can often be a normal part of young adult development. It can be a time of exploration, resulting in self-reflection and discovery that can lead to personal growth. Caring for yourself and seeking support as you face different challenges can help you cultivate greater resilience as you transition through this phase of life.

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms

Each person's experience is different, so a quarter-life crisis can manifest in different ways. “Some of the most common anxieties young people face during this time revolve around still not having a clear idea of who they are, experiencing difficulty finding meaning, purpose, and belonging in life, and grappling with the disappointment and frustration that life hasn’t turned out how they thought it would,” Howard explains.

Common themes during this developmental period include ambiguity about adult status, the need for self-exploration, instability in relationships and roles, self-focus, and anticipation for the future.2

Some of the common signs and symptoms that you might experience include:

  • Purposelessness: You feel like your life lacks purpose, so you often feel restless and have a desire to change something in your life
  • Identity crisis: You find yourself questioning your identity, including having doubts about your beliefs, goals, values, and sense of self
  • Professional uncertainty: You're unsure about your career and wonder if you've chosen the wrong path and wasted time on education and training that isn't right for you
  • Relationship stress: You are uncertain about your relationships and wonder whether your romantic partnerships and friendships will stand the test of time
  • FOMO: You have an intense fear of missing out (FOMO) and often feel like you are not experiencing milestones, achievements, or experiences that your peers are having
  • Indecision: You struggle to make decisions and worry that you can't trust your intuition
  • Isolation: You feel disconnected from other people, or you may find yourself withdrawing from loved ones
  • Languishing: You might feel as if your life is empty and stagnant, but with a sense of apathy and despair that makes it challenging to find the motivation to change

Such symptoms can be signs of a quarter-life crisis but can also be tied to other causes, including depression. If you have been struggling with these feelings along with other symptoms of depression, such as changes in appetite, sleeping difficulties, changes in mood, and loss of pleasure, talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

Types of Quarter-Life Crises

Researchers suggest that there are two primary types of quarter-life crises: locked-in and locked-out.

  • The locked-in type of crisis refers to feeling obligated to stay in a role despite feeling dissatisfied with it.
  • The locked-out crisis involves not being able to obtain a desired goal, such as not being able to find work after graduating college.3

Common Challenges During a Quarter-Life Crisis

Young adulthood is a time of new challenges and major life changes. This can be exciting at times, but it can also contribute to stress and uncertainty. 

Such pressure, Howard says, can lead many to question what they are doing, why they are doing it, and whether it will really make them happy. When life doesn’t look like they thought it would, or when the things they thought would bring them joy don’t, it can create a sense of confusion and distress.

Some of the challenges that can play a part in triggering a quarter-life crisis include:

  • Job dissatisfaction: Transitioning from college into the workforce can add pressure and problems. Some may struggle to find work or experience their first job loss. Others may be unhappy with their chosen career and question their life choices.
  • Relationship problems: Breakups, romantic turmoil, and changing friendships can create emotional stress and contribute to isolation.
  • Financial problems: People often face new financial pressures, including housing, student loans, and other responsibilities, that can leave them stressed and anxious.
  • Social pressures and expectations: People often compare themselves to what they think society expects them to be doing at their age and may feel stressed if they don't seem to be in the same place as their peers.
  • New responsibilities: Many young adults are entering committed relationships, having children, juggling social commitments, and dealing with work. Balancing all of these responsibilities can cause stress and doubt.

Exposure to social media can amplify this anxiety and pressure. “When you spend time scrolling social media feeds every day, and all you see are the highlight reels of everyone’s lives, it can absolutely create a tendency to compare yourself to others and feel like you’re coming up short,” Howard explains.

Strategies for Coping With a Quarter-Life Crisis

Navigating the ups and downs of this phase of life can be challenging, but there are tactics that can help if you suspect that you’re in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. While a quarter-life crisis is marked by uncertainty, the following steps can help you negotiate these sometimes difficult and tumultuous feelings with greater strength and resolve.

Engage in Self-Reflection

Remembering that this type of developmental crisis is a normal part of life can be helpful. What you are feeling isn’t unusual, and it can be a way to learn more about yourself. Howard suggests that this self-exploration can be an essential way to shed light on your beliefs, values, and goals.

"Spending some time journaling or going through a list of values to help you figure out what is most important to you can really help here. Getting some clarity on these things will help you make decisions going forward that line up with your values and what is most important to you in your life," she says.

You may find that your needs, values, and goals change over time—and that’s fine. The key is to keep reflecting and learning more about who you are and what you want.

Let Go of Expectations

In addition to reflecting on your values and goals, Howard says it is also important to let go of the long-held expectations that might come from yourself, your parents, or others in your life. 

"Shift your inner dialogue away from using words like 'should,' 'ought,' and 'must' that subtly put pressure on yourself for your life to look a certain way and induce shame when those expectations aren’t met," Howard suggests.

Avoid Comparing Yourself to Others

Comparison may be a natural tendency, but it can truly be the thief of joy. It’s hard not to look around at your peers and feel like perhaps they have their lives more together than you. 

Give Yourself Permission to Be Undecided and to Change

Howard says that it is also important to recognize that you don't have to have all the answers. As a young adult, you're still figuring out what you like, want, and find fulfilling. In many cases, the only way to discover these things is through exploring your options, so it's OK to try things and decide that they are not right for you.

The key is to give yourself permission to change your mind along the way. "It’s OK to change your career path, decide you want to go back to school, or realize that you aren’t ready to settle down and start a family yet," Howard says.

Change is inevitable, and learning to accept and embrace change can make it easier to face life’s many transitions. Recognize that young adulthood is a time of growth, and it can be an opportunity to learn more about yourself. Developing this self-knowledge can serve you well both now and in the future.