Is it only going downhill from here? – managing a quarter-life crisis

Each phase of a person’s life entails its own hardships and challenges, but perhaps the most difficult and transformative period is what we go through from age 18 to 30. It is during this era that people are expected to build the foundations of their adult life. Safe to say that the choices we make during these years determine how we will live the rest of our lives, so no wonder why many young people crack under the pressure and sink into a quarter-life crisis.

“You know, the thing is, it only goes downhill from here”, said one of my good friends from high school. Barely 19 at the time, we all laughed at his half-joke, funny in a pessimistic way, but thought nothing more of it. Now, as our first year of university comes to an end, and we got our first taste of the ever-rising pressure of adulthood, these might just be the actual thoughts of some of us that took this as a joke only a year ago.

What is a quarter-life crisis?

A quarter-life crisis, the often overlooked little brother of midlife crisis, is essentially a feeling of intense stress, uncertainty and insecurity. Triggered by the struggle young people go through while figuring out who they are and what they want in life. It occurs in the so-called “quarter-life” period, ages 18-30, where a person faces important questions relating to independence, relationships, passions and self-discovery on their own for the first time.

With the added pressure of the societal norm that this age is supposed to be the best time of their lives, people in their twenties often dismiss their feelings, thinking they have “no reason to feel this way”. However, according to a Yale Medicine article, as many as 70 percent of young adults experience some form of it. That is about as common as it gets. While this fact should be alarming (that number means society puts way too much stress on twenty-somethings), it also may offer some comfort for those struggling: they are not the only ones feeling lost.

What causes a quarter-life crisis?

Although this crisis is unique to each individual, it is triggered by similar factors and goes through similar stages. There’s a variety of experiences and situations that can eventually lead to a quarter-life crisis, but the most common is the disillusionment most young adults feel as their university majors, jobs or relationships don’t turn out as envisioned. 

However, a big catalyser of this is social media. Now more than ever, it is not only easy but inevitable to compare ourselves to people our age. Through the selective lens of our explore page, it can seem like everyone has their life together. Well, everyone, except us. Comparing ourselves, especially in this sensitive stage of life can lead to a feeling of being left behind. We must not forget that what people post is only the “highlight reel” of their lives. Behind their screens, they might just be feeling the same way as we do.

What happens during a quarter-life crisis?

According to an article published in Harvard Business Review, a quarter-life crisis can be divided into 4 stages. It starts with a feeling of being trapped and not seeing a way out. That may mean studying at a university you don’t like, working a job that isn’t fulfilling or even stuck in the loop of your own habits. This is often paired with the feeling of only pretending to be an adult, and the nostalgic romanticization of your teenage years (everything seems better in hindsight, right?).

Then comes the grappling, the second phase of the crisis, which can be described as the “meat” of it. This is where people find the courage to break away from what made them feel trapped. Quit the job, the university, the relationship. Sounds like free-falling? Well, it certainly might feel like it. While this may leave them isolated, directionless and scared, these feelings are essential to urge them to move forward. It is also during this phase that people contemplate life as a whole. Figuring out what you really want, recalibrating plans, and what changes need to be made in order to feel a sense of purpose in your life. 

Often overlapping with the latter part of the second, the third stage is where people start actually making changes. Discovering or rediscovering passions, hobbies, workfields, or social groups, they slowly start emerging out of the crisis. 

The last stage is the resolution itself, coming out on the other side. This process can span multiple years, or even repeat itself. It’s painful and scary, and it requires hard work and grit to push through. But there is, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel.