Life Phases and Their Impact on Mental Health
Think about the following folks and what they have in common. Hunter is a 27-year old college graduate who has just quit his third job and is thinking of going back to graduate school, citing unhappiness in his career so far. His friends tell him he’s just having a “quarter-life crisis.” Jennifer is a 48-year old working mother of three who recently moved her mother into her home following a dementia diagnosis. Her husband comments, “you bet she’s stressed out, she’s part of the sandwich generation, and she never gets a break.” And Nancy is a 72-year old retiree from the corporate world who, despite being financially secure, states, “I thought I’d be relieved to be out of the rat race, but instead I’m getting more and more depressed.”
In spite of being in different phases of life, each of the people above is experiencing a significant strain on their mental and emotional well-being. And for all of them, it’s actually the stage of life they’re in that’s contributing to it. In my practice, I work with adults across the lifespan. And for many, their current phase of life has a lot to do with the reason they sought therapy. As humans, we are constantly evolving into new life stages. When we were young, these changes were usually exciting and brought new experiences and long-awaited markers of independence. We can all remember the freedom we felt during those firsts: riding our bikes across the neighborhood to a friend’s house or getting the keys to mom’s car for a night out with friends. But what happens when we, like those in the examples above, find ourselves up against a new life stage that doesn’t bring what we expected?
As we struggle to adjust, we often find that we need to quickly develop new habits and routines that will help us navigate the uncharted territory. This is perhaps most common when the life phase comes on suddenly. Take our middle-aged mom, for instance. She might have known that her mother’s cognitive health was declining, but due to the busy-ness of her own life, she wasn’t aware of the urgency of her mother’s need for round-the-clock care. And as she began caring for both her children and her mother, she came to put herself last. She discovered, perhaps too late, that she couldn’t do it all without significant changes to her life. Gathering the practical support needed to care for both her mother and her children was necessary, but took a lot of time and emotional energy. And that took a toll on her well-being. Mental health concerns like anxiety and depression have a way of sneaking in when we’re most stressed and unable to maintain our previous levels of self-care.
But even when we have time to plan for the change, we might still have a hard time adapting. Think about our retiree above, for example. For years, she had anxiously awaited her chance to spend quiet mornings sipping her coffee and reading the news instead of fighting traffic on her 45-minute commute. She had looked forward to traveling for pleasure, as opposed to catching the red-eye for conferences. And she couldn’t wait to trade emails and meetings for school lunches with her grandkids and pickleball with her friends. Why, then, did she grapple with depression? Big life changes, even those that we welcome with open arms, are usually accompanied by some kind of loss. In our example, the retiree had lost the thing that had filled most of her days for the last 50 years. And yes, she hated aspects of her work, but overall, she did find it meaningful. She felt that her contributions to her workplace and, in a larger sense, to her field, had really made a difference. And working to readjust and find new things to not only occupy those 40 hours a week, but also to bring her the same kind of purpose, was difficult.
Similarly, the young college graduate in our examples above was experiencing loss. The transition to the world of work in a new city meant the loss of significant friendships in his immediate surroundings. Moreover, his new workplace was filled with folks in all stages of life, and he just didn’t feel a natural connection to the 45-year old parents or those nearing retirement. Add to that the learning curve of starting a new job and navigating a new city, and our college graduate felt lonely and inadequate as he struggled to find his place in his new world. Yet, he expected himself to adjust to this new phase of life with relative ease. After all, his story followed the natural progression of things for many college graduates. And on paper, his life was playing out as it was “supposed” to. That might have been precisely why he was caught so off-guard by his unhappiness.
I believe that we need to expand the conversation around life transitions. In addition to emphasizing all the good things they bring, we need to include the possibility that it might take time to adjust to any inherent losses. And perhaps more importantly, we need to remember to give ourselves extra grace as we work to become accustomed to all the newness. Simply remaining aware that mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety can creep in during adjustment periods works wonders. But even more importantly, we need to remain intentional around identifying and working to maintain any coping mechanisms that have worked for us in the past. Remaining connected to previous support systems is crucial. So is continued engagement in activities that bring about relaxation, joy, or fun. And sometimes we need others to make sure we’re staying on top of these things. Whether it’s asking friends and family members to reach out more regularly during the transition or seeking the support of a mental health professional, it’s helpful to have a system in place that can act as a bridge while crossing into the new phase of life.
If you’re struggling to adapt to a significant life transition and need some support along the way, the therapists at Brentwood Counseling Associates can help. Read more about each of us here to find out more, and if you’re interested in scheduling an initial session, reach out to our office manager.