As I fast approach the end of my twenties, I can say with all honesty that it’s been an eye-opening ride. Some memories are joyful but for the most part, it’s been shallow and terrifying.
When I first read Yaya’s post I couldn’t help but loudly agree with each point. “Oh my God, yes.” I could be heard saying from the office, “That is one hundred percent relatable.” Maybe we’re the only ones? Or maybe you’ve felt it too?
About the author.
Yaya (aka Lauren) writes both fiction and non-fiction stories about our wondrous and chaotic minds. She blogs about self-help books, mental health tips, and self-care tools.
Mental Health in your Twenties: Why it’s hard and five ways to improve it!
I remember sitting in my bed at the age of four telling my Mum that I didn’t want to grow up. At sixteen I remember starting a new school with a knot in my stomach that said, ‘I don’t feel ready to be here’. Finally, I remember my parents leaving at university for the first time thinking ‘bloody hell, now I have to be a grown-up on my own?’
“I was born with an existential dread of adulthood.”
Why? Perhaps because somehow, deep in my unconscious, I knew that at no other time does the wonder and the uncertainty of life hit you more like than in your twenties. It’s a time when self-doubt, anxiety and a lot of questions appear out of nowhere. But it turns out that what I needed was to draw a map through this weird and uncharted territory.
That’s why I’m writing this post: to give you a few pointers to plot your own voyage. Whether you’re right at the start or well on your way; if you can work out some important things about yourself, and what you want, then managing your mental health in your twenties gets significantly easier.
Why might we be struggling right now?
It’s been a while since neuroscientists and psychologists discovered that your brain isn’t quite ‘done’ until later in life. Yet we still put this huge pressure on ourselves to be instant, perfect adults when we turn eighteen. The fact is, all the until the middle of our mid to late twenties, our prefrontal cortex (an area at the front of your brain that helps you make rational decisions) and our hormones are still in flux. In fact, if you’re under twenty-five years old, you’re actually still in ‘late adolescence’.
We all have a vague awareness as we grow up that there are certain milestones that ‘should’ occur at certain times. The age of consent influences when we decide to start having sex and the same goes for your first drunken night out, your first drive, your first night living out of your parents’ home, your first job, etc. All of these huge changes happen in a relatively short time. And all while our brains are still developing?
No wonder we can feel so stressed!
Then there’s the general day-to-day rush of adult life. You begin to feel it as you move through your twenties: time goes quickly when you’re an adult. The increased responsibility you have and the endless jobs to do, mean that your perception of time is literally different from when you were a teenager. We need to get a whole lot more done than we were kids. There’s the need to organise our time and resources in a way we simply aren’t taught in school. Most of what we know comes from learned experience – for better or for worse!
Finally, we come to the biggest and probably scariest aspect of our twenties: CHOICE.
Oh. My. Goodness. It feels like you have to choose everything in your twenties! From your career, to where you live, to what sort of person you want to be in a relationship with (or not). And these choices can both reflect and build on your overall outlook and values.
When you were in school or at home, there were clear goals to achieve. There were grades and systems to measure how you did. Now, you arrive in adult life and you need to set the standards for yourself. I can tell you right now that this was a recipe for disaster in my experience. It resulted in me feeling lost in who I was, and was a huge part of what led to the development of anorexia and OCD. Even if you don’t have any tendencies towards mental illness, even if you’re super resilient and accepting, this is still a very uncertain time. Endless possibilities and seemingly endless angst.
Yikes. So, how do we cope with all this?
I hope that doesn’t all too much like doom-and-gloom. All those tricky situations? They’re the first step in your journey of life and they can be as exciting as they are nerve-wracking. The best thing we can do to ready ourselves for our twenties is to be prepared. And when I say prepared, I mean for both success and failure.
>> Align with your values.
That means grabbing a notebook or journal and doing some soul-searching. I kept a diary through my early twenties that really helped. We might associate diaries with teens because of Hollywood stereotypes, but the popularity of bullet journaling and art journals on Instagram and Pinterest tell a different story.
Try to figure out what your core values are (for example, honesty, self-improvement, health, world peace – anything you want). You can do this through mood boarding, and letting yourself swim in plenty of inspiring series and books! Once you know which six or so things are really important to you, use them. Align the decisions you make as you grow with these ideals, and you will feel calmer and more in control. A sense of direction when everything seems up in the air will also help you feel less burn out and overwhelm – because you know you’re working towards something.
>> Play to your strengths.
You probably have an idea from school or work of what you’re good at. Really listen to the feedback you’ve received, but also listen to your heart. Which tasks and projects throughout your life have really lit you up? These may well be your major strengths – both in your ‘hard skills’ and in your personality. Once you have some idea of what they are (and keep in mind they may alter slightly with time), you’ll have a framework to work with. When you attend job interviews, for example, really look at where you’re going to be: does this seem like an atmosphere where your particular strengths can shine?
>> Coping strategies: get them before they get you!
In my diaries, I didn’t plan to develop OCD. And I definitely didn’t plan for my coping strategies to be excessive hand sanitizing, starving myself or skin-picking. The problem was, I hadn’t been equipped with better strategies before these ones came along! Of course, I had plenty of other factors going on that led to my particular mental illness, but I do believe that having better strategies would have helped me to deal with it a lot better.
To find out which coping strategies work for you, you need to test them, and likely practice them a few times. Next time you feel frustrated or overwhelmed, try any of the following and see what sticks.
- Counting to ten with slow, deep breaths.
- Have a self-care box or notebook where you can ‘retreat’ to
- Meditation: learning how to clear your mind and allow new thoughts to pass by
- A creative hobby, like cooking, playing a musical instrument, or doodling
- Long walks or an enjoyable exercise – move for joy!
>> Find your boundaries.
Contrary to what a lot of motivational videos and self-help gurus may say, we all have different tolerance of stress and change. While we can practice to become more flexible over time, there are some personality differences that affect how much stimulation we need to thrive. An introvert needs less social contact than an extrovert, for example.
Your twenties is a great time to test out how much work you are comfortable doing, how much sleep you need to live well, and how much social interaction gets you buzzing! Find your own unique boundaries, and then respect them. You are allowed to be honest and say no – because always bowing will lead to resentment, stress and exhaustion. I once did a two and a half hour commute each way for an ‘opportunity’ in my career: it was a great opportunity but it completely overstepped my boundaries and I had to quit after just a few months! As you can probably imagine, this didn’t do my confidence or self-worth much good.
Don’t overstretch so you are giving too much of your wonderful self.
>> You know what? LET YOURSELF REST!
It is totally fine to give yourself some space as you get used to adult life. Don’t feel guilty about needing quiet alone time in your room, or needing a day of doing absolutely nothing. Hustle culture tells us to ‘never settle’, but to that, I say: ‘settle sometimes’. You can, amazingly, have both a great time and time to relax.
So, while you learn your boundaries, strengths, and coping methods, don’t forget to also find the self-care routines that benefit you most. A long bath, a good book, TV, a face mask: allow yourself this restful, switch-off time. Life is all about balance, and we can be tempted to tip the scales towards chaos – I certainly did. But it’s a far more stable long-term plan to get used to saying yes and no on your own terms. There is always another house party, another pub night, another gig. If you need a night in bed with a cuppa, honestly, enjoy it free from guilt.
I feel like I could keep dithering on about balance and calm forever, but honestly they are the most important things to keeping my mental health on an even keel at this stage of my life. I am still career-hopping every few years, always chasing something new and exciting – and I know now is a good time to do that. But I am also finally insisting on my boundaries and letting myself feel comfortable sometimes too. It is perfectly okay to be comfortable, in fact I think it’s a great goal. Let’s all work towards lovely comfy twenties, aye?