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How to Deal with Stress & Anxiety in Your 20s


The real world can be intimidating. What the heck is a Roth IRA? Do my coworkers think I’m smart enough for this job? When will I find the one? Why don’t I know what I want to do with my life? With all this weighing upon us, it’s no wonder we’re a little stressed. The good news is that it’s okay to be uncertain. Keep reading to learn how to say goodbye to stress and start focusing on success.

What you should know about stress 

Let's start with some quick definitions of the types of stress you may see in your lifetime:

Acute Stress

Acute stress is the common stress we face every day. It can be triggered by specific events or situations. While stress is often viewed as negative, these short-term bursts may actually help us—or hurt us, depending on the activity. Basically, it's the small stuff you might complain about—traffic, long lines for your coffee or an upcoming deadline.

Episodic Acute Stress

If you're constantly rushing around, missing deadlines, and feeling disorganized or chaotic, you may be suffering from episodic acute stress. If you're the type of person that takes on multiple responsibilities or tries to do too much (often a "Type A" personality), you may put yourself in situations that invite episodic acute stress. You're worrying about everything that could go wrong to the point that you can't relax. In short, if you've ever been called a "worry wort," it may be that you experience episodic acute stress.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is much more serious. If you struggle to relax or feel stressed all the time, it can lead to chronic stress. It comes from long term, seemingly unending exposure to types of acute stress such as a mindless job, chronic illness or relationship conflicts. Chronic stress grinds you down and wears you away year after year, potentially making you feel that life is miserable. Chronic stress is the most dangerous form because it becomes a way of life and can often lead to depression.

Why we're stressed all the time

It’s uncomfortable to transition from a system with checkpoints, caring professors and free food (thanks, meal plan!) to no system at all. Most college classes don’t prepare you for bosses, deadlines or cubicles; not to mention apartment hunting, budgeting, cooking or dating. You may have had an internship or two, but the stakes are higher now. It’s not just about choosing your major anymore, but choosing your health insurance, your next job, your career path... and that’s scary.

Related: 20 Things You Need to Stop Worrying About After College 

To make matters even worse, it can be easy to feel alone. Our BFFs are no longer down the hall, or even in the same city. Snapchat isn’t the same as hanging out on the quad, and the 30-something friend we made at work can’t quite relate to what we’re going through. In short, we’ve lost our support system.

On top of all of that, expectations are higher than ever before. Tammy Bui, a 20-something professional from Worcester, MA, says, “It’s stressful to be a student and to have to meet deadlines, but it’s even crazier when you are working, because it makes an impact on the business so everything you do has to be on point.”

There’s scientific evidence to back up how stressed we’ve become. “It’s called the ‘great mismatch’ in evolutionary biology,” says psychologist and therapist Dr. Jim Manganiello. “Extreme worry triggers the ‘flight or fight’ response too frequently and for too long.” In other words, when we’re constantly worrying, we don’t get the chance to flush the response out of our system. We stay stressed.

One reason we're feeling this intense amount of stress, especially at this time in life, is that we’ve been conditioned since childhood to build our self-worth around what others think. “We lose our own experience and sense of self because we imagine, wrongly, that others are correct. We then think, feel, and act according to that image,” says Dr. Manganiello. The good news is that it’s absolutely normal to be grappling with issues of self-worth, status, and decision making as a graduette, and provides us the experience to learn and grow.

What to do about it

Repeat after us: “I am enough.” Dr. Manganiello recommends we all become better friends to ourselves and lend ourselves the generosity we lend others. Accept that you don't know all the answers just yet. Spoiler: no one else does either.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s ok to “fail.” It doesn’t mean you are a failure. Steve Jobs and Walt Disney are just a couple of success stories who started out struggling. It’s what gave them the drive, resilience and grit to succeed. As vulnerability research professor and author Brené Brown talks about in her new book, Rising Strong, these moments of falling down remind us why it’s worth getting back up. By pretending no challenges exist so we can appear more “normal,” we sacrifice what we can learn from those moments. Successful people accept failure, rather than internalize it. But to do that is uncomfortable and requires you to relax.

Exercising regularly, practicing yoga, listening to music or guided relaxations and meditating can all bring mindfulness back into your life and help flush the stress hormones out of your system. This is an essential part of becoming more relaxed and preventing panic and anxiety.

Taking quick breaks to focus on something you love can help too. “When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I like to walk away and do something that makes me happy, like blogging, before getting back to work,” says Tammy. “It helps me take a step back.”

When it's more than stress

Stressing out is totally normal, but it becomes an issue when you feel like you can never turn it off. What transforms stress into something more is the inability to flush out the fight-or-flight hormones from your system—or in simpler terms, the inability to relax—which puts you in constant overdrive. You’re always dreaming up worst-case scenarios and perhaps worst of all, feel that you can’t control it. If you feel that you’re so anxious that it's getting in the way of your everyday life, it’s time to seek professional help. With the rise in digital options, you can even try "Skype therapy" or use a mobile app like Psych On Demand or TalkSpace if you can't afford (or don't have time to) commit to traditional in-office sessions. No matter what, it's the relationship that makes the difference, so don't feel you have to commit to one therapist right away—take the time to find what's right for you.

It’s okay not to know all the answers. Our twenties are a time to start exploring all of the possible paths we could take and find out what we like, dislike and love. “Find your next door to walk through,” says Dr. Manganiello. “It doesn’t have to be perfect or the final door. Walk through and see what it delivers.”

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