Are You Going Through A Quarter-Life Crisis? What Experts Want You To Know
It's not uncommon for young adults to experience a quarter-life crisis, similar to the midlife crises we see in middle-aged people down the line. Here, we're unpacking what a quarter-life crisis looks like, what can trigger it, and how to get through it, according to experts.
So, what really is a "quarter-life crisis"?
A quarter-life crisis is a period in a young adult's life that typically happens between one's mid-twenties and early thirties. According to licensed psychologist Rachel Needle, PsyD, it's a feeling of stress and uncertainty often triggered around this time in someone's life as they figure out who they are and what they want.
"People might feel lost, trapped—personally and/or professionally—and uninspired during a quarter-life crisis," she explains, adding, "While this is said to be some of the best times of our lives, there is a lot of pressure on people at this age as well, and struggles specific to this time in life."
How long a quarter-life crisis lasts will vary based on the individual and what triggers the crisis, but according to licensed therapist Tiana Leeds, M.A., LMFT, this time in one's life can last for up to a few years. "It can take a lot of time between when you first realize something's amiss in your life [and] figuring out how to live an adult life. There can be this sense of, 'This isn't it, but I have no idea what it is.'"
What causes a quarter-life crisis.
A quarter-life crisis, and what spurred it, is going to look a little different depending on the individual, but for many, it comes down to the disillusionment of young adulthood. As Leeds explains, once someone has spent a bit of time in the "real world," they can begin to feel lost, whether it be in their careers, in their personal lives, or in their communities.
Many people experience dramatic upheaval, change, and disappointment during this time of their lives, which can lead them to feeling overwhelmed, unsure of themselves, and so much more, adds licensed therapist De-Andrea Blaylock-Solar, MSW, LCSW-S, CST.
She notes that this can be especially true if someone had a firm idea of who they wanted to be or what they wanted to do career-wise, only to get there and realize it wasn't actually the right fit for them. "It can be really devastating to find the reality of a job is very different than what you envisioned it to be," she says.
Blaylock-Solar also notes that comparison can be a big trigger of quarter-life crises as well, such as seeing friends advance in their careers or get married. "There can be a sense of, 'Why isn't that happening for me? What's wrong with me?'" she explains.
Unlike a midlife crisis, which tends to be more centered on "running out of time," a quarter-life crisis implies an urgency to figure out how to even get to that midlife point in a way that works for you.
8 signs of a quarter-life crisis:
According to Blaylock-Solar, impulsivity can sometimes be seen in someone going through a quarter-life crisis, though not always. If someone has a realization they actually hate the job they'd been dreaming about, for example, they may impulsively quit without thinking it through first and decide to backpack through Europe for a month. (Extreme, but you get the gist.)
Feeling a need for change
One telltale sign of a quarter-life crisis, according to both Leeds and Blaylock-Solar, is an acute sense that something's gotta give. "It's this need for change but not knowing what that change needs to look like in order to be fulfilled," Blaylock-Solar explains, adding that the need for change will feel urgent.
Depending on what triggered your quarter-life crisis, sometimes relationships can be affected. If you've found yourself on a new spiritual path, for example, you may feel inclined to break up with your S.O. or forge a whole new group of friends. Blaylock-Solar notes that this is common but should be approached carefully. "You don't want to dismantle friendships that are actually healthy just for the sake of needing a change," she says.
Difficulty making decisions
In the throes of a quarter-life crisis, the pressure to make a decision can ironically make it even harder to do so, Leeds and Needle both note. "A person may be exploring a lot of different options for what they might do moving forward—whether that's what city to move to or what job to have—and experience an overanalysis of pros and cons of these various decisions to the point where the person has a really hard time moving forward," Leeds tells mbg.
Feelings of isolation
Leeds, Needle, and Blaylock-Solar all note that going through a quarter-life crisis can feel really isolating, especially if part of what triggered it was comparing yourself to others. There can be a sense that you're the only one struggling and that everyone else already has their life figured out, Needle notes.
Going back to the aforementioned point about difficulty making decisions, feeling directionless is also common in a quarter-life crisis. Leeds explains that this period in one's life is full of confusion, uncertainty, and a sense of "stuckness." And according to Needle, "Feelings of emptiness, like something is missing, a lack of motivation, and lack of direction in life in general," are all symptomatic of a quarter-life crisis.
Depression and anxiety
As you've probably gathered, quarter-life crises aren't easy. As such, they are often accompanied by feelings of depression and anxiety, Leeds tells mbg—and that goes along with feeling lonely and isolated. "It can look like burnout at work, even though the person may not have actually been working for all that many months or years. It can look like lack of motivation to do one's work or not fulfilling one's job duties, the way that one used to," she adds.
And lastly, another big component of a quarter-life crisis is insecurity, Leeds notes. After all, this is all about a young adult trying to figure out their place in the world and who they want to be. It can feel daunting, shameful, and a host of other negative emotions, again, especially if part of the crisis stems from comparison to others. This might look like a lack of confidence or even impostor syndrome.
Common stages of a quarter-life crisis:
The initial crisis
A quarter-life crisis can begin gradually, though it can also be spurred somewhat instantaneously. Either way, Leeds says, in the first stage, you start to become aware that you're feeling stuck, directionless, unsure of yourself, etc. "You're feeling completely trapped, whether that's in a relationship or a job or just experiencing general bad energy," Blaylock-Solar adds.
The second phase of a quarter-life crisis can be thought of as the "meat" of it, in which you'll struggle, question everything, and likely feel very isolated, according to Leeds. "The feeling of lostness can ramp up, and it can feel really, really scary to start making moves forward," she notes.
That said, throughout this phase, there will be glimmers of hope, according to Blaylock-Solar. You'll have good days where you realize you will get through this, and you start to imagine what it is you want and what your life could look like. This phase will typically have some overlap with the third phase.
As you push through a quarter-life crisis, eventually things will start to lighten up as you figure out what changes need to be made—and you start making them. Blaylock-Solar notes you're finally able to make those changes toward the life you want, with Leeds adding you'll start to see your efforts pay off. In this phase, "There's a bit more alignment that you're experiencing in your life," she says.
And finally, the quarter-life crisis comes to a close with a resolution, which builds steadily following the third phase. "Eventually the person gathers their own internal resources and finds a way to move forward," Leeds explains. Blaylock-Solar adds in the resolution phase, you're more confident in how you use your energy, you're able to take care of yourself, and your life generally feels more fulfilling.
How to overcome the crisis:
Leeds, Needle, and Blaylock-Solar all stress the importance of seeking support if you're going through a quarter-life crisis, specifically from a mental health professional. (Here's more on types of therapy to consider, or you may benefit from seeing a life coach.) It's also important to lean on your own support system, as well, whether you confide in friends or family members.
When it comes to support, though, Leeds says it's important to remember that you have to figure out what's truly best for you—not your parents, your friends, or society at large. "I would encourage people going to reach out for support but not to look to other people to dictate what the next steps of their life should be," she explains.
And this advice goes both ways if you know someone who is struggling with a quarter-life crisis and you want to help them. Be there for them, be patient, and be supportive, Leeds says, but try not to push them and keep your opinions relatively quiet.
A big part of a quarter-life crisis is figuring out who you are and where you want to go in life, so taking time to intentionally reflect can be really helpful, according to Blaylock-Solar. Even if journaling isn't your thing, for example, you could talk out loud using your phone's voice memo app, or even jot down quick reflections in your notes app.
Leeds adds you can ask yourself questions like, "Who am I, and what do I want?" and "How can I create a plan to get that for myself?"
Be patient with yourself.
Hard as it may be to accept, you don't need to have it all figured out. In fact, Needle explains, what you want will likely be ever-evolving, and that's OK. Right now, simply being patient with yourself and giving yourself compassion can make the whole process feel easier.
"Try to zoom out on your life to remember that you don't have to figure it all out as a 25-year-old, a 32-year-old, or a 35-year-old person," Leeds says. "You don't have to actually know what the entire trajectory of your life is going to be."
Try new things.
Last but not least, Leeds notes, this is a time to explore and get to know yourself, so you can come out of this quarter-life crisis on the other side with a stronger sense of self. "Give yourself permission to try things, to test the waters in terms of who you're dating, or different careers, to allow yourself to take this one piece at a time and treat it like an experiment," she says. This is how you'll figure out what works and what doesn't.
And to that end, she adds, feel free to throw any "rules" out the window, and namely, limiting beliefs. "Let go of any of the beliefs you've picked up along the way from other people—from your family to expectations from society—and really try to tune in to your own inner knowing about who you are and what you want," she suggests.
The bottom line.
If you're going through a quarter-life crisis, remember that you are not alone. Support is always available, and you will get through this. It may take time, patience, and effort, but the lessons you'll learn throughout a quarter-life crisis will be the catalyst for your emboldened sense of self, as you step into the next, fresh phase of your adult life.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.