I work predominantly with “millennials” in New York City; those 20-30 somethings who are openly and honestly seeking therapy, very often for the first time, to address certain issues that are more common among this age group. Many consider this age group to be experiencing a “quarter-life crisis.” These individuals just spent four years in college where their entire schedule and trajectory was planned for them and were told that if they just worked hard enough, they would land jobs and become instantly successful. They have idealistic goals of how wonderful life will be once they graduate college. They may even have the “perfect” New York City apartment, the job that all of their friends envy, and the six-figure salary. On the outside, they seem to have it all together.

But then they wake up one day, perhaps a year later, and think, “I’m miserable. I hate my job, I hate my boss, and I hate my partner. I’m depressed and anxious and I don’t know why. I just don’t feel motivated anymore.” While this phenomenon of a quarter-life crisis isn’t unique to just the “millennial” generation, I believe this generation is more open to seeking therapy as a means to cope with the stress they are experiencing.

The Stresses of Early Adulthood

My clients are successful, career-driven, and highly ambitious people so naturally, they face a tremendous amount of stress every day. Stress is an everyday part of their lives. In fact, not all stress is bad; it can be a motivating factor in the drive for success. 

Unfortunately, stress can also wreak havoc on my clients’ quality of life. Some stress is good but too much stress can have physical, mental, and emotional consequences. Physical symptoms include headaches, digestive issues, and chronic fatigue. Mental symptoms include anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation. Emotional symptoms can lead to sadness, hopelessness, and anger. 

We all have stress in our lives, but in my clinical experience, stress becomes problematic when it interferes with my clients’ overall functioning. When my clients identify excessive amounts of stress and the ensuing symptoms, they are looking for relief. They are seeking coping mechanisms and tools to effectively deal with their stressors. 

Guiding Clients through Stress Management

The first step in effectively managing stress is to help clients identify the source of their stressors. For example, perhaps they are taking on too many responsibilities at work and are overwhelmed with their workload. Perhaps they are caretakers to elderly parents and are struggling with the emotional tolls being a caretaker can have. Once stressors are identified, I help clients take a look at their current coping mechanisms. Many clients have developed a dysfunctional set of coping skills and, unfortunately, are not getting the relief they so desperately seek. In fact, many feel guilty taking the time to destress because this is perceived as a sign of failure or weakness.

Once stressors and current coping skills are identified, I help clients learn and practice new, more positive coping mechanisms. One of the most important coping skills for effectively managing stress is adopting a regular practice of self-care. This is often a neglected and nonexistent part of my clients’ lives. Self-care doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. It can be as simple as taking a 20-minute walk around the block in the middle of a hectic day or a bubble bath at the end of a grueling day. I emphasize to my clients that without a regular self-care practice, it is impossible to effectively cope with stress. Another example of an effective coping mechanism is to develop a daily mindfulness practice. This does not have to be complicated. To me, mindfulness simply means doing what it takes to shut one’s brain off. One of the most effective ways to practice mindfulness is with daily meditation. Even 5-10 minutes of daily meditation has been shown to significantly reduce stress. 

When the Finish Line Is in Sight

Making these changes is often a scary task for clients because it involves pushing past their comfort zones and giving up their old coping mechanisms. Often, this is a system of trial and error: testing out new skills and assessing their efficacy in managing stress. One of the most important things I can do to support my clients in adopting new positive coping skills is to provide complete support in a non-judgmental and patient process.

*Ruthie Kalai is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states of New York and Florida. She has 20 years of experience working as a therapist in a variety of settings including schools, community mental health centers, and nonprofit organizations.