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Emerging Adulthood – Why Does Growing up Feel so Stressful?

emerging adulthoodby Claudia Cole

Struggling to adapt to your newfound independence as you transit to being an adult? “Emerging adulthood’ brings a lot of change and many challenges. So if you are finding it hard to cope, you are not alone. 

What is Emerging Adulthood?

First coined by American developmental psychologist Jeffery Jenson Arnett, ’emerging adulthood’ is a term used to describe the period between adolescence and young adulthood.

This typically refers to those between 18 and 25 who are yet to consider themselves to be full-fledged adults. Arnett explains,

“This period is not simply an ‘extended adolescence,’ because it is very different from adolescence – much freer from parental control, much more a period of independent exploration. Nor is it really ‘young adulthood,’ since this implies that an early stage of adulthood has been reached.” 

Note that the research was based on Western culture. Arnett does points out that emerging adulthood can be affected by the culture we are in. 

The 5 features of emerging adulthood

Emerging adulthood is defined by five key stages. While not every characteristic may apply to you, they are:

1. Identity exploration.

Throughout this period, as a young person you get a chance to explore who you are. It’s normal to find yourself questioning how you fit into the world around you.

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2. Self-focus.

As emerging adulthood marks a time for self-discovery, it’s pretty normal to find you are primarily concerned with your own happiness. You might find yourself still free from big commitments and certain responsibilities that come later in adulthood, such as parenthood and marriage, meaning you have the time to be a bit selfish! 

3. Instability. 

With so many new adjustments, being an emerging adult can often feel unstable. You may experience frequent changes in your living situations, or your job, or maybe keep switching romantic partners. This is part of determining the person you are going to be. 

emerging adulthood

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4. Feeling in-between. 

While as an emerging adult we have more freedom than teenagers, we also still have fewer responsibilities than older adults. So it’s easy to feel in a sort of limbo if we can feel more expectations placed on us, but also that we are still seen as immature.

4. Sense of possibilities. 

This transitional period offers up a door to endless opportunities, so the future remains hopeful as everything feels possible.

The common challenges you need to know

Transitioning to adulthood provides more independence and possibilities, but also many challenges. These stem from three main factors.

1. Uncertainty.

For most emerging adults, thinking about the future can be daunting. Yes, the possibilities are exciting. But they are often accompanied by the pressure to start planning ahead and make the right decisions. With so many different paths to choose from, which direction should you take? And what if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to do? 

According to The Mental Health Foundation, six out of ten young people have felt overwhelmed by the fear that they are making mistakes. 

2. Increased responsibilities.

Part of gaining independence includes having more responsibilities. This may involve taking on new and important tasks that you aren’t familiar with, such as paying rent on time, or cooking a meal for yourself.

It can often feel like a lot to juggle, leaving you feeling overwhelmed. If left unmanaged, the additional stress can lead you to cope in unhealthy ways. For instance, you may start putting off or even avoiding your new responsibilities, which can make matters worse.

2. Societal expectations.

emerging adulthood

photo by Pavel Daniluk for Pexels

Society has placed great importance on traditional milestones, especially for emerging adults. On the one hand, milestones are a way to celebrate different key stages of life, but on the other hand, it places a lot of pressure to live up to certain expectations within a strict timeframe. Some of this can stem from our parents or family members, adding additional stress.

So if you fail to meet certain milestones, no matter how unrealistic you know they are, it can make you feel like you’re not good enough. It can also leave room for social comparison, which can negatively affect your self-esteem.

Anxiety in Emerging adults

With all the increased challenges it brings, the struggles of emerging adulthood can impact your mental health.

According to research, young people are far more vulnerable to mental health problems, with anxiety disorders being the most commonly diagnosed among emerging adults. Compared to other age groups, being in this age range also means the highest rates of depression.

And mental health problems like anxiety and depression can in turn delay your transition into adulthood, or make it harder.

They can also increase the likelihood of using unhealthy coping mechanisms. A 2016 review found that emerging adults have higher rates of substance use, such as excessive drinking.

How to take care of yourself during this life transition

Becoming an adult can be a difficult transition, but here’s what you can do to help minimise the stress.

1. Review your lifestyle.

It’s normal to experience stress from time to time. But if it’s impacting your ability to cope, it’s worth looking at your lifestyle choices and how they contribute to your stress. Perhaps you’re taking on too much at once, or losing much-needed sleep on nights out. By making certain adjustments and improvements, it can help release some of the stress. 

2. Prioritise your time.

Most of the time, when we’re experiencing stress, it’s because we have a lot on our plate. Learning to prioritise your time can help you gain back control. A great way to do this is by creating a routine or schedule that works best for you, keeping you on top of your responsibilities.

3. Ease off the pressure.

Sometimes, we’re so eager to succeed we become unaware of the pressure we put ourselves under.  Getting to grips with your independence is a process. You don’t have to have everything figured out immediately. If you make a mistake or things don’t go as expected, try not to be hard on yourself. Remember, it’s all part of learning.

4. Lean on your support network.

Emerging adulthood is a vulnerable time, which is why important than ever to lean on your support network.

Too often, people assume that becoming a legal adult means you can no longer ask for help. That’s entirely untrue and can increase your sense of loneliness. You can always reach out for support and guidance when needed, no matter what age. Taking the time to speak to those you love most can make all the difference.

What types of therapy can help?

All types of therapy can help you gain a stronger sense of self and recognise and learn to use the inner resources you already have.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is certainly a popular choice. A short-term psychotherapy, research has shown it effective for dealing with anxiety and stress. It focuses on addressing and transforming the thought patterns and behavioural choices that may contribute to your stress. 


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Claudia ColeClaudia Cole is a London-based writer and journalist. She is passionate about sustainable living, mental health, and wellbeing.

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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress, Parenting, Self Esteem

One Response to “Emerging Adulthood – Why Does Growing up Feel so Stressful?”
  1. Jo Ann Clarke

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