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Are You Surviving or Thriving?

Are You Surviving or Thriving?

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Navigating the quarter-life crisis and beyond

There is a fundamental difference between surviving and thriving. Surviving is defined as “to continue to live or exist” while thriving means “to grow or develop well, to prosper or to flourish”. Thriving implies being able to enjoy life despite the many challenges it presents.

Life is difficult and complicated and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive the vicissitudes of life.” ~J.K. Rowling

The vicissitudes of life can cause considerable stress, which in turn is associated with poor mental and physical health.[1],[2] In a previous post we discussed Children’s Mental Health. In today’s post we will consider the unique challenges facing young adults, and address this question: how can we help ourselves, our family, and our friends to thrive?

Young adults face many challenges

The pressures of school, work, and family responsibilities, combined with a relentless media culture, result in young people being more stressed than ever before.[3],[4],[5] A survey of college freshmen found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.[6]

After almost two decades of schooling, where each step has been clearly laid out as tangible goals and assignments, new graduates find themselves encountering an overwhelming number of choices regarding their careers, finances, homes, and relationships.[2] Confronted by this whirlwind of options and responsibilities, many feel apprehensive and indecisive.[7] The new label being applied to this age-related transition is “quarter-life crisis”.

Social networking sites (SNS) often contribute to the problem by featuring people who seem to have flawless appearances and perfect lives, although these portrayals are often exaggerated.[8] SNS may prompt us to compare ourselves with those who we believe are better than us, and such “upward social comparisons” can decrease our self-esteem and psychological well-being.[9],[10],[11],[12] Another name for this phenomenon is “Facebook depression”, which is defined as “feeling depressed upon too much exposure to SNS”.[10] In a recent survey, nearly two-thirds of millennials said they would be physically healthier if they spent less time on social media, and six in 10 said it would make them happier.[13]

Nearly two-thirds of millennials said they would be physically healthier if they spent less time on social media, and six in 10 said it would make them happier.

In addition to moderating social media use, it’s important for young adults to develop coping skills to deal with life’s vicissitudes. Practicing self-compassion, developing psychological resilience, and implementing healthful habits can help all of us to thrive rather than merely survive.[14]

Practice self-compassion

Self-compassion is a powerful antidote to negative feelings about oneself.[15] The practice of self-compassion increases happiness, optimism, personal initiative, and connectedness, and may decrease anxiety, depression, neurotic perfectionism, and rumination.[15],[16] Individuals who practice self-compassion are better able to view failure experiences as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than becoming consumed with fear about what a negative performance says about their self-worth.[17] Self-compassion has three major components:

  • Self-kindness, which refers to the ability to treat oneself with care and understanding rather than critical self-judgment.
  • A sense of common humanity, recognizing that imperfection is a shared aspect of the human experience rather than feeling isolated by one’s failures.
  • Mindfulness, which involves holding one’s present-moment experience in balanced perspective rather than exaggerating the dramatic story-line of one’s suffering.

Self-compassion is an important part of a broader concept known as psychological resilience, which involves a set of behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed by anyone.[18],[19],[20] That said, much like everything, a new habit takes time, energy, and planning to successfully implement.

Cultivate psychological resilience

Stressful events can trigger psychological distress, and managing these events requires psychological resilience.[21],[22],[23] Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or stress, and bouncing back from difficult experiences.[19],[24] Greater resilience has been associated with lower levels of psychological distress.[24],[25],[26] Here are some tactics that can help build resilience:

  • Nurture close relationships. Accept help and support from those who care about you and are willing to listen to you.
  • Understand that change is a part of life. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.
  • Move toward your goals, one step at a time. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today?”
  • Maintain a hopeful outlook. Try keeping a gratitude journal. This can keep you more focused on the positives in your life.[27]
  • Take care of yourself. Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques including breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation, can provide relief for many individuals.[28],[29]

Implement healthy habits

Healthy habits can keep your mind and body primed to deal with difficult situations. Pay attention to your own needs, engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to boost self-esteem and improve sleep quality, which can help buffer the negative effects of stress.[30],[31],[32],[33]

Many studies have observed a direct relationship between dietary patterns and mental health in adolescents and adults.[34],[35],[36],[37] Diets that include sugar-sweetened beverages, fried foods, processed meats, and baked products are associated with a higher risk of depression.[35],[36] Conversely, diets that emphasize healthy foods such as olive oil, fish, nuts, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are associated with a lower risk of depression.[34],[37],[38] Research suggests that replacing unhealthy foods with more nutritious choices can support a healthier mood.[39]

A comprehensive multivitamin and mineral supplement can help ensure adequate micronutrient status and improve mood.

Micronutrient deficiencies, which are not uncommon in the U.S. population,[40] can exacerbate mood disorders. Scientists have found that low levels of vitamin D,[33],[41],[42] vitamin C,[43],[44] B vitamins,[45] and certain minerals including zinc and magnesium,[45],[46] are associated with an increased risk of depression. A comprehensive multivitamin and mineral supplement can help ensure adequate micronutrient status and improve mood.[47],[48],[49],[50] Additional vitamin D supplementation may be particularly helpful for individuals with low sun exposure and/or allergies, although levels should be tested regularly if daily intake exceeds 2000 IU. Supplementation with fish oil also represents a promising strategy for ameliorating depression and anxiety disorders.[36],[51],[52],[53],[54]


Adopting positive habits including adequate nutrition, exercise, sleep, and managing social media use can help young adults (and all of us!) reduce the impact of stress and enjoy life more. Cultivate self-compassion and psychological resilience by practicing the tips in this article, and consider seeking out podcasts on these topics with the time you would otherwise spend on social media. And for more inspiration, check out the American Psychological Association’s web page titled The Road to Resilience.

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