An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

How to Navigate Through Change as an Emerging Adult

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Whether they’re heading back to the office, back to a college dorm, or back to IRL communication after time in isolation, young adults are reentering a world that is fundamentally different. The pandemic has forged a new normal for these emerging adults as they face personal changes, professional changes, and stressful return-to-work guidelines. Fortunately, this generation may be better equipped than other age groups in terms of how to navigate through change.

The Changes Today’s Young Adults Are Facing

At a time when they’re meant to be launching into a bright and exciting future, emerging adults are facing lockdowns, isolation, and job loss. Many recent college graduates who were preparing to move to a new city or spend time traveling have been forced to return to their childhood homes. With the economy upended, they’re feeling stress about where they will fit into the job market. For those who do have jobs, many workplaces have morphed into remote experiences that leave them feeling disconnected. If they are preparing to return to the office or to start a job that takes them out of their home, they may be feeling anxiety about their health and safety.

“At a time when they’re meant to be launching into a bright and exciting future, emerging adults are facing lockdowns, isolation, and job loss.”

Along with professional changes, young adults are dealing with personal changes. Their social life and romantic relationships may be suffering as a result of distancing guidelines. If they’re enrolled in college, they’re preparing for a very different kind of college experience. Whether they’re online at home, or in dorms and lecture halls with far fewer students than usual, the changes will likely be disorienting and disturbing.

Moreover, while most young adults crave connection with peers, increased face-to-face communication at work or in school may bring its own challenges and anxieties.

How the Young Adult Brain Deals with Change

Young adults have no choice but to learn how to navigate through change. But fortunately for them, their brains are better suited to adaptation than the brains of older people. A 2016 study zeroed in on a specific brain circuit that helps mammals adapt to change, and found that this circuit becomes less active with age. Therefore, the researchers concluded, younger people find it easier to cope with change by finding new behaviors to help them achieve their goals.

An earlier study found that younger adults are faster than older ones in responding to unexpected events. When younger adults (ages 19–36) were given new information during a routine task, they were able to quickly change tactics as requested. Older adults had a slower reaction time.

To put it another way, young people are more flexible and malleable than older people. They’ve spent most of their life learning new things, first as children and then as teenagers. They’ve experienced new schools, jobs, friends, classes, and ideas. So they’re wired to find ways to adapt to and navigate today’s new normal. 

Embrace Change Instead of Resisting It

Research shows that people who embrace change instead of yearning for the past are able to adjust more easily. In a series of studies over 30 years, Roxane Cohen Silver, Professor of Psychological Science, Medicine, and Public Health at the University of California-Irvine, looked at which groups of people do better after trauma. She discovered that two-thirds of trauma victims—people who had suffered child abuse, loss of a loved one, natural disasters, or terrorism—tried to find explanations for what had happened to them. However, the one-third who moved forward and looked for meaning in the present rather than the past were more well-adjusted, both immediately after the traumatic event and years into the future.

Know the Facts

Research shows that people who embrace change instead of yearning for the past are able to adjust more easily.

Moreover, psychologist Salvatore Maddi found something similar in his research on how people handle change. Over 12 years in the 1970s and ‘80s, Maddi and his team monitored hundreds of employees who worked for a phone company that had monopolized the industry. During that time, the monopoly was finally broken up and many employees were laid off. Consequently, Maddi found that the individuals who struggled most with the changes were those who wanted to return to how things used to be. Those who took a step forward into their new normal were the ones who thrived. Maddi described them as having “existential courage.” The phrase is related to the concept of “growth mindset”—the idea that we can learn and grow from traumatic experiences.

In one of his many published studies, Maddi wrote: “Hardiness has been shown in research to enhance performance and health, despite stressful changes, and to increase perceptions and actions consistent with choosing the future.” Hardiness is similar to resilience—the ability to bounce back more quickly from challenging events.

Strategies for How to Navigate Through Change

Experts have broken down the process of change into four stages:

  1. The status quo—life as usual
  2. Disruption of the status quo by an inner or outer force
  3. Adjustment and uncertainty
  4. New normal.

The most difficult stage, of course, is the third one. It’s in the adjustment and transition process that we must face our own resistance to change, and feel the sadness of having lost the status quo. Here are a few tips for how to navigate through change as a young adult.

Acknowledge change and work toward accepting it. In order to embrace change, you might need to first grieve the loss of what used to be. Once you fully acknowledge that loss, the next step is discovering what you can gain from the new normal. Where are the hidden positives and possibilities? What will the importance of change be for you? Identify areas of potential growth and self-development.

Establish a routine. In order to stay balanced in the midst of intense global change like we’re experiencing now, it’s helpful to be able to exert some form of control over your day-to-day life. One healthy way to do that is by creating a routine that incorporates evidence-based self-care approaches to enhancing mental health, like eating well, exercising, and spending time in nature. What healthy habits do you want to build? What are you ready to let go of?

“In order to embrace change, you might need to first grieve the loss of what used to be. Once you fully acknowledge that loss, the next step is discovering what you can gain from the new normal.”

Build a foundation of connection. Authentic connection to self and others helps create a foundation of well-being that will support the process of change. Practices like yoga and meditation foster connection with oneself and with a sense of gratitude and mindfulness. Time spent with loved ones—in safe ways that respect recommended guidelines—creates stability and strength within the turbulence of change.

Seek meaning and purpose. Adjusting to the new normal is easier when we have the anchor of meaning and purpose in our lives. This may come from helping others, from a spiritual practice, from a passion for activism, or from an artistic endeavor. Think about what brings you joy, even in hard times, and investigate how you can bring more of it into your daily life.

In conclusion, learning how to navigate through change isn’t easy. But young adults are built to adapt and find new ways to thrive.

Sources

J Hum Psych. 2004 July;44(3): 279­­–298.

Neuron. 2016 April;90(2): 362–373.

J Geront. 2011 Mar;66B(2): 185–194.

APA; The psychology of meaning: 237–255.

Mental Health / July 29, 2020

Newport Institute

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