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Young Adulthood and Avoiding Lifestyle Stress

When getting up to adult speed is too demanding, it could cause stress.

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

For most young adults, it takes a while to get up to adult-operating speed after the last phase of adolescence (Trial Independence, 18 – 23) because self-management demands dramatically increase when functional independence is actually assumed.

Growing up can certainly be taxing; but actually having to act grown up is even more so.

Life becomes more challenging and more complicated as a young adult because there is so much change to contend with that is suddenly upsetting and resetting the terms of their existence.

There are jarring START/STOP Adjustments -- starting something new like earning a livelihood and stopping something old like forsaking the conveniences of living at home.

And now the young person can feel caught in a classic MORE/LESS Squeeze. On one’s own, the young person can feel MORE unprepared to act older, alone in the world, inexperienced, prone to mistakes, responsible for choices, disconnected from home, worried about the unknown; and at the same time she or he can feel LESS supported by family, protected by parents, confident in capacity, clear about goals, in control of circumstances, with less excuses to offer, money to live on, structure to rely on, and adult direction for guidance.

It’s when the multiplicity of adjustments to support independence results in over-demand that young adult stress can arise. So it can be helpful for the young person to connect the dots between the nature of demands and the management of stress. Consider them this way.


Suppose for every demand upon you to which you choose to respond, some unit of precious personal energy (one’s potential for doing or action) is spent. Energy is precious because it is limited. No one has an infinitely ready supply. Over-demand that readily available supply, and the opportunity for stress arises because now there is the need to force one’s system to produce additional energy to cope. The two threatening questions are: “Can I meet this demand?” and “If I can’t, what will happen to me then?” Stress can be anxiety provoking.


Although it can be costly, stress is not a bad thing. It is a survival response people depend on to generate emergency energy when a crisis of over-demand arises. “Even though I was riding on empty, I pushed myself to finish the job!” Do this occasionally, as most people sometimes do, and there is a sense of feeling overspent and exhausted: “Afterwards, I needed to rest, recover, and revive.” However, when one continually relies on stress to meet ongoing over-demand, what can result is the lifestyle stress many young adults experience. “I’m always running behind, rushing to catch up, and never having a moment to relax and refuel!”

It’s when over-demand in young adulthood becomes ongoing that lifestyle stress can take its toll, progressively and additively creating harmful psychological and physical costs that can unfold something like this.

STAGE ONE: Fatigue – feeling continually worn out and developing a more negative outlook.

STAGE TWO: Pain – feeling in emotional (like anxious) or physical (like aching) discomfort more of the time.

STAGE THREE: Burn-out – feeling a loss of traditional motivation as historical caring diminishes.

STAGE FOUR: Break-down – experiencing difficulty or inability to meet normal operating expectations.

The best anti-stress strategies I have found working with young adults are preventative, and they are three: practicing regular self-maintenance, not investing in change at the expense of maintenance, and moderating elective demand.


Here we start with a physical and cultural problem. Just to get from one day to the next with a full supply of readily available energy requires regularly investing in basic activities that sustain one’s physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, occupational, and social well-being. Itemize all the daily basics you need to be adequately maintained from one day to the next and the list of routine activities becomes a very long one.

In fact, the great proportion of energy we have to spend each day needs to be invested in maintenance in order to keep one’s energy up. Knowing this, why don’t people credit the importance of self-maintenance instead of down-playing or even neglecting it?

The answer to this question is another. When was the last time someone said to you, “Congratulations, you just made it through another day?” Maybe never, because it’s easy to take maintenance activities for granted. “What did you do today?” “Nothing worth noticing; just did what was expected.” Downplaying the importance of basic self-maintenance is the first step toward neglecting it until inadequate self-maintenance can become a stressor. "I don't take basic care of myself!"

For example, a commonly occurring stressor in young adulthood occurs when a young person routinely shorts themselves on sleep to make time for more pressing or pleasurable activity, feeling tired and run down much of the time. Adequate sleep is just one fundamental self-maintenance need. I’ve always liked the Urban Mattress company advertisement about the importance of sleep: “Someone once said that if we sleep well, we wake up well. More prepared for our day, more present for our friends and families, and more open to opportunities and simple pleasures. Smart person.” Self-maintenance matters.


Not only can the importance of basic self-maintenance be disregarded and neglected, it can be treated as a lower priority than another way to spend energy -- on Change. It’s easy to value and reward change which can mean investing in new, more, different, better, or faster, all of which can be how people get excitement, get noticed, get approval, and even get ahead. Culturally, exciting change activities are often more highly valued than comparatively boring maintenance activities. This is why change is so tempting, and why maintenance is not.

So the young person who can’t say “no” to a tempting enjoyment, opportunity, or request, now invests in change at the expense of maintenance, for example buying a new party outfit with money saved for paying the rent, creating an entry into stress when that basic living expense comes due and cannot be met. Compared to optional change, maintenance needs to be priority number one.


One important developmental task in Late Adolescence, the high school years, is for the young person to start taking more responsibility for determining the amount of elective demand in her or his life. At issue is the adolescent learning how to control the Three Gatekeepers of Demand that have a governing influence on how much stress from over-demand is electively allowed.

These three psychological regulators of elective demand are personal Goals, personal Standards, and personal Limits, all of which the young person can set and reset if she or he chooses.

GOALS have to do with Ambition: How high does the young person choose to aspire at this moment of time?

STANDARDS have to do with Perfection: How well does the young person believe she or he should perform all the time?

LIMITS have to do with Tolerance: How much does the young person undertake at any one time?

Entering young adulthood, outside of employment, it is important not to let other people set one’s personal goals, standards, and limits. Acting as a grown up and independent adult means setting these gatekeepers of demand for oneself.

Set them unrealistically or extremely high, and lifestyle stress from over-demand is likely to result. “I just want to be the best, I must never mess up, and I should do all everyone wants from me.” The antidote to this stressful life style is deciding how high, how well, and how much demand is enough.

So, for those young adults starting to make their way in the world, if they want to keep lifestyle stress down, they can:

  • Keep their basic self-maintenance up;
  • Try not to invest in change at the expense of maintenance;
  • Set personal goals, standards, and limits that moderate demands.

For more information about parenting adolescents, see my book: “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Motivating Your Adolescent to Exercise