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The End of Adolescence and the Risk of Lifestyle Stress

With so much now to take care of, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the demand.

Key points

  • The final stage of adolescence, "trial independence," occurs between the ages 18 and 23 and requires doing more for oneself than ever before.
  • When demands feel excessive, it's common to resort to stress for emergency energy to cope with what needs doing.
  • Regular reliance on emergency energy can trigger signs of lifestyle stress such as continual fatigue, pressure, pain, burnout, and breakdown.
  • While some stress is unavoidable, high demands can be lessened by choosing moderate goals, standards, and limits, and maintaining self-care.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

During adolescence, life never gets less challenging; only more so. Growing up is always about managing increased complexity. Thus, entering the final stage of adolescence, what I call “trial independence,” around the college-age years, a young person has many more demands to attend to with the present and the future both competing for attention.

A lot of effort is required to keep up and to get ahead. “So much is now up to me!” Since effort takes energy; begin with that.

The Energy Problem

There’s a problem with personal energy—one’s readily available capacity for thinking and action—that is soon discovered. It is limited. It takes upkeep. And it can, after being spent, momentarily run down or out. Fatigue is the sense that now sufficient energy is lacking. “I’m beat.” “I can’t do anymore.” “I need a break.” Managing energy requires judgment about how and when to spend it; and when rest and regular renewal are needed for it to be restored.

Energy is a fundamental life resource, each person’s readily available capacity for daily operation. It is easy to take for granted, to behave like it is in infinite supply, is always available, and never runs down or out. However, this is not so. At any moment in time, personal energy is limited. Undernourish or overspend it, and human functioning suffers. “I’m worn out!” “I can’t keep going!” “I’m exhausted!” Enter stress.

The Cost of Stress

Drained of readily available energy, a person can still deal with over-demand by relying on an emergency coping response: stress. Stress has life survival value. It allows the person to force their system to produce an emergency supply of energy to override fatigue or cope with crisis, like the procrastinating student who depended on last-minute deadline motivation to get assignments done. “I stayed up all night to finish my paper on time.” However, they paid a physical and emotional price: “I’m really wiped out today!”

No matter how beneficial at the time, stress always depletes the human system. Was it worth acting in crisis? Was it worth pushing oneself so hard? Was it worth wearing oneself out? In a life-threatening situation, the answer may be an unqualified "yes." However, as a strategy for daily functioning, the answer is usually "no."

Continual overdoing can be where lifestyle stress begins.

Signs of Lifestyle Stress

Depend on stress to cope with unrelenting demand, and the young person finds that personal costs of excessive effort can be paid in at least five psychological ways.

  1. Fatigue: When the young person feels worn out. “I just feel tired a lot.”
  2. Pressure: When the young person feels the strain. “There is more tension to bear.”
  3. Pain: When the young person feels easily hurt or troubled. “I have more aches and worries.”
  4. Burnout: When the young person has a more negative attitude. “I don’t always care what happens.”
  5. Breakdown: When the young person functions less well. “I can’t keep up with all I need to remember.”

While often sequential in occurrence, these stress responses can be cumulative so that by the time one gets to breakdown, some fatigue, pressure, pain, and burnout may already be in place. Consider the freshly employed, ambitious young person at their entry-level job, as the long hours and hard striving takes a personally expensive toll: “I’m always running behind to get ahead!”

Gatekeepers of Demand

As the older adolescent discovers, independent life is a demanding place to live because there is always much that is necessary and desirable to do. So now the question is: how to moderate stress from ongoing over-demand? There are now three kinds of gate-keeping decisions that exert necessary self-control: setting supportable goals, standards, and limits.

  • Goals have to do with ambition: How high does she or he want to aspire?
  • Standards have to do with excellence: How well does she or he want to perform?
  • Limits have to do with tolerance: How much can she or he undertake at one time?

A stress-prone young person would be one who strives to be best, aims for perfection, and can’t say "no" to requests or opportunities. Increasingly, to moderate demands, the young person sometimes needs to be able to compromise, to decide that in many cases some (not all) is simply going to have to be enough.

Change and Maintenance

Finally, for the sake of health, there is distinction that can sometimes be helpful to make at the onset of independent functioning—between the appeal of change and the need for maintenance.

Change demands command attention because they offer what is new and different and more and better. Change is valued because it invigorates, improves, and stimulates human lives. For this reason, change demands are tempting to pursue. This is how you experience excitement and get ahead.

Maintenance demands are less glamorous because all they do is sustain daily functioning—attending to what is ordinary, expected, repetitive, and routine. For this reason, maintenance demands can be easy to discount and ignore. This is just how you get from one day to the next with the basics taken care of, so you don’t run down.

So you can understand how the young person was tempted to sacrifice the needs for studying for the test and paying the rent to the desire for attending the party and buying a new outfit. At the end of adolescence, sometimes it can be easy to pursue change at the expense of maintenance, and later have to pick up the stressful cost of this basic self-neglect.

Parental Advice

So what might parents suggest to their struggling last-stage adolescent to keep stress from more independence within tolerable bounds? Maybe this:

  • Treat occasional stress as expected.
  • View ongoing signs of stress with attention.
  • Make regular self-maintenance a priority every day.
  • Don’t pursue tempting changes at the expense of maintenance.
  • Set your goals, standards, and limits to avoid constant over-demand.
  • Try not to make resorting to stress to accomplish daily tasks a regular habit.

For the last-stage adolescent, increased demands of independence will create more opportunity for stress. However, if the young person is encouraged to proceed mindfully, she or he can moderate this demand.

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