Don't Fall for the Post-College Blues

Carol Landau, Ph.D., offers the ultimate guide for surviving the post-college decade with your psyche intact

The 25- to 35-year-old women depicted on television and in magazines are always out having a great time in bars, working in stylish offices and living in fabulous apartments with quirky but adorable roommates. Where, you might wonder, do these people find the money, the high-powered jobs and the cool roomies? For most 25- to 35-year-olds, life is decidedly less glamorous. You may have a decent living space, but it’s probably small. You might still be somewhat dependent on your parents or even live with them. You probably have an entry-level position with a company that was not your first choice. Or you work part time. While these situations aren’t terrible, they do reflect the realities of the post-college decade. Here's how to survive and thrive: 

Be realistic. The years between ages 25 and 35 may be seen as potentially fabulous and fun, but in reality they can be stressful and challenging -- even when things are going well. It takes a lot of psychological energy to move away from home or college for the first time, find a new job, develop new friendships and romantic partners and establish financial independence. If you add a breakup or the loss of a job or an illness, it might be easy to fall into a depressive episode. No surprise then that the average age for the onset of a depressive episode in women is about 24. And many other women may continue to struggle with symptoms of depression that developed in their teen years.

Accentuate the positive. The reality of this decade can be daunting, but there are many positive aspects, too. You have more autonomy than you had in your teens, you have more choice about everything from friendships to diet to sleep habits, and you can control your leisure time. With less social pressure than you may have had in college, you can now explore your dreams and desires, your talents, even your personal style, with more freedom. If you have caring and committed parents, you can still be in touch with them without feeling controlled by them. If your parents are critical or even “toxic,” you can start anew. You may also find that your relationships with men are more supportive and deeper, especially with a new romantic partner.

Guard against depression. Despite all the positives, this decade can still be a risky time for depression. To avoid it, shore up your support system. Research shows that being in touch with friends and family can buffer you from stress and depression. Stay in touch with friends via phone, Facebook, texting, email or Skype. Many may be going through similar changes, so you can share concerns and strategies.

Make new friends. Seek out friends at work and look for potential kindred spirits in your neighborhood or at coffee shops, the gym or concerts. If you have a religious tradition, be open to meeting new people at your church, synagogue or mosque. Volunteering for an organization or a cause that is important to you is a straightforward way to meet likeminded people. Don’t be shy about using social media such as Facebook and Meetup , or message boards like those on iVillage and other websites related to your community or career, to find new friends. If you are in a minority or marginalized group, social support may be even more important. For example, some lesbians feel accepted in a college environment only to face ostracism and prejudice in the workplace and larger community. Once again, social media and local activist groups can help. However you meet new people, take time to develop solid friendships. After all, the ability to make new friends is a key lifetime survival skill.

Find a mentor. If there’s no mentoring program at work, look for someone you admire (a trusted adviser, not a friend) who can help guide you through your workplace and career. Don’t be shy about it. Most middle- or senior-level people in an organization enjoy helping the younger generation. Approach the person you’d like as a mentor and ask him or her if you can talk about your career aspirations.

Rely on your resilience. When the going gets tough, remember that you are young and have energy, talents and dreams. Consider taking a part-time unpaid internship in your career of choice while working another job to make ends meet. Recognize that you may have to work harder to find a mentor or take several jobs before finding the right one. This is a normal part of the process. Try to take control of some part of your career. It will increase your feelings of confidence and competence -- two key motivators. No one expects you to find a partner, have children, own a house or condo and find your dream job, all by age 35. There is no rush, so take your time and explore your options.

Accept life as it is. Instead of striving for the next big thing or milestone, be grateful for what you have. If you have children, appreciate and be mindful of your time with them. If you do not have children, try to enjoy and fully experience your single time. In each case, the passage of time will change your life; the situation is impermanent, so appreciate what is here now.

Find a good doctor. You can feel psychologically resilient, but if you’re tired or in poor health, your mood will suffer. Find a primary care doctor or gynecologist, or a nurse practitioner. Don’t wait until you are sick or injured or struggling with depression to find a healthcare professional. If you don’t have insurance or can’t afford healthcare, visit a federally funded or Planned Parenthood clinic, where you can pay based on a sliding scale.

Back off the booze. Many young women feel that they are too young to worry about drinking. But the facts prove otherwise. Women get drunk more easily than men, and health problems develop earlier. Drinking too much is associated with depression as well as many other health problems, including reproductive difficulties and ulcers. Also, drinking alcohol is more dangerous for women than it is for men. If you drink more than 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1 1/2 ounces of hard liquor per day, you increase your risk of breast cancer by 51 percent , according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Get off the couch. An inactive lifestyle is closely linked to depression. Whether being sedentary is an early symptom of depression or a causal factor, it pays to fight the urge to be idle. The years between 25 and 35 are crucial for establishing good exercise habits, because if you gain weight during this time, it will be very difficult to change habits and lose weight later. Every half hour of any physical activity will improve your life and mood, plus it burns calories and increases your general motivation. If you can identify a physical activity you love, you can pursue it for a lifetime.

Reach out. If you start to feel sad and it lasts most of the day for a few weeks, don’t suffer in silence. Even if you feel like staying at home alone, don’t. Isolation makes depression much worse. In addition to friends and family, you can turn to your doctor for a referral to a mental-health professional, or to a member of the clergy for support. And if you do develop depression, remember that psychotherapy and/or antidepressant medication can help.

Got a question for Dr. Carol Landau? She's answering them all this week (2/13 - 2/17) on our Depression Support message board. Join the conversation!


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