SF Counseling Center

Stress and Transitions: Life After College


It would seem that life after college would be simple – no more papers, no more homework, no more being accountable to others, no more stress.  The landscape looks wide open and free.

However, many people find the first few years after college to be quite challenging.  First, there is the need to find a job, or is it a career?  “What if I get stuck in this job? What will my parents say?  What will my friends think? Is this all I am supposed to do/be?  Did I go to college for this?”   (Nonetheless, these are often the jobs that are available to most recent college graduates).  Where it seemed like the stress would be over after college, now it seems it is just beginning!

The first few years after college are a time of growth (and often with growth comes discomfort, perhaps stress and/or anxiety).  Many people who are in their twenties today, grew up at a time when much of their life was highly structured.  School life, of course, was structured – with homework most days, quizzes in classes, tests at the end of chapters or ‘blocks’ of work and final exams.  Social life was often structured by participation in sports teams, interest groups, music lessons, and performances.  Even video games have a known structure, which includes “leveling up.”  That is, meet certain criteria, and you get a ‘promotion’ within the video game.

In college, and before, the structure was set by others, and goals were clear.  Whether these goals were self-imposed (or imposed by parents or the schools) it was clear:

  • get good grades to get into a good high school;
  • get good grades, do extra-curricular work to get into a good college;
  • work hard to get good grades in college.

After college, however, now what?   How does one know if they are ‘on track’?

This lack of clear markers, signposts and feedback can be unnerving.  Previously, one received feedback daily or at least weekly about progress or the lack thereof; now one can go weeks or perhaps even months without clear feedback about one’s performance.   There is a safety to knowing what is expected of oneself, and there can be a general sense of anxiety/lack of security in not knowing.

This stress can play out in many different ways.  A friend (I will call him ‘Bob’) recently told me of attending a party in which all of the attendees had graduated college within the past one-to-three years.  The atmosphere was very competitive, another person, (I will call him ‘Joe’) asking my friend ‘was he still doing (that type of) work?  (Apparently, with the intention of making Bob feel bad about his career).  It turns out Joe is an intern and is only allowed to answer phones at his company.  In this example, Joe can perhaps feel a little better about himself and avoid his sense of insecurity, by trying to get Bob to take on the feelings of insecurity.  If Bob feels less than Joe, then Joe can feel like he is a winner/has ‘leveled up.’  In this case, it becomes a bit like tag-no-tag-backs.

For most people, these times will pass.  Nonetheless finding one’s way in the world, and now being in charge of one’s own life can be quite scary.  Throughout life, we develop life-structures – ways that work for us for a given period.  Eventually, we outgrow these life-structures (like a crab that needs to molt its shell to grow).  At these times, we can be quite sensitive, filled with stress, vulnerable, anxious, depressed, excited or perhaps all of these and more in a changing amalgam of feelings.  If we don’t grow, we stagnate.  On the other hand, these times are challenging and taking on a challenge in a genuine way means accepting a period of insecurity, doubt, anxiety, stress, perhaps irritability or other difficult feelings.  Eventually, we figure out a structure, which will work well for a time, and then we need to start searching for a new/changed life-structure again.

In this post, I have primarily focused on professional development, but only because for many it is a major source of feedback and this stage of life is characterized by a sudden reduction in the amount and type of feedback. This shift can be anxiety provoking and challenging.   In future blog posts, we focus on other sources of success in adulthood, such as relationships, self-improvement, and authenticity.

If you feel this stage is impacting your quality of life, give us a call at (415) 440-0500 or write director@www.sfcounselingcenter.com. We can help.


Schedule an Online Appointment