Adulting in the time of COVID-19

What does ‘adulting’ mean to you?

Adult life was a complete blind side with no prior knowledge to help, followed by constant stress of responsibilities and independence.” — Dean, 24 (full time student and odd job worker).

“Being aware of the things around you and taking on responsibilities and accountability” — JoAnn, 28 (working adult with 2 jobs for the past 4 years).

I honestly think it’s when you realize that you are directly responsible for your own actions and that only you decide your path.” — Naufal, 27 (working adult for the past 5 years and part time student).

Take a moment to define what adulting means to you as well. Once you have it, does it also revolve around the theme of responsibility? Responsibility is a large part of being an adult, but happiness is a large part of wanting to be alive, no matter your age. This is why I personally believe adulting is an optimal balance of both responsibility and happiness.

My Personal Story

I never really experienced what it meant to be an adult till I was studying abroad. For the first time in my life, I was away from my family and I had to leave my comfort zone in pursuit of my goal to achieve my Masters in Psychology in the United States (US). When I first reached, I spent about 2 weeks learning how to do my laundry without shrinking my clothes. I actually realized that food does not magically appear on the table and I had to get it myself. Fairies apparently do not wave their wands and clean my room while I’m out. Daily necessities that I once took for granted started to present themselves, and I had to make time for all of it while taking into consideration school, sleep, and my social life. It took me awhile to get the hang of it, but once I did, I realized I had full autonomy over my day-to-day decisions, and I finally felt like an adult. Coming from a background where I was relatively spoiled, I took utmost pride in my new found independence. On top of that, I was killing it at school, hence my self-identity was largely forged by my new found independence and studies. I finally felt I was adulting, as I was optimally balancing my responsibilities and my happiness.

Fast forward to March 2020 where COVID-19 became a threat in the US. In response to being ill-prepared for this new virus, my university went fully online in March 2020, halfway through my spring semester. As a consequence of my school shutting down, my parents insisted I travel back to Singapore and do the rest of my semester online. I obliged, served my two weeks Stay Home Notice, and I have been in Singapore ever since. The independence I built while I was in the US was stripped away in a matter of weeks due to my overbearing parents. The postgraduate studies I pride myself on were also no longer a viable option due to the financial situation COVID-19 left my family in. I went from 100 to 0 real quick, and with my self-identity in shambles, so was my mental health. This was also during the lockdown period which meant I was stuck at home spiraling. Both family and friends tried reaching out, but I rejected any form of help. I believe my ego was to blame on refusing help because it hurt me to see the people around me progressing in life and doing so much while I’m here unemployed and doing nothing. The last thing I felt like was an adult; in fact I felt more like a child than I ever did. I went on like this for a few months up to the point where suicide ideation felt like a relief. Fortunately, despite the black hole I was in, I had the self-awareness to not act on the ideations. I always knew I needed help, but I finally was ready to accept it.

A majority of young adults, like myself, find adulting tough. The lucky minority also find it tough, but the only difference is that they find it rewarding as well. From job security to financial freedom, to building relationships, these are some of the many challenging undertakings of adulting. These challenges are more than enough to negatively affect one’s mental health in times of normalcy, let alone during a global pandemic.

How else is the mental health of young adults affected by adulting in the time of COVID-19?

1. Fresh graduates not being able to find a job or being ‘underemployed’.

All the hard work you put over the years of studying finally paid off. How are you rewarded? A graduation ceremony over Zoom, and unemployment welcomes you. Finding a job in this current economic climate seems like an insurmountable task, as more and more companies are laying people off instead of hiring. Yes, the government is doing its best in trying to provide as much aid as possible to fresh graduates, but chances are, if you do find a job, you are ‘underemployed’ — “a job that for various reasons, does not meet your requirements” (Horton, 2020). The emotional distress of not being able to secure a job or securing one that does not synchronize with your needs and qualifications tend to manifest in various behavioral problems such as having difficulty handling frustration and/or a general feeling of unhappiness.

2. People losing their jobs or taking pay-cuts

COVID-19 has affected many industries, and it is not uncommon for companies, big and small, to try and cut their costs. In that process, many young adults have lost their jobs or taken hefty pay-cuts. For young adults attempting to provide for themselves and even their loved ones, losing their source of income is a very stressful occasion. It has been widely studied and proven that young adults are more susceptible to adverse mental health consequences due to the stressors of being at a transitional age with inadequate coping strategies (McGee and Thompson, 2015; Hultman and Hemlin, 2008; Bradshaw et al., 2012; Monteiro et al., 2014 as cited in Lee et al., 2019).

3) Working from home (WFH) in an unconducive environment.

If you are lucky enough to hold down your job and are unscathed from the economic effects of COVID-19, most likely you have been working from home. A Workplace Resilience survey was conducted in Singapore with 1,407 respondents. The shocking main finding from the survey is that those who worked from home reported feeling more stressed than those working on the frontlines of the pandemic (Teo, 2020). Do you wonder why that is?

If you have a conducive work environment at home, good on you. However, there are many, like me, who are not as fortunate. The novelty of more sleep, no peak hour commutes, and working in your pyjamas wears off when the reality of an unhealthy work-at-home culture presents itself. Overbearing parents, makeshift workspaces, and little to no interaction with colleagues and friends will ruin any semblance of feelings you may have had of being like an adult. It may be a difficult pill to swallow, but the fixed alarm in the morning, commutes you used to dread, and getting dressed for work is all part of what made you feel like an adult. Many of us need the clear distinction between a work and home environment, but unfortunately due to COVID-19, they are both one and the same which may cause psychological distress. Many young adults feel that if work is not the place to sleep; home is not the place to work.

4) Breakdown of relationships.

This is probably the most common issue for young adults in the time of COVID-19. Whether it is with your family members, your significant other or your friends, relationships have undoubtedly been strained due to the lockdown period of COVID-19. Once a relationship is estranged, loneliness seeps in with the possibility of leading to symptoms of depression. The breakdown of the relationships in our lives can lead to three types of loneliness:

  • Situational loneliness is when a house does not feel like a home and is common among young adults who are in ‘enforced closeness’ with their family unit (Tiwari, 2013).
  • “Emotional loneliness is defined by the absence of an attachment figure” (Weiss et al., p.17, 1973 as cited in Mushtaq et al., 2013) or significant other.
  • “Social loneliness is characterized by the absence of a social network” (Weiss et al., p.17, 1973 as cited in Mushtaq et al., 2013) or your circle of friends.

As you can see, the ripple effects of a deadly virus has multiple ways in affecting the psychological state of young adults. If you resonated with any, or a combination of the above, it is probable that your current situation has taken a significant toll on your mental, and even physical health. I know it definitely did for me.

So how then can we overcome these struggles?

1) Reframe what 100% means to you.

It is important to note that our 100% can look different from someone else’s 100%, but did you know even our daily 100% can also look different? If you tick 10 items on your daily to-do list on Monday and only 4 on Tuesday, it does not mean that you were functioning at 100% on Monday and 40% on Tuesday. This train of thought only harms our self-esteem as the notion that we are not at 100% makes room for the idea that we are consciously choosing not to be at our best. This damages any progress we are making towards the betterment of our mental and physical health. Instead, reframe your thinking towards reinforcing that you are at 100% everyday, and your 100% is allowed to look different on different days. Be kind to yourself by accepting and trusting that your 100% is allowed to be different day to day as this allows you to believe that you have tried your best today and that is more than enough.

The journey in achieving a healthy state of mind is not linear and sometimes we do regress. It is okay to regress. It is okay to have bad days as long as the goal is to have more good days than bad.

2) Walk and talk

Have you ever caught yourself pacing around your room or in your home when trying to solve a problem? Research shows that repetitive behavior, such as pacing, can help to reduce stress levels in a situation that we feel we have no control over (American Friends of Tel Aviv University, 2011). Instead of pacing in a small room, try and take a walk with your thoughts around your neighborhood, running track, or even a treadmill if you have access to one.

The key is to walk a repetitive route at a comfortable pace, and talk to yourself while you are at it. What should you talk to yourself about? Everything and anything! If you can’t be honest with yourself then who can you be honest with? Treat yourself to a date with your thoughts. Now go and take a walk.

3) Happiness is a priority, not an afterthought.

Have you ever been guilty of saying something like, “I’ll be so happy if…” or “I’ll be happy when…”? If you do, you are reinforcing the mindset that it is alright for happiness to be an afterthought and not a priority. The process of adulting in such an unpredictable time leaves us at the mercy of our environment, and we may have no control over our current situation. However, we can control our reaction to the situation by prioritizing our mental wellbeing even in the face of adversity.

Achieving happiness or a healthy state of mind is no easy task, yet it is essential to prioritize our mental health and happiness if we are to overcome the many various challenges of adulting. Always do your best to remind yourself that happiness is a priority and it is “where you are now, or nowhere at all”.

With the many negative ways COVID-19 can affect our physical and mental health, are there any positive experiences we can take away from living through such turbulent times?

In my humble opinion, yes there is. I believe that the amount of time we’ve been spending at home due to COVID-19 has given many young adults the time to acknowledge and process our feelings instead of just stifling it down as we would pre-COVID. More Singaporean adults are not only open to having a conversation about their mental health, but also more willing to seek assistance via counselling, therapy, or medication. On top of that, the Singapore government has set up a task force to address mental health needs of Singaporeans in response to the pandemic. It is unfortunate that it took a pandemic for us to get here, and even though there is much more to be done towards de-stigmatizing mental illnesses and normalizing mental healthcare, progress is progress no matter how slow.

So yes, COVID-19 may have made it much tougher to be an adult due to the various ways it could affect our health. Yet it is also because of COVID-19 that mental health has become a topic of conversation among Singaporeans and a matter that is being addressed by the Singapore government. If the pandemic has left a heavy toll on your mental health, you are not alone. The first step towards recovery is having the self-awareness to recognize that you are not okay, and the second step is acknowledging that you may require help. I hope that you can be kind to yourself and reach out for help, just like I did. As always, stay healthy; stay happy.

This article is part of an initiative by Calm Collective Asia. A webinar was also conduced in tandem on the same topic and you can check it out at:

This article is for informative purposes only. It is in no way a replacement for professional counselling or therapy. Do seek out any of these professional resources if you feel you need help in regards to your mental health.

Resources for help:

https://blog.moneysmart.sg/healthcare/counselling-singapore-free-affordable/

References:

American Friends of Tel Aviv University. (2011, November 2). Finding relief in ritual: A healthy dose of repetitive behavior reduces anxiety, says researcher. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 5, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110922093324.htm

Bradshaw, C, Rebok, G, Zablotsky, B, Laflair, L, Mendelson, T., & Eaton, W. (2012). Models of stress and adapting to risk: a life course, developmental perspective. In: In W. Eaton (Ed.) Public mental health. (pp. 269–302). New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Horton, A. P. (2020, September 15). The challenge of a job that doesn’t meet your needs. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200828-the-challenge-of-a-job-that-doesnt-meet-your-needs

Hultman, B., & Hemlin, S. (2008). Self-rated quality of life among the young unemployed and the young in work in northern Sweden. Work, 30, 461–472

Lee, J. O., Jones, T. M., Yoon, Y., Hackman, D. A., Yoo, J. P., & Kosterman, R. (2019). Young Adult Unemployment and Later Depression and Anxiety: Does Childhood Neighborhood Matter? Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 48(1), 30–42. https://doi-org.mutex.gmu.edu/10.1007/s10964-018-0957-8

McGee, R. E., & Thompson, N. J. (2015). Unemployment and depression among emerging adults in 12 states, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2010. Preventing Chronic Disease, 12, 140451 https://doi.org/10.5888/pcd12.140451

Monteiro, N. M., Balogun, S. K., & Oratile, K. N. (2014). Managing stress: The influence of gender, age and emotion regulation on coping among university students in Botswana. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 19, 153–173. https://doi.org/ 10.1080/02673843.2014.908784

Mushtaq, R., Shoib, S., Shah, T., & Mushtaq, S. (2014, September 20). Relationship Between Loneliness, Psychiatric Disorders and Physical Health ? A Review on the Psychological Aspects of Loneliness. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4225959/

Teo, J. (2020, August 19). More working from home feel stressed than those on Covid-19 front line: Survey. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/more-work-from-homers-feel-stressed-than-front-line-workers-singapore-survey-on

Tiwari, S. C. (2013). Loneliness: A disease? Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(4). doi:10.4103/0019–5545.120536

Weiss, R. S. (1973). Loneliness: The experience of emotional and social isolation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

As a graduate of both Psychology and Communications I aim to de-stigmatize mental illnesses and normalize mental healthcare in Singapore.