Coping With Post-Grad Depression & Adjusting To The “Real World”
For most undergrads, Post-Grad Depression isn’t a foreign concept. As older friends graduate and transition into the “real world,” a pattern emerges. The light behind their eyes dims. Suddenly, girls who would stay out until 3 AM the day before a midterm are going to bed at 10 PM every night, and oversized Sig Ep t-shirts are being replaced by work-appropriate pencil skirts and button-downs. From the outside, it just seems like young adults are growing up and taking more agency in their professional development, which is true to an extent. But there’s a difference between developing a healthy work-life balance and really struggling to adapt to life after college ends. It’s not something people talk about outside of their closest social circles, and there can be pressure to seem like you’ve got it all figured out even among your best friends.
As someone who had a lot of older friends graduate after my sophomore year, I saw firsthand what was waiting for me at the other end of the tunnel. Whispers of “Is she okay?” swirled at the first sign of weakness, people gossiping to feel better about their own struggles or to delight in seeing people that had created names for themselves at university succumb to a mediocre life. Now that I’m freshly matriculated and a notorious over-sharer, friends who seemed like they had an easy transition out of our collegiate bubble would reveal that they’ve only just started to feel normal again now, two years after their graduations. These beautiful people all got through it, maybe with different jobs than they’d envisioned and new struggles to face, but there’s a palpable sense of relief when they talk about how they made it through a markedly negative time in their lives. Some people may have been better at hiding it on social media, but Post-Grad Depression is a shared experience that has been so well-hidden that many of us don’t realize that it’s so common. Normal, even.
Erin Harris, who graduated from UCLA in June 2018 with a B.A. in Economics, admitted that leaving college was rough for reasons beyond searching for full-time employment.
“College was spent learning a lot, discovering passions, living literally steps away from your best friends, and I didn’t know how on earth that could continue into my post-grad life,” Erin explained.
Like Erin, I had a great time in college. Humble-brag aside, the spring of my senior year especially was like a weird, really good dream. Three months of music festivals, retreats and late nights with friends that live one block away abruptly end, and you’re pushed into a vast world with the other hundreds of thousands of graduates with the same stellar qualifications to compete for roughly three jobs that will be given to somebody’s kid/cousin/best friend’s neighbor while your resume gets lost in a pile. But that’s something we’re prepared for, with New York Times articles and Washington Post think pieces dedicated to how difficult it is to enter a job market that’s been ruined by baby boomers, automation, and the Great Recession. No one warns us that we’ll only be able to see our friends once a week when work schedules align and we’re not dead tired from fifty hour work weeks. No one tells us that FaceTime Bachelor viewings won’t quite recapture the magic of cuddling up with your college roommate on your couch, or that your friends who are still in college won’t actually be able to understand how you’ve been thrown directly into the deep end of a freezing pool in the middle of winter. To be fair, we didn’t understand it at the time, either.
Jaime Rahnejat, who graduated from university in 2016, was hit hard by her Post-Grad Depression after struggling with major depressive anxiety disorder since her teens.
“I wish someone would have tried [to prepare me for Post-Grad Depression], and more than anything, I wish it had been something that more people were willing to talk about,” Jaime shared. “Once in a blue moon when it would get brought up; it felt like everyone was experiencing it, but no one was talking about it.”
I don’t know if anyone has escaped PGD completely. Maybe people that had a horrible time in college, but I’d rather have loved college and lost it than to have never loved at all. Still, I’ve had some friends that only had a rough time for a few months and some that I don’t think ever really recovered. Life after college is going to be beautiful and bigger and better… eventually. But until then, there are some methods to make getting through it slightly easier.
PGD doesn’t entirely follow the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, but it does touch on most of the five. I was definitely in denial for a few months, but staying busy immediately after graduation is a distraction, not a cure, but avoiding your feelings until things settle a little isn’t the worst idea. If you’re staying in your college town for the summer, spend time with your friends! Pretend it’s just a normal summer and passively apply to jobs while you go to theme parks and generally goof off for a couple of months! Avoid the problem! It’s not the most productive part of the process, but it will help you ease into the idea that things are going to change very soon. If you’re moving home or to a new city right away after graduation, there are other ways to occupy your time. I know it’s lame to be like “pick up a new hobby!” because I’m not your mom or an elderly aunt, but having something other than work like yoga or learning a new language taking up space in your brain will distract you from impending feelings of doom. PsychCentral points out that this isn’t healthy long term, but it’s also not an uncommon coping mechanism.
While you stay horribly busy to feed your denial, don’t forget to keep in touch with your loved ones. Your friends are still your friends, even if you don’t live within walking distance anymore. Social media really helps with this (snap streaks, start now!) but FaceTime makes it so you can spend a little virtual quality time that feels almost like the real thing. If your friends back home are also keeping their schedule packed to starve off negative energy, just call them while you’re walking to the train or while you’re driving home from work. Keeping in regular contact with your friends doesn’t get less important with time but it’s very, very important in the first few months after you actually leave the nest, both to establish regular patterns of communication and because it’s been scientifically proven to help improve your mood, as described in Psychology Today. According to INC, it even can boost your physical health.
“All of the distractions that came along with school were no longer there. I was looking for a job, so I wasn’t even required to put on pants most days,” Jaime continued. “I am lucky for the few people I had around me that asked me to dinner a few times a week.”
Sadly, after a few months post-grad, school will start again without you and your friends who are still in college won’t have hours to chat when you’re feeling glum because not everyone has jumped out of the bubble and into the struggle. This is when you might get irrationally angry that the world doesn’t revolve around you and your feelings. Good friends will hopefully recognize that you just need to lean on your support system, but if you’re hiding your feelings like most post-grads, they might just not understand why you’re super clingy all of a sudden.
The same anxious, stage-five-clinger impulses that lead to anger can also segue into bargaining. If you have the means, you might find yourself wanting to go home or back to school a lot. But you can’t repeat the past — you may be at school, but you aren’t still a part of the campus community in the same way. To avoid acting like a pathetic person or that one twenty-seven-year-old frat guy who still hangs out at the house, set boundaries for yourself. Don’t go to college parties that are 98% current students, even if people tell you it’s ‘totally normal’ (nine times out of ten, it’s not actually totally normal) or spend every. single. weekend. at school. We all know that guy. Don’t be that guy. After you set your boundaries and understand that even though you can go back, you can’t go back, visiting campus can be comforting and helpful during your transition. Just don’t make it weird.
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Once you’re done avoiding the problem, you’re going to get sad. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be crying all the time or feel like you’re teetering on the edge of a nervous break (unfortunately, though, for some it does). We all process emotions differently. A Pisces might sob in public, an Aquarius might push down her feelings to maintain her aura of aloof detachment, a Scorpio might seek out a hookup to fill the void. Most likely, you’re just not going to feel as happy as you usually would. There might be a dull ache you can’t quite place, fatigue (because you’re working so damn much — even if that work is endlessly applying to jobs), or an air of just going through the motions.
If your feelings really are just the result of the rough time that comes right after college and before the rest of your life, a shift in your mindset can help lift your spirits. Journaling your gratitude up to three times a week has been proven to have a large impact on personal happiness by researchers at Berkeley, who created a handy-how to guide on the subject. The Grateful Peoples have used gratitude journals to help middle schoolers develop into happier, more positive teenagers and have seen results showing a decrease in fighting and attitude-based infractions in schools where children are told to journal their gratitude daily. While college grads are a decade older than these children, we can use the same tools during this transition to become happy, balanced adults that these middle schoolers use to transition into their teen years.
Practicing Self-Care can also help improve your mindset. While I’m obsessed with the Danish lifestyle of Hygge, which focuses on “a feeling of cozy contentment and well-being through enjoying the simple things in life,” as defined by Country Living magazine, self-care really starts at the basics. Psychology Today calls exercise “essential” to mental health, as it stimulates endorphins and enkephalins that make problems seem more manageable. Neurocore explains how sleep deprivation isn’t just a symptom of poor mental health, but a cause, and Nami reminds us how eating well (or even just remembering three meals in the first place) raises blood sugar to stabilize your mood. Don’t use feeling bad as an excuse to build habits that will make you feel even worse, because it’ll just prolong your problems. Even putting on mascara in the morning and keeping good hygiene is thought by the yogic yamas to drastically improve your life. It really is the little things.
Once you’re finally ready to move on with your life, it’s time to build a new one. Nesting is a great first step to take here, as interior decoration can have a huge effect on your mindset. Make your space somewhere that feeds your soul. Having a retreat where you feel at peace will make everything easier to deal with, according to Everyday Health. Everyone is different, which is why how you decorate your space is really your prerogative. A lot of people say plants are really helpful, but personally, they stress me out. I love displaying knick-knacks, other people hate clutter. Finding what works for you is one of the best parts of really entering the world and defining yourself in a more permanent context than the well-defined borders of high school and college, so have fun with it. As humans are a deeply social mammal, The Huffington Post has also pointed out the importance of finding a community. It’s likely that this sense of community is what your body was most craving during this transitional time, so joining a theatre group, a yoga studio, a work happy hour, or some other form of group bonding will be like a weight has been lifted from your chest.
“After letting work consume me for a little while, I’m hoping to start hopping into the things that made me so happy in college,” said Erin, who’s currently working in a salaried position at Lionsgate. “Talking to my best friends every day, doing theatre, staying up late drinking wine and learning so much about people, and all the various reasons that made those four years of college great [are] things that I took for granted.”
It isn’t easy finding the right community right away but don’t stop trying just because it’s hard. You’ll go through a lot of transitions in your life and join a lot of wonderful groups, it’ll happen naturally if you just keep trying. Which brings me to my final and most important tip: Be Social. Throughout the whole post-grad process, the health benefits of socializing (as outlined here by Psychology Today) are miraculous and always beneficial. As with everything, find what works for you, but isolating yourself is the worst thing you could possibly do.
Current UCLA student Kiara Bryant saw many of her best friends as they went through the stages of Post-Grad Depression, and while preparing for her own graduation, she’s using what she’s learned from her BFFs that have faced PGD to ease into her adult life more smoothly.
“Witnessing many of my friends struggle with the mess that is post-grad made me feel better going into planning for my own post-grad life,” Kiara continued. “I knew that it was going to be hard and I knew that there’s no right way to do post-grad, but in whatever I decided to do, I was not alone.”
“Who knows what exactly the cure was, but God, I’m glad it’s over now,” Jaime concluded. “I’m 2 years post grad and have honestly never been happier.”