scrabble letters spelling achievement on a wooden table

Milestone Anxiety – Managing Distress and Ways to Cope

In this article I will explore the idea of attaining or reaching Milestones, how this concept can negatively impact our mental health and how we can begin to re-write our story within this commonly shared narrative.

When I Googled “Milestones,” I found two definition results:

  1. a stone set up beside a road to mark the distance in miles to a particular place.
  2. a significant stage or event in the development of something.

Objectively, these definitions seem pretty innocuous, or even helpful. The reality, however, can be far more complex and damaging.


Milestone Anxiety

Milestone anxiety is not a diagnosable mental health disorder, it is the term coined to describe the stress felt to reach certain stages of life. Increasingly, we face intense and ubiquitous pressure to reach certain milestones. This may be coming from all angles; family, society and internally:

There may be an expectation from family members, who we don’t want to disappoint.

We see other people’s life journey or those in the media and make comparisons.

We might experience confusion, frustration or self-criticism as though we are failing or do not belong if we aren’t reaching milestones.

Experiencing long term, underlying pressure externally and internally could lead to destructive behaviour such as social withdrawal or isolation. We can also experience emotional pain or depression, which can have lasting consequences. Therefore, it is important to explore, understand and tackle this issue.

Traditional Milestones

There seems to be an endless list of conformative events which are widely celebrated. Right from the get-go: births, christenings, starting school, academic or sporting success, engagement, marriage, retirement.

It might be useful to consider that many of these were invented decades ago when social and economic landscapes were very different; buying a home was more achievable, there was more job security and religion was more prevalent. As we know, times have changed and more people are starting to recognise that milestones are recurrently delayed or removed altogether.

Modern Milestones

In spite of how times are changing, traditional milestones still permeate our social narrative, so how would it feel to celebrate less traditional milestones or things that matter to you?

These could include:

  • Reaching financial independence
  • Leaving an unhealthy relationship
  • Leaving your job to do something you love
  • Coming out as LGBTQ+
  • Deciding not to have children
  • Completing a physical challenge such as running a marathon
  • Buying a house with friends/family
  • Deciding to stay single for a period of time
  • Seeking therapy/personal growth
  • Clearing your student debt
  • Taking on a voluntary role to improve your community and help others
  • Adopting a child

How to Cope with Milestone Anxiety

If you are interpreting not reaching traditional milestones as a personal failure or feel you are not good enough, you will most likely experience distress. If you are experiencing anxiety about this, here are some tips on how to manage:

Notice your negative internal dialogue and challenge it.
Identify the meaning you are making out of not having reached particular milestones — How you interpret or perceive things makes a difference to how you experience them. If you are not married or have not bought your first home, what meaning are you making of that? Try to spend less time consuming media and focus on your own worth. Your journey through life is unique to you, and excessive comparison to those you perceive as ‘ahead’ of you can be damaging and de-motivating.

Ask yourself: which life milestones are important to me?
Society has changed, and the traditional milestones may well be outdated and irrelevant. Tune into your personal values and write your own bucket list. Set achievable, intrinsic goals that you are able to work towards.  Focus on the process of your journey, by directing your attention and energy on the here and allowing you to be more present and less consumed by the final goal. Practicing mindfulness regularly can support this shift.

You can start to change how you feel today by noticing where the pressure is coming from and then challenging your perceptions. If it feels overwhelming or you need some reassurance, seek the help of a counsellor who can support you in navigating this new approach and give you the boost you need to reframe the concept of milestones and celebrate what is unique to you.

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