The Great Accelerator: Why Are We Feeling So Much Pressure To Make Big Life Decisions?

Design by Anna Jay. Photos by Eylul Aslan, Meg O'Donnell u0026 Anna Jay.
Changing your life isn’t always something you can plan for. Six months before the coronavirus pandemic began, when I was 31 and a half, I broke up with my partner of almost eight years and turned my life inside out. It was at once a shock and a long time coming. What I learned during that period, poring over the fragments of a life that had become stuck to me as old receipts and bits of gum do to the lining of a handbag which you have been forced to turn inside out because you’ve lost your keys only to find a necklace you’ve forgotten you even own, is that, trite as it might sound, sometimes you really don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it. 
The last two years have been dictated by a coronavirus that the general public had never heard of when my own life changed. The lockdowns and enforced isolation imposed on us all in order to mitigate the damage done by COVID-19 have forced a level of introspection onto many of us, encouraging us to embrace the unknown by asking whether our lives are working.
Change, it seems, is all around. It feels, at times, like we are in what I am calling the Great Accelerator, where huge life decisions suddenly feel pressing and urgent. 

All around, it seems like life is being accelerated. We've gone from 0 to 100 and everyone is re-evaluating.

According to a survey of more than 2,000 people conducted by the think tank Global Future, more than a third of us have thought about changing jobs, while a separate third have looked at moving house. One in 10 people said they had looked at moving abroad and just under one in 10 had considered breaking up with their partner or starting a new relationship.
All around, it seems like life is being accelerated. We’ve gone from 0 to 100 and everyone is re-evaluating. I recently saw a friend for the first time in six months. She had moved out of her house, quit her job and re-entered higher education to train as an art therapist – something she has always wanted to do. Another friend, who I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic, had ended a 10-year relationship. Several have had babies. And those who were perennially (and happily) single are anxiously but avidly dating in an earnest attempt to find a partner to share their life with because they feel that they’ve “lost time”. 
I can’t keep up. Based on the conversations I’m having, nobody else can either. So how do we ever know whether we are making a change for the right reasons?
Embracing change is vital. It’s how we evolve. But I felt like I had emotional whiplash for months after I turned my own life inside out. The great rush to switch careers, leave a partner and find a new one – and the pressures that come with such huge shifts – has left me wondering whether there is a danger that we are reacting to the exceptional circumstances of the last two years and not responding to our own needs and desires?
Dr Heather Sequeira is a consultant psychologist. She explains that, in her experience as a practising therapist, “many people have decided to lean into their own agency and decide on a different direction in life.” As she sees it, “this is in part because people spent months in lockdown where one day just led into the next.”
The sagging and shapeless days spent at home have, Heather says, caused people to “reflect on aspects of their lives that were not working in an optimum way and think about how their lives may look different if they took different decisions.” 
When I asked my followers on Instagram if they felt this too, dozens of young women reached out. One told me she was made redundant from her job a week before turning 30 in August 2020. She now feels like she has “missed out on key years to test decisions and need to commit to things”. One said: “I've found myself making big decisions – about partners and when to have a baby – earlier than I expected because I feel like I've had to grow up much faster!” Another said: “I feel so much 'life step' pressure. It’s making me stressed, giving me anxiety and all in all making me quite unhappy! I feel immense pressure because of this supposed ‘lost time’ when all I want to do is still feel young, go travelling and feel like I’m in control of my life.”
Now that it feels as though much of life is back to business (almost) as usual, it seems that people are able to turn those reflections into action and implement the changes they ruminated on in the various lockdowns. 
This was the case for 35-year-old stylist Camilla from London. “The pandemic definitely made me feel like I needed to hit the accelerator and also like the bottom had fallen out of any future plans,” she explains. “I think it was all informed by the fact that everything began to change so fast – people moved out of London, there was anxiety that people I loved might die from the virus or that I could get sick. It was just all so Armageddon. All I wanted to do was leave London.”
Change is cause and effect. You might decide to do something but, often, an external factor pushes you in a certain direction too. When Camilla’s landlord said they wanted to sell the home she and her partner rented in London, it lit a fire under them and caused them to take the hypothetical conversations they’d been having about moving somewhere new and turn them into concrete plans. 
The outcome, however, was not happily ever after. “We jumped at the opportunity and moved to Copenhagen in September 2020,” she explains. “It was a very quick turnaround – we did it all in a month.” It was, she says now, perhaps too quick.  
“I was newly pregnant after suffering a first miscarriage just before the pandemic hit,” she continues. “Everything was accelerated and displacing. It didn’t work out in Copenhagen and we returned to the UK. My partner and I are now separated and I’m not sure what will happen.” 
Ultimately, Camilla thinks that the pandemic forced decisions that she perhaps wouldn’t have made had it not happened. “I lost all stability and, in hindsight, strangely, I think we were almost the happiest in the first London lockdown,” she reflects. “Don’t get me wrong, it was harrowing and had a severe impact on our mental health but we also stood still and made plans and felt able to take a breath.”

There is a 'contagion' effect when it comes to taking action. When we see other people around us making big, bold life decisions, breaking the mould, doing things differently, we feel we have permission to do the same.

One thing that it doesn’t feel like there is much of right now is breathing space. As we return to offices, see our social calendars fill up again and try to navigate a future after what can only be described as a shared traumatic experience that we have barely begun to process, all the while knowing that things could change again in an ordinary instant, there’s a lot to take in. But that’s the thing about change: you might be able to embrace it but it is rarely comfortable. 
Her current reality may not be what Camilla had hoped for. But change is rarely wholly good or bad. As with all of life, it’s complex. Heather explains that it’s possible that many of us are experiencing a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth (PTG)
“Social upheaval, adverse experiences and an increased awareness of vulnerability of life are all outcomes of the pandemic,” she explains. “And all of these can be associated with PTG. One part of post-traumatic growth can be to reassess our life experiences, choose a new course.”
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a theory that explains transformation following trauma – that can be anything from sexual assault to a violent attack or freak accident. It was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s and suggests that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterwards.
Heather also notes that the fact that so many people do appear to be changing their lives could be a contributing factor to the feeling that you need to accelerate decisions you might otherwise have taken time over. “There is a ‘contagion’ effect when it comes to taking action,” she explains. “When we see other people around us making big, bold life decisions, breaking the mould, doing things differently, we feel we have permission to do the same.”
During the pandemic, 31-year-old mental health support worker Mary’s life changed completely. Prior to coronavirus, the plan had been to go travelling at the end of 2020 and take some time out. Instead, she bought a flat with her boyfriend and decided to have a baby. 
“I guess circumstances just pushed us in different directions,” she reflects. “I definitely feel we rushed into buying a home. I think because of the pandemic everything suddenly felt urgent because we had lived in a tiny flat for a year. Homeownership is stressful and I’m still not 100% sure it’s for me but everyone else was doing it and there was a stamp duty holiday.”
Mary is equally unsure about having a baby but, at 14 weeks pregnant, she’s going with it. “We had so much time on our own as a couple during the lockdowns and it meant we had a lot of those big discussions that often get put off,” she explains.
Mary has always wanted to have children so she’s happy with the outcome of her choices but, at the same time, she is finding that she needs to adjust to her new reality. 
“I think both decisions were precipitated by the pandemic,” Mary adds. “I feel like when I couldn't go travelling and it seemed that wouldn't be possible for the foreseeable, I decided to have a different type of adventure…”
Ultimately, all decisions which facilitate change are a form of growth, regardless of whether the immediate outcome is the one we wanted. Few things are certain in life but you can count on the fact that you won’t always get to where you want to be fast and, when you do get there, the route you took will rarely be the one you had planned. 
When your life is turned inside out you see what it really consists of, even the bits you'd forgotten about. The point – like the frantic searching of an inside-out handbag – is that you don’t want to spend so much time looking for one thing that you think you need that you completely fail to see another, entirely different thing. Sometimes, it is only by completely disturbing everything that you are able to see clearly. Change is terrifying. Change is uncertain. Changing your life is often also a logistical nightmare but who wants to find the keys to a home they’re not sure they want to live in when they really want to be somewhere else?

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