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A New Year Is Coming—How Do You Face Change?

7 practical, research-informed ways to navigate transitions large and small.

Key points

  • Focusing on the positive can help counterbalance our evolutionary tendency to fixate on the negative.
  • Gratitude is a powerful antidote to anxiety and stress when going through a transition.
  • Agency is about being in control of your actions and choices.
Chris Lawton/Unsplash
Source: Chris Lawton/Unsplash

Every day we face moments of transition—change from one state or condition to another. Some transitions occur daily, like the mental shift between work and home mode, or the energy shift that blows in when the kids get home from school. And others endure over time, as you face a new year, a new job, or a new phase in life.

When navigating change, it’s helpful to be mindful of your feelings and accept the myriad of emotions that may arise during these times. You may feel sadness or disappointment that things aren’t going as expected, or a sense of anxiety about the uncertainty that lies ahead. You may feel relieved that this day/project/phase is behind you, or hopeful for a new beginning.

Fortunately, scientific research is at the root of a variety of practices that can help you move through transitions with greater ease. A good place to start is by recognizing that life is not about reaching the top of the mountain, but rather about the climb itself.

Here are seven strategies to prepare for any climb—or change.

1. Use Agency

While it may sometimes feel as if life is happening to us, we do have control over the choices and actions we make in response—this is agency. Of course, the arrival of a global pandemic or the loss of a loved one are not in our control. But the ways in which we respond are. So when you find yourself facing change or in the midst of a transition, ask yourself: What are the specific things I can do to make this day better? Are there people and resources I can turn to for help along the way? Thinking about and engaging directly with your choices will bring you a sense of agency and can initiate progress, even if it’s one small step at a time.

2. Call on Gratitude

Gratitude can make just about any situation better. Sure, there are people and events, illnesses and snowstorms that can make times of change harrowing and stressful. And with it all, there is always something to be grateful for if you look with an eye toward appreciation. It can be as simple as running water, as sweet as your favorite ice cream, or as joyful as the tail-wagging welcome you get from your dog. Noticing opportunities to feel grateful—and savoring the beauty of those moments—goes a long way during the swirling nature of shifts.

3. Prioritize Positivity

Research shows that human brains are wired to focus on the negative—and this can have an even greater impact when facing a transition with emotional or physical challenges. By calling your attention to the positive—those moments and connections that boost your mood—you can reframe your outlook to allow for silver linings, and consider things that may change for the better. Less time commuting may mean more time for hobbies and family. Back to the office may increase social connections and improve concentration. Try making a list of things that may change for the better, and if you can’t come up with any, infuse your day with some humor. Research shows that laughter can relieve the negativity that comes with change and promote optimism.

4. Stay Present

Do you know that the only moment that really matters is this one, now? Not before, nor after. Research by Harvard’s Killingsworth and Gilbert reveals that we spend nearly half of our time thinking about something other than when what we are actually doing. This includes ruminating on the past and worrying about the future. If we can stay in the present moment, aiming our focus on what is happening as it’s happening, we can avoid much of the negative emotions that come with past and future thinking.

5. Get Curious

Turning inward and asking questions is key to self-awareness, which can help guide you through any transition. First, you’ll want to bring curiosity to your emotions—how am I feeling? Am I scared? Anxious? Excited? Being with whatever emotions arise, and not trying to push them away, can diminish their power over you. Just think of it as giving a fire’s burning flames space and time die out. Investigating your thoughts can also help you figure out a path forward. Self-awareness allows you to reflect on what you want and how to get there—what will make me happier? Less stressed? Inspire motivation? Feelings and thoughts can be your friends, as long as you remember that they are just that—feeling and thoughts in your head, not something or someone trying to control you.

6. Cultivate Self-Compassion

On an airplane, a flight attendant announces the safety measures: “Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from overhead. Place the mask over your own mouth before assisting others.” While moving through change, this is an especially important message. Caring for yourself, with kindness and compassion, is essential for maintaining your resilience. Yet many blame themselves when they don’t say, do or even think the “right” thing. How often do you reprimand yourself for not being a good enough parent, employee, child or friend? Remembering that you are human, and imperfect, can help to accept yourself along with your faults and weaknesses. Next time you feel the urge to beat yourself up, try taking a “Self-Compassion Break,” developed by researcher Kristen Neff, which contains three elements: mindfulness, common humanity and kindness.

7. Craft Your Space

When faced with change, it can be comforting to set up a space that makes you feel calm and content. What elements of your current environment are soothing and make you happy? Maybe it’s a photo, candle, or favorite book that sits on your desk or night table. Or a ritual, like taking three breaths, doing a yoga pose, or sending a text to someone you love before getting into focus mode. Once you identify those things, material or other, that make you feel good, think about how you can bring one or two as you transition to a new circumstance or environment.

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