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10 Ways to Make It Through Your Life’s Transitions

Change can be good if you approach it with these 10 research-based tips.

Laurin Rinder/Shutterstock
Source: Laurin Rinder/Shutterstock

You’re happy with the status quo, so change is the last thing you want in your life. However, life doesn’t always comply with our wishes, and now you’re faced with a major transition.

One of the toughest transitions you might ever have to make, for instance, involves moving your place of residence. The longer you’ve lived somewhere, the harder that move can be. You also find that there are times when you have to go with the flow with family, friends, and employers. Your adult child wants to get married, your best friend’s mother died, you abruptly lose your job, or your boss gives you a completely new set of responsibilities. Dealing with these changes can be tough, but the 10 tips below, based on research involving life-span studies of stressful events, can get you through even the toughest of them.

Let’s begin with some background. The basic premise of most stress and coping literature is that there’s no such thing as an inherently difficult life transition. Life events are as stressful, or not, as you make them. It’s all in the mind-set you apply. A second premise, derived primarily from the life course literature, assumes that the factors that sway the events in life reflect the many forces out there that can lead to change. There are no inherent life changes other than the basic alterations that occur due to biology and the programming of our genes. The life changes involved in transitions occur because of social, historical, and other outside influences. Some of these are predictable, such as graduating from high school at about age 18, and some are completely random, such as having a tree fall on your roof during a storm.

It’s good to know about these perspectives on life transitions, because they show us that there’s nothing inherently bad about change. When changes occur, they reflect a variety of factors, and how you interpret them will determine their impact on you. You’ve no doubt seen on the news, or perhaps in your own neighborhood, people who’ve gone through a traumatic change, such as a tornado, hurricane, flood, or fire, and must cope with the damage it’s done to their lives. Somehow, although they’ve suffered incredible loss, they emerge ready to clean up and move on with their lives.

Of all of life’s changes, one that emerges as the most memorable turns out to be moving one’s home. It’s the type of event that, years later, people are prone to remember as having overarching significance. Called the relocation bump by the University of New Hampshire’s Karalyn Enz and colleagues (2016), this distinctive memory stays with people throughout their lives. In the Enz et. al. study, of 149 adults age 65 and older who cited a residential move between the ages of 40 and 60, that move became the centerpiece of their recalled major life events.

The New Hampshire team knew about the so-called reminiscence bump, that peak of memories occurring during the transitional ages from adolescence to young adulthood. Based on this phenomenon, life-span researchers maintained that it was the age people were at the time of this transition that determined the period’s prominence in memory. The study of older adults recalling their memories of relocation suggests that it wasn’t age but the “life changes accompanying transitions” that “may organize autobiographical memories across the entire adult life span” (p. 938). In other words, moving creates a distinctive marking point in your memory that organizes the way you think back on your life.

Let’s look now at how you can translate the “relocation bump” along with the stress and coping and life course perspectives into these 10 ways to manage transitions:

  1. Recognize that transitions hold a special place in your life memories. Moving actually is a big thing; it’s something you’ll remember for years, if not decades. Rather than trying to shove it out of your consciousness because it is so inherently arduous, give it the respect it deserves as an organizing principle of your life.
  2. View stress not as a threat, but as a challenge. Because stress is in the mind of the beholder, as many researchers like to say, you can take an event that you’re afraid will overwhelm you and turn it into an occasion you can rise above and conquer.
  3. Appreciate the benefits of change. In life-span developmental science, getting stuck in life’s grooves has been shown to be detrimental to your cognitive growth. Changes in routine can serve as stimulation to your stagnant nervous systems and allow you to grow new neural pathways.
  4. Remember the times you’ve successfully navigated a previous transition. As you face a new challenge, use the knowledge that you’ve managed to cope before to give you strength. Yes, that tree falling on your roof was a traumatic experience and expensive to deal with, but deal with it you did.
  5. Turn to your support network. Researchers in the stress and coping field know that social support is one of the most significant keys to successfully managing change. Even an online community of people going through similar experiences can give you an emotional boost, as well as some practical tips.
  6. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Speaking of practical tips, getting things in order before a planned major transition is one of the best ways to guarantee that all will work out when the time comes to make your move. It’s known in the retirement literature that planning ahead, preferably for at least 2 years, will allow you to get through that significant life change without being devastated by the loss of your work role. Similarly, getting your literal “house in order” before a move will ease the physical and psychological strain of relocation.
  7. Use a transition to reflect on where your life has been, and where it’s going. That relocation bump reflects not just the practical aspects of moving, but the emotional ones as well. Enz and her team found that 40 percent of all moves were rated above the midpoint of the scale on both material and psychological change. Each time you move, you must engage or disengage with items you’ve possessed, many of which have some type of meaning to you. Say you find thrown in a drawer a pencil from a trip you took to a national park with your family: Even if you decide to toss it out, for that moment you’ve jogged a reminiscence of a pleasant time from your past.
  8. Focus on the positive aspects. It’s possible you’re moving out because you need to downsize, or because you can’t afford the rent. Sure, you’d rather stay, but now that you have to move, what can you think of that’s beneficial? Downsizing can allow you to declutter, and moving even because of financial issues can perhaps put you in a new community where you can make new friends. Look out for the hopeful signs in every transition, and you’re bound to feel better.
  9. Use role models to inspire you through this transition. Find examples of people who inspire you to navigate a challenging period in life. The many instances of trauma survivors interviewed on the news who manage to maintain their faith and optimism can give you the reassurance that it’s possible to adapt to even the most stressful events.
  10. Realize that change is inherent to life. Without change, our life courses would be very dull indeed. You may not be seeking change, but when it seeks you, take heart in the fact that no one’s life ever stands completely still. People enter your world and leave it, material possessions come and go, and careers invariably involve turning points. No one ever gets through life without undergoing some type of change, so when it happens, don’t fight it.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

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Enz, K. F., Pillemer, D.B. & Johnson, K.M. (2016) The relocation bump: Memories of middle adulthood are organized around residential moves. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 145, 935-940.

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