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4 Ways to Get Through Any Life Change

Research shows that life changes are stressful. These suggestions can help.

Have you ever thought, “I should be happy and excited! I’m making a good change in my life – so why am I so stressed?”

You’re probably stressed because almost any change, whether it's positive or negative, whether you wanted it or it was a surprise, can create stress. In fact, since 1967, when psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe published findings from studying the medical records of over 5,000 medical patients, therapists have known that both unhappy and happy life transitions can even lead to emotional and physical distress. Highest on the Holmes and Rahe list of stressors are painful life changes, including the death of a spouse or close family member, divorce, marital separation, imprisonment, and personal injury or illness. But positive changes rank close behind. Marriage, marital reconciliation, pregnancy, childbirth, job change, retirement, and moving homes, all often positive experiences, also range high on the list of life stressors. Although some people embrace and even seek out change, most of us resist it, even when it’s about something we really want. Learning to manage transitions may be one of the most important lessons of your life.

123rf image 52333849 Rawpixel
Source: 123rf image 52333849 Rawpixel

According to the psychoanalyst Hans Loewald, it’s because change inevitably creates confusion. When things stay the same, we feel that we know what we can expect on a day to day basis. When something shifts, even our sense of who we are can go through some odd and potentially uncomfortable alterations. This is what therapists mean when they talk about an identity crisis. For instance, even though you want to be in a lasting relationship, you knew who you were when you were single. When you get married, something changes inside you, as well as in your status in the world. You may feel awkward and unsure of yourself, and even if you don’t say it out loud, you may silently be unsure of who you are now.

The same is true when you move from one home to another, from one job to another, from one town to another, or even from being a non-parent to a parent, or from being married to divorced, and so on.

But you can manage the stress and, it turns out, become healthier as a result. In fact, one of the signs of emotional health is the capacity to bounce back from difficult situations – what clinicians call “resilience.”

Here are four ways that you can manage the stress of change and become more resilient in the process:

1. Remind yourself why you’re making the change. For instance, maybe you always wanted to move to the big city – but now that you’re doing it, you’re terrified and stressed. Remind yourself why you wanted to move. What were your goals? What were you hoping to achieve? And what do you need to do to follow through on those goals? According to my PT colleague Susan Krauss Whitbourne, one goal that might be good to add to your list is that changes in routine can actually bump up your brain’s capacity. She writes,

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.

2. Connect to others. Human beings are social creatures. Research has shown that isolation increases stress, and connection decreases it. You don’t have to be best friends with someone to connect with them. Years ago I was having surgery for the first time, and I found myself sharing my anxiety with someone I didn’t know very well. To my surprise, she told me that she had had the same surgery, as had her mother. Suddenly I felt better, just knowing someone who had been through the experience I was dreading! Online resources are useful, but in person is even better. Look for a Meetup group that sounds interesting to you – even if it’s not with people going through the same transition that you’re facing. Talk to old friends, family, colleagues. You’ll discover that you’re not alone, and you might feel soothed, even if you’re still stressed!

3. Find ways to soothe yourself. In an article about change and resilience, Kathleen Smith writes that self-care is one of the most important tools for managing change and developing resilience. Whether you go for a run or watch mindless television, if it helps you feel calmer, it’s helping you to make the difficult jump from one place to another. If you find yourself getting stuck in some of your soothing activities – or doing something that’s patently not healthy, like binge eating, sleeping too much, or using drugs, alcohol, sex, or some other activity inappropriately – try changing the pattern. Do something that isn’t automatic, something that might be less soothing in the moment, but ultimately healthier for you. And if you can’t do it alone, there’s nothing shameful about getting help. In fact, if you get help with this transition, you will be stronger for the next one.

4. Don’t judge yourself. It’s okay – and normal – to be nervous about any change, even a good one! It’s also normal to have a hard time managing the transition. But no matter how awkwardly or uncomfortably you might do it, give yourself credit for having the courage to take it on!

Remember that change is part of life, whether you choose it or it has been thrust onto you. So whether it's a change you've been working for or one that has taken you by surprise, embrace the experience and consider this transition an opportunity to build internal psychological, emotional, and intellectual “muscles” that will help you with the next change.


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