Coping with Life Transitions and Change
Are you struggling to make a change in life or having difficulty adjusting to an unwanted or unexpected change? If so, this brief guide can provide you with some considerations and tools for navigating change.
Step 1 - Normalize difficulties with change
Is it normal to have such a hard time with change?
Yes. As humans, we like predictability. Why? Because predictability often means we're prepared to withstand potential threats to our survival. Change occurs in varying degrees; change that is sudden, unexpected, or undesired can bring with it challenges that are less common with planned, desired, or anticipated change. Even positive life transitions can be associated with an array of pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
Consider your last notable change that happened in your life. What emotions and thoughts came up? Chances are there were mixed feelings. Try to see if you can turn towards those feelings with a sense of genuine curiosity and ask yourself why they were there. Validate what made sense about them in that context given what you hoped for or worried about.
Why do I feel destabilized and insecure?
Human beings are inclined towards predictability. The ability to reliably predict an outcome most of the time allows us to adequately prepare and perform accordingly. In fact, our prehistoric brains are biologically wired to seek comfort and security, such that when the brain senses a disruption to our sense of security it activates our amygdala, the alarm system in the brain, to signal that something is off. Unfortunately, our brain's alarm system sometimes acts like a misinformed, over-protective family member that has your best interests at heart, but ultimately, just causes unnecessary stress. Worrying is natural when we anticipate a threat, however, if you take a step back to observe, you'll probably notice that it's largely unproductive and unhelpful, particularly if you worry excessively. Our brain worries and convinces itself into thinking it's doing something useful by generating all of the endless "What if?" scenarios. A more effective strategy for dealing with an anticipated threat is to do the following:
- STOP. Stop, take a step back, observe your thoughts, feelings, and body's responses to the threat, and proceed mindfully.
- Assess whether you need to regulate your nervous system to think more clearly before attempting to resolve the situation. If so, try deep, slow stretches, self-massage, paced breathing, drinking water, and remind yourself, "Come back to the present."
- Once grounded in the present, ask yourself "What's the catastrophe? What's the worst case scenario?"
- If the catastrophe were to happen, then think realistically about what would you do? How would you cope with the emotions and new circumstances? What skills or resources would need to use? Try to actively problem solve. Notice how you feel now as you think about the anticipated threat.
- Identify the values that you want to live by in the meantime while you deal with uncertainty. How do you want to show up for yourself and others in the world despite not having all the answers? Tell yourself how you will live by these and what it will require you to do differently. Practice accepting the unknown.
Can change be beneficial if it is unintended or unwanted?
Some change is inarguably difficult and devastating to have to face. Starting a new career, job loss, divorce, infidelity, newfound parenthood, death and loss, retirement, and more can heighten stress. Despite the stress and pain it elicits in the beginning, the change itself can certainly inspire growth and other desired changes in the long run. For example, research has shown that even difficult changes may give you opportunities to grow stronger, more confident, and become a more intentional and better version of yourself.
Ever heard of the saying, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger?" Well, it's a little insensitive, but like most sayings and generalities there's a kernel of truth to it. Experiencing adversity and pain forces us to look inwards. If we are curious about how we can improve things for ourselves and we're willing to do so, then our capacity for feeling can expand with pain. When we look inwards to understand our thoughts, emotions, and values, we're better equipped for moving forward with intention and committed action because we know why we're doing what we're doing.
What are examples of stressful changes that other people struggle with?
- Relationships forming or ending
- Divorce and separation
- Engagement and marriage
- Entering, graduating, or dropping out of school
- Moving residence
- Job loss/career change
- Becoming a parent
- Health issues or diagnosis
- Home ownership
- Other (name yours here): ____________
"Change is the only constant in life." - Heraclitus
Step 2 - Be aware of warning signs for adjustment issues
Quick Screening Tool: Find out if you are struggling with adjustment and change
Start by answering the four questions below as you consider your experience with a relevant change in your life:
- Do your emotions associated with the change prevent you from doing things you care about?
- Does your resistance to the change impact your physical health in ways that concern you (i.e. eating, sleeping, exercise, substance misuse, etc.)?
- Does your behaviour, beliefs, or emotions following the change impact your relationship with yourself and others in ways that concern you?
- Do you have difficulties being present and enjoying activities you value because of this change?
Results: If you answered “Yes,” to any of the questions above, you may have an issue with adjustment. If you're concerned about your difficulties adjusting to change, then you may benefit from speaking with a licensed mental health professional to gain further insight into your struggle with change and learn skills for integration and moving forward.
What is an adjustment issue or adjustment disorder?
An adjustment disorder is a psychological disorder recognized by the DSM-5 when your emotional and behavioural reaction to a stressful change [or event] causes you to become confused or disoriented. It is a maladaptive response to stress that interferes with normal daily functioning. This happens when distress is out of proportion with the event at hand and when symptoms cause severe distress and impairment in functioning. Please refer to the DSM-5 for full diagnostic criteria. While adjustment disorders are commonly diagnosed in children and adolescents, adults can experience them too.
Step 3 - Tips for adjusting to change
Tip 1: Turn to others
Going through change by yourself can come with feelings of isolation, loneliness, and self-doubt. Leaning on others for support is an evidence-based way to help cope with the emotional aspects of change. This could mean taking steps to expand your social circle, reconnecting with friends or family, reading about people going through similar change, or working with a therapist to learn how to navigate the discomfort.
Tip 2: Remind yourself that change is good for human beings
Unexpected or unwanted change can feel destabilizing; and it's also true that discomfort can facilitate growth. In fact, change serves us on a biological level. For example, change in routine serves as stimulation to your stagnant nervous system and allows you to grow new neural pathways.
Tip 3: Reconnect with deepest held values
Change is the only constant in life, and thus, change is unavoidable. It's common for people going through change to mourn what has been lost. When feeling lost through the unknowns of change, try anchoring yourself to your deepest held values; particularly, the values that relate to this change. What is this change in the service of? Ask yourself how you'd like to be moving through this change, knowing the reality that uncertainty is a part of it. How would you like to be treating yourself and others?
For example, losing a job can be devastating and demotivating. While allowing yourself to feel the natural emotions that anyone would feel upon losing a job, it can be helpful to find time to focus on what's important to you in your next job. What values or qualities do you realize you appreciate/dislike in retrospect? Why is it important to you to continue putting yourself out there even when you feel discouraged? Connecting an action that you may or may not be motivated to do with a deeply held value, such as providing for your child, can inspire commitment and purpose to a new direction.
Tip 4: Ground yourself in the present
Unpredictability comes with change. As we know, human beings like predictability; it makes sense that we tend to ruminate on the past or excessively worry about the future in the context of change, as our minds try to grasp onto some sense of control and predictability in the midst of uncertainty. Thinking about the past or future is not inherently "bad" or "wrong". It's quite natural, and in fact, it's an important part of problem solving and overall effectiveness.
However, if you're noticing that you spend most of your time repeatedly thinking about the same situations from the past or future then you've probably had issues with mood and anxiety. You've also likely noticed that you struggle to enjoy the present when the present moment is actually the only moment that we're actively living. The present moment is all we ever have control over. That's why exercising grounding or mindfulness techniques regularly can strengthen your mind's ability to readily notice when you're engaged in unhelpful thinking patterns that contribute to stress and suffering.
Self-awareness is the first step to change because we cannot change what we're not aware of. As soon as we become aware of an urge, emotion, or thought, we're given the opportunity to choose how we respond to it. This choice point is best guided by the values that matter most to you at the time and your life starts happening in your valued direction when you exercise this choice over and over again.
Tip 5: Seek professional help
Let's say that you're clear on your valued direction, but you struggle to implement them; that's where collaborating with a therapist can help. A therapist can help you organize and make sense of the difficult thoughts and feelings that show up. They can also help you develop skills for emotional regulation, problem solving, communication, assertiveness training, self-compassion, and goal attainment with a greater sense of ease and support.
Step 4 - Find a psychotherapist to help you through change and life transitions
If you're seeking support to talk about, process, or manage a life transition, then speaking with a licensed mental health professional is a good place to start.
Once you're connected with one of our therapists, you'll start with an initial session. During the first session, your therapist will listen to your concerns and collaborate with you to clarify your best hopes for therapy. Your psychotherapist will take a brief psychosocial history to get to know what's most important to you and how you want things to change. You'll work collaboratively with your psychotherapist to form a treatment plan that's best suited for your needs over the first 1-3 sessions. Throughout the entire process you have the opportunity to ask questions and provide your feedback as you continue to progress.
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