If there’s one surety in life, it is change. How we handle inevitable life transitions—graduation, marriage, moves, a new baby, a change in jobs, divorce, death of a loved one—is a matter of how resilient we are, and there are ways to weather life’s challenges that render us stronger.
Some life changes are under our control. For example, changing jobs or moving to a new city. But many are not, like the COVID-19 pandemic or a natural disaster. These are referred to as "Lifequakes" by Bruce Feiler, author of "Life Is In the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age." Whether under our control or not, having a coping strategy can help ease the stress of transition.
This article will explain the dynamics of life transitions and their effect on our psyche and well-being. We explain a strategy for coping and offer ways to make the process as smooth as possible.
Many of us fear life changes because they often begin with loss—the loss of a job, the loss of a person, the loss of a home, or the loss of a sense of self and where we fit in the world. These circumstances create feelings of fear because life is suddenly uncertain and unfamiliar.
But that does not mean that things will be harmful or that they should be feared. In some cases, loss and change can be exciting. For example, if we lose a job but gain a better one, or we relocate to a preferred location.
When faced with the different types of life transitions, our instinct is to immediately focus on the outcome. But the outcome is not where the focus should be. The focus of transition should be managing the stress that the process creates. That is the element of transition that needs to be controlled to avoid negative results, not so much the transition itself.
If you can be comfortable with the idea that transitions will happen, you can then decide how to manage the change and your stress in the process. And the best way to do that is to have a strategy for the unexpected.
You can’t anticipate the unexpected. But you can have a strategy for when the unexpected happens. If you have a plan, anything is easier to tackle because you can take positive action in the form of a step-by-step approach. Managing a sudden event can seem overwhelming, but taking that first step is doable. Knowing that will reduce your stress levels.
Here’s a strategy to follow when facing a change or major life transition.
Accept that change is occurring.
Decide what the most important thing is that you must achieve right now while considering what is also the best move for the future.
Take one step towards achieving the short-term and long-term goals.
Whether it is realizing that you have to leave your current job or recover from an earthquake, the first step is to accept your situation. Acceptance is the process of experiencing and processing your emotions so that you can act.
If you resist, give up, or break down, you will not be able to manage your life, let alone your stress. Tell yourself that you can take the next step once you figure out what it is. Tools to help you accept and deal with your emotions are writing your thoughts in a journal, meditating, and, of course, eating well, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep.
Whether you like change or not, you might see your situation as a positive juncture or a negative one in your life story. Use “self-talk,” and tell yourself that yes, you may be entering the unknown, but that does not necessarily mean that it should be feared.
If you are in a life-threatening situation, the most important thing is to find water, food, and shelter. You must secure the essentials for life according to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Once the essentials are secured, you can move down the list of priorities from there.
If the most important thing is to remove yourself from an abusive situation at work or at home, plan as best you can to do that and protect your well-being. Try to consider the long-term goal as you do what you need to do. You might need to secure a lawyer if you are leaving a spouse. If you need to leave your job, talk to human resources and explore all your options before you do, so that you don’t jeopardize any employment benefits that you might be due.
Try to prepare for the change if you have time. For example, think about how you will adjust in every way—how will you manage financially? How will you manage your schedule? How will your family members be affected?
Plan baby steps before making a dramatic change. For example, if you are planning a career change, start by taking night classes in that industry. Try to work part-time at an existing job while you transition so that you are financially better off. Do volunteer work to make sure that the new career is truly your vocation.
Congratulations! You’ve taken the first step. Now, repeat the whole process all over again until you reach and have taken step 2.
The whole point of this strategy is that you are managing stress because you know you are following a plan and making the best decisions you can. You are taking on responsibility, which is empowering, and you are making progress. Without a plan, you will feel overwhelmed, panicked, and you may make rash decisions based on emotion rather than logic.
In addition to following a strategy, there are tools that you can use to help you in times of uncertainty. It’s important to treat yourself well and protect your mental health while you are experiencing stress. Using alcohol or drugs during a time of transition is not a good idea because it can make the process more difficult. You will be more tired and likely to make bad decisions if your head is not clear. This is a time to reboot and recharge.
Take the time to think about what is happening and to process each step. That will help you to cope and to make better decisions. Compare this life event to others that you have experienced. Remind yourself that you have been through other traumatic events before, and you will do so again. What did you learn from past events that you can apply now?
A support system or network is crucial when you are experiencing stress from major life changes. Find people that you can spend time with and talk to. Shouldering everything in silence is a heavy burden. Turn to a mental health professional if necessary.
By sharing experiences with others, you realize that we are not the only ones who experience difficult times, everybody does. You may also be surprised by how willing people can be to help you. Talking to others can take the focus off yourself, and knowing that change is a normal part of life makes it easier to accept.
Transition is not a one-shot process. There are stages and milestones. As you experience change, celebrate each success. Have a glass of wine after your first day in a new job or binge on Netflix for a day. This is another way to eliminate self-doubt and to keep you psychologically motivated.
If you can’t take your time to work through a difficult life transition, give yourself time to adapt to it. Change is like wearing a new pair of shoes, it takes time and often pain for them to feel worn in and comfortable. Treat yourself well, even spoil yourself, and don’t push yourself to do things. There will be plenty of opportunities to challenge yourself once again in the future.
For now, pace yourself!