Life is a series of change: we change physically and mentally as we grow, develop and learn. We change from being in school to going to work. We change from traveling the world to settling down and raising a family. We change from raising a family to being retired. We learn more about the world or get distance from people who thought one way, and we find that our point of view shifts, or our empathy lies in unexpected places.
Change is how we adapt and survive as a species and within our individual lives.
So why can it be so overwhelming? How does it have the power to send us until a complete tailspin? Why is it so hard to get used to? Change comes in different shapes and forms and has two main categories: voluntary vs. involuntary changes. We tend to think voluntary changes are good and pleasant because we sought them out, whereas involuntary changes are seen as bad and scary because they were forced upon us. While this is mostly true, that doesn’t mean that we process voluntary changes any easier than we process involuntary changes.
Examples of voluntary changes are starting college, getting a new job, getting married, having a baby, moving into a new city. When we choose these choices, we volunteer for the change because we believe that the result will be positive overall. That can be a comfort, but it can also be a source of distress when aspects of the change are challenging; if we choose it, we may struggle with the idea of being discontent or complaining.
Examples of involuntary changes include: the death of a family member, getting fired, accidents or injuries, being
broken up with, or being forced to relocate. These changes often surprise us and force us to adapt to survive while still processing the event. The lack of consent to these changes adds another stress level that we must come to terms with.
What makes change so hard to cope with?
1. Fear of the unknown:
When things change, we feel a sense of loss of control. We quickly feel less confident and more doubtful about our abilities to handle the change that is taking place. This is because we like to have the answers, and we like to be able to make predictions. It is much easier to move through the world with an idea of what comes next than it is to be in a state of reaction all the time. “What will it be like?” or “Will I make new friends?” or “Can I even do this?” are all questions that cannot be answered until we are in the process of living with the change. Each new piece of information is something to learn and process. There is a sense of limbo as we wait and see how things will be and how they will turn out.
2. Increased stress, exhaustion, and burnout from the change:
Even when you are going through a positive change, you will still feel stressed out. This is because our minds and bodies enjoy routine: going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, eating regularly, knowing how to get where we’re going, etc. The more we can switch to “autopilot,” the less work our life is to maintain. This doesn’t mean that we should just sit around; we also need stimuli and movement to feel good. But consistent touchpoints in our lives reduce the need to be on alert or actively problem-solving. Change disrupts all that. When we start a new job, we have to think twice about every step we take. When we move to a new city, everywhere we go for the first time. If it’s a life change like having a baby, we are now up several times in the night feeding.
3. Grief and the loss of the old:
No matter how change occurs, i.e., voluntary or involuntary, one door has to close for another to open. Even if we are moving on to something better, that doesn’t mean that what we are leaving was bad. In fact, we may find that we were pretty comfortable and content with the thing we are moving on from. Saying farewell to something or someone we loved is difficult, whether we choose to or not. In events of involuntary change, this grieving process can also be stymied by denial that the old life has to be let go of. That phase of denial, followed by longing for a past or situation that no longer exists, can seem to stretch on forever.
Even though we know that change is an inevitable part of life and that sometimes even difficult changes can benefit us, we may still find ourselves in the position of resisting change; or feeling pain, fear, or anger about change. The energy it takes to process and adapt to change can impact our daily lives. If the change wasn’t our choice, we are often reacting to everything in real-time. If we consciously made the choice, we are still adjusting to changes and dealing with inevitable unforeseen ramifications. If you feel like you don’t know how to cope with change, you are not alone. When change turns your life upside down, it is important to remember that you are doing your best. The good news is that there are steps you can take to make things easier on yourself.
Three ways to cope with change:
1. Focus on what is in your control:
The worst thing we tend to do to ourselves is not having the insight and clarity on what is in our control vs. what is not. We often try to control, manipulate, or go after things that are absolutely not in our control. The goal is to invest your mental attention and energy in parts of the experience that is in your control.
This absolutely requires you to get real about what that is. The process of determining what is in your control might be tricky, especially at first. As you process change and grieve the old way that something was done or experienced, you will be in a period of denial at some point. This can make it difficult to determine various factors about the situation, including what is in your control. As you are able, make a note of what you can control and what you cannot. You can control things such as having enough food for your day, how efficiently you pack boxes, how you speak to the people around you if you are stressed, and your actions. You cannot control the weather, the actions of those around you, or if the moving truck gets stuck in traffic. Having an awareness of what we can control allows us to put our energy into those things instead of wasting it on elements beyond our power.
2. Process your feelings around the change:
How are you feeling? And not just on the surface. If you are stressed out or frustrated, what is behind your anxiety? What is behind your agitation? Investigate where those feelings may be coming from by identifying your triggers: “Is this change reminding me of another time in my life where I felt out of control, like when my parents divorced when I was 10 years old?” If this is the case, it is important to remind yourself that the current change may remind you of the past, but you are not living in the past. This is a fresh set of circumstances, and you are older, wiser, and stronger than you were before. That doesn’t mean you just bury what has surfaced from your memories, but instead that you talk to yourself gently about your current reality and allow yourself to work it out.
Remember dialectical thinking, where two opposite experiences can co-exist, referring to two opposing thoughts or two opposite emotions. You can feel scared and hopeful. You can feel nervous and excited. Be honest with yourself about what you feel, and consider both feelings. Don’t just try to force yourself one way or the other. Give yourself permission to feel and explore everything you are feeling with compassion.
3. Reframe your thoughts:
One of my favorite quotes from Tony Robbins is: “Life is not happening to you; it is happening for you.” We often think any challenges that arise during a transitional period is another sign that “I have no luck” or, “Bad stuff always happens to me.” We use any setback as fuel to keep our victim mentality or pity party going.
If you are going through an involuntary change, this mentality is especially tempting. Instead of settling into those thought patterns, explore why this change is important for you. Identify ways you are going to grow as a result. If you are leaving your job, consider what you liked about the job and what you didn’t. You now have a framework in mind to help you find a job that is better for you. If you are going through a breakup, or you’re injured, or any sort of painful time period, you can reframe your thoughts by exploring your emotions with curiosity. You won’t be able to flip a switch and suddenly see only good things about your situation. But if you make an effort to be curious, you will begin to discover positive elements to the change that spark new ideas or remind you of old goals or hobbies or plans you can revisit.
4. Reach out to your support network:
As independent as we aim to be in our thoughts and sense of confidence, there is no rule that says you have to go it alone when the tides are turning. In fact, a consistent support network is a great tool to access as a touchstone. Your network can include friends, family, and/or a therapist. Even if yours is small, you can still access it for words of affirmation, sympathetic ears for your worries (with consent), or an extra hand to pack a few boxes or help shop for an interview outfit or be a wingman if you’re going to start dating again.
You may find yourself in a situation where you’re not even sure what you need. Reaching out to those you trust and communicating where you’re at and how you’re feeling can yield support and ideas you didn’t even know you needed. When you bring other minds into the mix, your options multiply. This doesn’t mean you’re relying on your support network to solve all your problems. It means that you are leaning on them the way they have leaned on you in the past and will lean on you in the future, and you will lean on them in the future. Nurturing something that is staying consistent (such as a friendship or family bond) during a transition provides stability and comfort that you are worthy of and entitled to.
5. Accept the new “normal”:
Acceptance is the final step of any process of change, as we grieve our old situation and find ourselves firmly rooted in the new one. This step can be very gradual and take a lot of practice. Affirm your new situation by talking to yourself about what it is and what it is not. For example, if you’ve moved to California for school and you grew up in Michigan, your new normal is that winter won’t feel like winter; there will be lights on palm trees instead of evergreens, and you might need a thicker sweater in December and January than you did in November, or you may not. The stark difference between what you see now and what you are used to seeing in the winter may make you homesick for the first time since you arrived. To accept this change, you will want to embrace it by creating your traditions and focusing on how fun and novel it is to do something different.
If your change is more permanent, you may have to be firm with yourself about comparing your current experience to the past or reminiscing about “the way things were.” Accepting that you are no longer with that partner, or that you don’t have the same income at your new job, or that it just isn’t going to be the same Hallowe’en without your aunt who loved to carve pumpkins is tough. There is no denying that. But being honest with yourself about it is how you acknowledge your current reality and honor your peace of mind.
Processing change with an open mind and an open heart can be tricky, but it is possible. Consistent, conscious effort to be present in the moment and creative about solutions is the key to transitioning into new circumstances. Some days and some events will be harder than others; don’t focus too much on setbacks or tough times. Continue to work toward acceptance and peace and be kind to yourself while doing so.
Embracing You Therapy Group Practice
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 20-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.