“The only thing that is constant is change.”― Heraclitus (Greek philosopher)
Life changes are inevitable. Whether it’s a job change, the beginning or ending of a relationship, starting a family, or a loss, transitions are part of the human experience – yet can often be difficult to adapt to.
In order to cope with these changes, many of us find ourselves in a “fight, flight or freeze response.” For example, a difficult transition may cause us to get angry, to compartmentalize our feelings or avoid them all together. We may feel like we’re unable to move forward – frozen with worry and fear. Behind the scenes, a number of complex mechanisms are set into motion that we are not aware of. Amygdala, part of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, receives input coming in from the environment, and signals this to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, in turn, communicates with our autonomic nervous system, and before we know it, our breathing and heart rate have increased, our blood pressure has risen and we are ready to fight or run away. This is a completely normal response. In fact, it’s how we are wired, and, at one point, this actually helped us survive (think caveman running away from a tiger).
Whether the transformative event was desired or not, anticipated or unexpected, there is no question that adapting to a new set of circumstances is tough. It requires mental and physical energy to adapt to change and find a new equilibrium.
I’ve been through major changes myself, and have helped friends and patients in my primary care practice cope with similar transitions by incorporating tools such as mindfulness, meditation and self-care. Here is what I’ve learned about how to thrive during life transitions with minimal effort, but maximum common sense.
1. Be “in the now”
In his book “The Power of Now,” Ekhart Tolle emphasizes the importance of being present. When making a big life change, it’s easy to get caught up in the stress of what the future will hold. For instance, taking a new job or going back to school can feel overwhelming – especially when thinking about everything it may entail – from the steep learning curve and new expectations, to making a positive impression on your new colleagues.
Rather than spending energy ruminating about the past or projecting your fears about the future, try to focus on where you are now. If you can accept where you are and take things step by step as they come, the overwhelm will dissolve. In fact, you might even get excited by the challenge!
2. Maintain your sense of humor
When I moved from Serbia to Canada at thirteen, my parents and I had to learn English. No matter how hard we worked to improve our language skills, we made mistakes all the time. A friend was insulted when my father told her she was “worthless” when he actually meant “wordless” (i.e., speechless). My mother told my teacher that I was sick with a sore “trout” instead of throat. When I wanted to try a shirt at a department store and asked for a fitness room, I had no idea why the department store employees looked at me half- puzzled, half-amused. But when I realized the meaning, I immediately had the image of me on a stair master in a tiny fitting room in a department store, and thought it was pretty funny, too. It would have been easy for us to lose self- confidence and hope – but we managed to laugh about it instead.
Research shows that playfully reframing situations (as I just did above) and using positive humor (i.e., not aggressive or self-defeating humor) correlate with subjective happiness. Furthermore, self-enhancing humor (ability to maintain a humorous perspective in the face of stress and adversity) and affiliative humor (ability to enhance one’s relationship with others) have been shown to increase self-esteem and decrease symptoms of depression and loneliness in adolescents.
3. Accept that change is natural Change is necessary
Without change, we wouldn’t learn, grow, or experience the richness of human experience and connection. Consider the changes in nature that are around us: day to night, seasonal changes, stages of life, birth, death. Some are magnificent, some are painful and some are both. They are all part of life.
A beautiful metaphor for embracing change comes from my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Alisa Hoffman, a psychologist in Los Angeles. Dr. Hoffman says: “An arborist told me that trees need to get blown around because that is the way they grow strong roots. Transitions help to strengthen our coping skills and our confidence so that we can face other transitions in life. Change continues to happen, and our ability to develop good coping and strong shock absorbers are key to moving through the transitions gracefully.”
It’s also important to keep in mind that it is normal to find a positive change stressful. “I find that people judge themselves about the difficulty they are having,” says Dr. Hoffman. “They think they have no ‘reason’ to be stressed because this is a ‘happy’ event/transition. So keeping in mind that even good things cause stress and not to judge yourself too harshly is important.”
4. Recognize and summon your strengths
Experience is a valuable teacher. Reflect on how you’ve handled major changes or obstacles in the past. Think about what helped you successfully navigate new things in life. What makes you resilient? What motivates you? Identifying what strengths and values you can draw on will help you thrive in the midst of your next big transition.
5. Rely on simple self-care routines
While the change you’re facing may be out of your control, you have the power to design and simplify your routine to serve your needs. For example, the top three things that I try to preserve during times of change or high stress are sleep (eight hours if possible), exercise and healthy, light food intake. Since I recently moved across the country to New York City, additional routines that I established are walking and getting to know my neighborhood.
Make taking care of yourself a priority. By taking care of yourself, you not only help yourself, but are better equipped to support and nurture your loved ones. Although this can include meditation, yoga, or exercise, for most, this may not be realistic on a daily basis. And that’s ok. If you have little ones like me, know that it is possible to insert self-care and mindfulness, no matter what your schedule is. For instance, while dropping off your kids at school or grocery shopping with them, there are opportunities for connection and play through mindfully engaging in conversation, humor or games (at my kids’ ages, we do a lot of “I spy”). I sometimes give my kids a foot rub at bedtime with calming oils. This is the perfect time for bonding, healing and relaxing (and aromatherapy!) for all, and is part of self and family care. Disclaimer: this is not always the case. Tears and meltdowns can and will happen, but that’s life!
6. Tap into your network
A strong support network is crucial in helping us deal with stress and change. A study of medical students showed that those with inadequate support had a higher risk of depression. If you are dealing with a major stressor, illness or a loss, now is the time to reach out to your support network, and/or a health care professional, who can help guide and support you through the hardship.
Getting familiar with the people at your new job or within your community can help make the transition feel easier. If you’ve changed jobs, get to know your new colleagues. Find out about their interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes. Chances are you will meet people who you share interests with, and you will form meaningful bonds.
7. Build a new community
When I was in elementary school in Belgrade, a war broke out in my country. Many refugees came to my town, and some of them were at my school. My best friend and I volunteered to help a refugee girl in our class with homework. I will never forget how distant she appeared and how difficult it was for her to engage. She had just lost her home and fled with her mother. She didn’t know if or when she was going to see her father again. One day, while we were tutoring her, my cat walked into the room and I remember her face overflowing with joy. I remember her being fully present as she laughed while playing with my cat. Sometimes, it’s these small connections that can lead to beginnings of healing.
After moving to Canada, I remember often thinking about my friend, and how many of us at one stage or another feel displaced and without a community. Suffering, joy, change and nostalgia are all to be expected within our human experience. Tuning in to our emotions and thoughts, and remembering that many of us feel or have felt the same at one time or another are crucial to gaining perspective and comfort in this collective human experience. It often helps me to open up to people who I am close with when I am having a hard time. Sharing of experiences and perspectives, giving and receiving empathy, learning from each other is what helps us cope, see the light and move forward with resilience and strength. Not necessarily with lightness of being or ease, but with an openness, curiosity and presence.
8. Take things one step at a time
Be realistic about what you expect from yourself. Accept that you will not adapt to your new circumstances overnight and that loss or change may slow your usual pace and productivity down. If you have experienced a loss, be present for what you are experiencing. Be kind to yourself, and seek help and support when you need it. Although you can look ahead with clear goals in mind, focus on the realistic steps you can take to nourish yourself and effectively cope.
Change can challenge the core of our being, including our beliefs and our self-esteem. In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, it is important to maintain a strong sense of who we are. It is vital to be as grounded as possible, to not forget our core values and to trust that we will persevere. Do your best to be in the now when tackling change, and know that transitions are temporary – you will find a way to cope with the circumstances or overcome the challenge you are presented with.
If coping is becoming too difficult, or the stress of change persists for more than six months, consider seeking professional help. No one does it alone – it takes a village!