Major Transitions

Thought for the week:  Major Transitions  (June 15, 2015)

Last week I wrote about how we deal with the smaller, daily changes in life. Sometimes we wonder why we are exhausted at the end of the day for no particular reason. Managing both the physical demands and hidden emotions behind those smaller transitions from one event to another, can zap us of energy and also leave us seeking comfort in healthy and unhealthy ways.

This week we take a look at the impact of larger transitions in our lives. Heading to college, starting a new job, getting married, having a baby, launching our children and retiring are all examples of major changes in our lives. There are the ones we can plan for and those that occur without notice. Many people discount reactions to the events that involved planning and preparation phases, but even in our most prepared state, we cannot fully predict our reactions to events until we are in them. Talking about that new car is very different from the first ride in it. Applying to college is nothing like actually being on the campus of your new school that first day. Expecting a child is very different from holding it in your arms. Imagining a change in career or retirement feels quite different then sitting with a yet “uninvented road” in front of you.

An accident, illness, break up or job loss are examples of unpredictable major life transitions that can shake the foundation we stand on. These events are extraordinarily stressful as they often require an immediate response. Physically we are forced to deal with an abrupt change in schedules and last minute planning. Emotionally we are faced with losing control as routines and plans are interrupted. The fragility of life hits us, perhaps even the question of mortality. We are instantly thrown into a focus on the moment. As these unplanned events unfold, we are perhaps faced with concerns of what a new future will look like.

Whether predicted or not, there are key factors to keep in mind when dealing with major life transitions:

1) Expect to feel negative emotions about changes, even if you have planned for them and are excited about them. Realize there can be reactions (sadness?) to letting go of what was. There may be ambiguity (fear?) about what is to come. As you have planned for this change, expect things to go wrong. Use this as an opportunity to boost your self esteem, strategizing ahead of time how you will deal with the adversity, knowing your history of being able to figuring things out. In addition, dealing with changes successfully may leave us feeling more confident and better prepared for what is to come.

2) Allow yourself time to make the adjustments to the new situation. This may be longer then you imagine. With regards to break ups or divorces, some professionals use the general rule that it takes half the length of a relationship to get over the loss of it. There are no time frames when dealing with the death of a loved one. Friends and other family members may eventually encourage “getting on with life”, but grief is a very individual process. The unfamiliar demands of an unexpected disability of self or family member require enormous amounts of time in securing new equipment and care. By the time many parents have adjusted to having children, the kids are ready to launch. It often takes much more time then expected when starting a new business or switching careers. It can take years to accommodate to major life transitions. Keep in mind it doesn’t mean you are “weak” or that “something is wrong”.

3) Get support and take good care of yourself to the extent possible. It is helpful to lean on others when we our world is turned upside down. Family and friends can help us feel grounded. Sharing similar stories with others in support groups can help us feel sane and relax the pressures to be “back to normal” quickly. Therapy sessions may be helpful, especially when an outside, objective perspective is needed. Maintaining our healthy diet and regular exercise to the extent possible is vital to calming our nerves, producing endorphins and helping us regulate sleep during stressful times.

4) Whether predictable or unpredictable, often our reaction to major life change is more change. The new “decisions” serve as a distraction from the difficult underlying emotions that are being provoked. If you find yourself ramping up on stress and overwhelm rather then adjusting, perhaps it is because you are responding to the situation by trying to change to many other things. Commit to yourself that you will deal with the issue at hand and not make other major changes until after a certain time frame.

5) Don’t believe everything you think. Catch yourself making assumptions about the future, catastrophizing, over-generalizing or projecting. Observe your negative reactions to the changes, identifying them, allowing them, accepting them, but not becoming them. When possible, do your best to think positive. Moving through transitions we may very likely develop new knowledge, coping skills and self awareness. New situations very often provide the opportunity to examine our values and our lifestyle choices. Keep in mind that many new doors may open as a result of the changes in your life. Not knowing what these are doesn’t diminish the opportunities they may present. Allow yourself to be open and flexible, to imagine all the possibilities that might be.