By Dr. Mehri Moore, M.D.
“The only thing constant is change,” the adage goes. And yet, this ubiquity notwithstanding, dealing with the unpredictability of life is one of the more difficult challenges people encounter. The fact of the matter is, change is hard. The personal and emotional vacancies carved out by shifts in one’s relationships — to one’s work, to one’s loved ones, to oneself — can be remarkably unsettling, as changes both positive and negative often fundamentally redefine an individual’s identity.
Whether a change is planned (taking a new job, moving to a new city, getting married, having children), unplanned (being broken up with, getting fired, losing a loved one), or, in a sense, inevitable (watching children go off to college, retiring, becoming more physically feeble with age), adapting to a new normal can be a highly stressful endeavor.
The best way to navigate a major life transition will vary from person to person, from situation to situation, but what follows are several broadly effective strategies for handling the concomitant stresses of beginning a new chapter in your life.
1. Acknowledge the uncertainty brought about by all changes
Many people assume that the adjustment period for a planned change should be short — or even nonexistent — and relatively free of stress, anxiety, and depression. However, even when you accept a promotion at work or eagerly tie the knot with your partner, you’re still leaving something — your old life — behind, and this can create a psychological state of grief. Losing the security and “knownness” of an established state of affairs and moving into an unknown future — even one you have long been striving for — is frightening, and there’s no need to push away or deny such insecurities for fear of appearing insufficiently committed to your new life adventure.
2. Set realistic timelines and expectations
Relatedly, it’s important to set realistic expectations for how long it will take to adjust to your new normal. Patience is certainly a virtue here, and experiencing “up-and-down” or “back-and-forth” emotional responses to your changing circumstances is more than acceptable. It can easily take a person a year before they feel confident in a new job — especially if it’s at a new company and/or in a new city or state — just as it can take many months for a person to get over a breakup or make new friends after moving.
That being said, humans are creatures of habit and routine, so you should always attempt to begin working through your transition-related challenges as early in the process as possible. If you become paralyzed by anxiety or stress, you may find yourself still overwhelmed by a major life transition six months or a year down the line, and these kind of “ruts” often lead to more serious issues like chronic depression
3. Focus on what you can control
When you’re going through a tumultuous time in your personal or professional life, it helps to ground yourself in the things that you can always control. Rest is vital to ensuring that your body and mind are energized enough to successfully combat transition-related stress. Finding time to “recharge” yourself after a long day or week is similarly critical, even if this only entails something as simple as drinking a cup of herbal tea, lighting a scented candle, and taking a hot bath.
A well-balanced diet and ample exercise can also help regulate neurochemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine, giving your body and brain the “boost” they need to effectively cope with particularly stressful situations.
4. Seek out support
Perhaps most importantly, you need to realize that you needn’t — and typically shouldn’t — handle major life transitions alone. As you step into a new set of circumstances, don’t be hesitant to lean on family and close friends, especially those who have dealt with a similar transition at some point in their lives. To that point, there are professionally-run support groups in most urban areas that are designed to guide people through transitions like divorce, losing a loved one, and other traumas, and making connections with people at these sessions can be tremendously valuable and productive.
Similarly, if you feel the need to talk to a professional in a more intimate setting, consider taking advantage of psychotherapy services like those provided by THIRA Health. At THIRA, we offer intensive outpatient programs and a first-of-its-kind partial hospitalization program, and we have the experience and expertise necessary to help patients of all kinds write new chapters in their lives in as healthy and sustainable a way as possible.