Powerful Ways to Manage Major Life Changes

Jon Hawkins

Here’s how to stay balanced when you’re experiencing a major shift.

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Change is one of few things that is certain. The Pre-Socratic Philosopher Heraclitus summed this up perfectly with he famously proclaimed:

“You cannot step in the same river twice.”

Everything is in flux and nothing remains the same. From the coffee you’re drinking inevitably going cold; to your friends who grow and adapt over time, everything changes.

It’s easy to forget. When you’re working a 9–5 office job, living out the same day on repeat, it can feel like everything is constant.

But we’re reminded of the impermanence of reality when something challenges our “normal” routine. These situations bring new environments we might not be prepared for and make us feel uneasy. Consider: the death of a loved one, a relationship break up or a drastic career change.

We’ve all experienced change. The type we experience is usually small and insignificant. But sometimes, change can completely uproot our world in a way we weren’t prepared for.

Over the last year, I’ve experienced the latter. After finishing University, I moved back in with my family. I jumped from routine to not knowing what the future held.

How should we deal with this? Buddhist Daisaku Ikeda beautifully presents us with two choices:

“The question is whether we are to accept change passively and be swept away by it or whether we are to take the lead and create positive changes on our own initiative.”

So how do we take the lead and create positive change? When faced with drastic change, here’s what I do to steady the ship.

Why Are We Bothered By Change?

Regardless of whether it is positive or negative, psychotherapist Diane Barth believes change causes stress.

Evidence comes from Thomas Holmes who, after assessing over 5000 medical records, found that drastic life transitions correlate with emotional and physical stress.

The highest stressors were painful things like the death of a loved one or divorce. But positive change caused high levels of stress too: like job change, retirement, and pregnancy.

Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Srini Pillay (Harvard Medical School,) believes change causes dissonance in our minds. In her words:

“When you change, it actually activates the conflict sensors in the brain and this causes brain chaos that we call cognitive dissonance… this activation of the conflict sensor becomes stressful to people.

This claim is supported by psychoanalyst Hans Loewald. For him, change causes confusion. When things stay the same, we know how our days are going to play out. But when your life shifts, you feel uncomfortable and unprepared.

The discomfort this brings can make us question the future and become unsure of ourselves.

But we can’t avoid change forever. Some of life’s greatest adventures come from the unknown. Because of that, you need to face change with confidence.

1. Manage Your Reactions to Uncertainty

Change brings uncertainty. But we’re evolutionarily hardwired to hate it. As cavemen, uncertainty in an unfamiliar environment left us at risk of predators. To avoid this, we naturally default to the negative, worst-case scenario to keep ourselves safe.

To paraphrase Pillay’s research:

“75 percent of people who are uncertain mispredict when bad things are going to happen… The uncertainty biases the brain to expect the worst.”

The first step to alleviating this is recognizing that your brain “will go into an automatic negativity bias.” Things are rarely as bad as we think, and the odds of catastrophe striking are incredibly slim.

Unfortunately, our immediate reaction is to assume the worst. What if we don’t like this new job? What if we never find love again?

To overcome this, researcher Travis Bradbury tells us to ignore these automatic responses. They inhibit our decision-making abilities, encouraging us to overthink. Instead, he argues:

“People who are good at dealing with change and uncertainty are wary of this fear and spot it as soon as it begins to surface.”

We should label our immediate worries as irrational fears, driven by biological instinct. Once done, we can put them to one side and ignore them. Instead of sitting around worrying, we can work to prevent the fear. Moreover, by refocusing our attention, any worry is likely to subside as you work on avoiding it.

To illustrate: imagine you’re sat on a plane, about to go skydiving. Even though you know it’s safe, your natural instinct will be to fear the jump. But you have a parachute; so you can put that irrational worry to one side. Once you’re in the air, you’ll be too busy to experience any more worry.

How I Applied This

After leaving University and experiencing drastic change, I experienced a number of irrational fears. What if I couldn’t find a job? Or couldn’t afford to live?

As soon as coronavirus hit, my life stood still. When you have nothing to focus on small, irrational thoughts and worries suddenly become a big deal.

To overcome this challenge, I consciously acknowledged and labeled my irrational worries. In doing so, I stopped giving them attention and started to focus on the things I could control. I worked on myself, applied for work, and improved my writing portfolio. In doing so, I prevented my worries from ever becoming a reality.

2. Give Yourself Room to Rest

Managing big change can be tiring. It brings new circumstances, which can take considerable focus to navigate. Things like planning a wedding, negotiating a job, or starting a business. Most of us would work tirelessly to make the best of this new situation.

While it’s natural to push ourselves into overdrive, our minds still need a rest. Research undergone by Alan Kohll (Forbes,) shows that insufficient breaks are the leading cause of mental burnout. Which causes a permanent drop in motivation (or in severe cases, depression.)

You can’t expect to properly deal with change if you’re burnout and not well-rested.

In her 2006 memoir, journalist Elizabeth Gilbert recommends we achieve this by embracing our Dolce Far Niente (“pleasant idleness.”) No matter what you have going on, it’s time you should consciously set aside for yourself, to do nothing — without any guilt or stress.

When you have a challenge ahead, it can be difficult to switch off. But this is your space to compartmentalize — to forget about it for a short while — and unplug from your daily stresses for a short while.

What you do during your pleasant idleness is completely up to you. You could take a bath, join a fitness class, or go for a long walk with friends

Research Balances Irrational Emotions

Taking a rest better prepares us for uncertainty. But it’s also a great way to regulate our emotions. When we experience change, it can stop us from catastrophizing.

Clinical Psychologist, Michael J Breus Ph.D., argues that guilt-free relaxation removes unhealthy toxins from our brains. His research indicates sleep can also help us deal with emotional and stressful situations.

By comparison, overworking can hinder our ability to deal with change. A lack of REM sleep prevents amygdalae (small nuclei in the brain) from developing. A lack of it increases our experiences of anxiety, sadness, embarrassment, and fear.

Breus believes sleep and rest help us put things into perspective. It helps us see that our worries aren’t serious and have “less emotional significance” than we naturally put on it.

The takeaway? No matter how big the change, overworking yourself to the point of burnout won’t make your situation better. To gain clarity and make the best of this new environment; you must give yourself room to rest.

3. Connect with Others

We are naturally social creatures. Relationships, love, and social interaction are at the center of almost everything we do. We should use this to our advantage when going through something drastic.

We fear change because we fear the unknown. When we’re stressed and anxious, talking it through with an objective third party is a great way to see their view of what the future might hold; and judge whether you’re worry is irrational.

Having that additional perspective can give your clarity on what the future might hold. It’s also a great way to talk through your problems and find a solution.

Diane Barth sees it as a constructive way to put your mind at ease. When she was anxious about the upcoming surgery, she found someone who had already had it. After hearing their experiences, she realized things really weren’t as bad as they seemed. Because of that, she recommends:

“Talking to old friends, family, colleagues. You’ll discover that you’re not alone, and you might feel soothed, even if you’re still stressed!”

The Science Behind Sharing Your Problems

Talking through uncertainty is scientifically proven to inhibit anxiety.

When you’re experiencing intense feelings — like fear, aggression, or anxiety — your amygdala takes over. It kickstarts your fight or flight response and helps you manage threats.

But research by Matthew D Lieberman (et al) suggests that “affect labeling” (putting your feelings into words) diminishes the response of the amygdala when you face something upsetting. In this way, talking things through helps you become less stressed.

You don’t have to talk through your worries to share them. If you’re struggling to verbalize things, writing them down can be just as beneficial. James W. Pennebaker (Southern Methodist University) argues writing about traumatic experiences has a positive effect on our health and immune system.

By comparison, holding back these emotions can be emotionally taxing. In the words of Eric Ravenscraft (of the New York Times):

“You have the negative feelings either way, but you have to work to repress them. That can tax the brain and body, making you more susceptible to getting sick or just feeling awful.”

Final Thoughts

Change is one of few things that is certain. But dealing with it can be difficult. For evolutionary reasons, the uncertainty it brings can leave us extremely stressed and anxious.

When you’re faced with the discomfort of drastic change, you should:

  1. Manage your response to uncertainty. We’re evolutionarily hardwired to assume the worst, and this can inhibit our decision-making abilities. Things are rarely as bad as they appear; so you should label your worries as “irrational fears,” put them to one side and work to prevent them ever becoming a reality.
  2. Give yourself room to rest. To prevent burnout, balance your emotions and put things into perspective: do so by embracing your dolce far niente (pleasant idleness.)
  3. Connect with others. Hearing about similar experiences will make the future feel less uncertain. Talking things through brings a variety of emotional and cognitive benefits: it helps us gain a new perspective, and has a positive effect on our health.

In following these steps, you can stop resisting change. Instead, perceive it as a new and exciting adventure of discovery.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” ― Lao Tzu

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.

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