Setting off on a travel adventure? Changing jobs? Moving house? Working towards retirement? Welcoming a new baby? Starting a study course?
Wherever you are in your life right now, it’s likely you are experiencing some form of transition, or you may be supporting a loved one as they navigate something different.
Whatever your experience of change, it’s a given that the pace of it has increased in our world in recent years.
How do you feel about this pick-up in pace? Do you find it exciting and stimulating – what might come next? Or are you fatigued by it all, and just long for a patch of calm? Perhaps you feel as Mary does: “What I would really love is a boring year, in which nothing very unexpected happens…” Or perhaps you are OK with transitions, so long as they are predictable and you can manage them in a slow and steady way?
Sometimes, we make a conscious choice to make a change. But it goes without saying that not all changes are within our control or ability to influence. Whichever way your experience lies, we do know that, for most of us most of the time, change requires some adjustment and, even when this is positive, the adjustment can take time, emotional energy and cognitive brainpower.
So what can we do to navigate transitions, as they occur more frequently and more quickly, in the best ways possible? Let’s investigate some key strategies to help us transition with ease.
Pay attention to whatever emotions you are experiencing. We know from psychological research that we cope best when we can identify and name specific emotions – as this helps us to make sense of them and decide what to do about them. We know that acceptance can be useful, too; we may need to accept and name a painful feeling, for example, make a choice not to act on it at this moment, but then do some problem-solving when the intense feeling has passed.
It’s hard to pay attention when we are rushing or stressed (emotions tend to bundle up into a ball of awfulness when we are). So, it helps to give ourselves space and time. Winding down our physical alertness via some exercise or relaxation is useful first-up, then tuning in to our emotional state: “How am I feeling? What are all the different emotions that are swirling about?” You might want to write about the feelings, or tell a trusted friend. Both writing and talking help our sense-making and can reduce the intensity of the emotions we are experiencing.
Another strategy is to “sit with” the feelings so, rather than trying to make sense of them, we give ourselves permission to leave them as they are; this is also often described as acceptance. “OK, so I’m feeling really mad (about this change I can’t control)”, “I’m feeling scared”, “It feels so unfair”, or perhaps you’re feeling mad, scared and a strong sense of injustice all at the same time. The important message is to be compassionate with yourself – these reactions are reasonable and understandable – rather than give yourself a hard time.
Again, our insights from psychology tell us that smart care of our brain helps us to cope better with changes, especially if they are feeling out of our control.
Smart strategy no. 1 is to give our brain the best chance of managing all the thinking tasks we will throw at it. Making good decisions, weighing up pros and cons, prioritising and problem-solving all require good amounts of brain power. So, prioritising the things that boost our brain power is one of the most important actions we can take. How do we do that? Setting our nights up for good sleep, preparing the most nutrient-dense meals we can, keeping as active as we can, and doing any mind-body activities that recharge and relax our brains (think yoga, meditation, tai chi).
Strategy no. 2 is to check in with our cognitions (thinking) to make sure these are helpful for us, rather than adding to the cognitive load of change. How do we do this? Similar to giving ourselves time and space to tune in to our emotions, this time we focus on all the words or images – or both – that are running through our minds. Again, you might want to try writing the jumble down, or telling someone as a way to get the thoughts out of your head. Even if your thoughts are excitement thoughts – “This is brilliant, I can’t wait to xyx!” – it’s still helpful to notice this, and if you start to run low on energy, you can dial them down – “I’m excited, and I’m going to go slow and steady so I don’t run out of enthusiasm before it happens.” Then, if your thoughts are more fear-based – “What if …” and predictions of things going wrong – you can try the acceptance skill again. “It’s OK I’m feeling scared, anyone would be in this situation.” Or you might want to dial the thoughts down a notch: “I’m predicting doom and disaster, but it also might be OK – maybe I can just do my best and see how it turns out.”
Connecting with people
You’re likely to have seen news headlines from numerous research studies the last few years highlighting the importance of our connections with others as one of the most protective supports for managing well through any life stresses and transitions.
Depending on your personality style, you may feel boosted by a big network of friends, family and colleagues, or you may do better with a small number of special people. Anywhere along the support continuum works – the important factor is that you feel supported, listened to and understood. Also, it’s good to know that trusted people in our network may gently question us and nudge us towards better coping, if they can see we are going off track.
We hope you are able to tag into supportive connections with the people around you. Should that be difficult right now, or your network doesn’t feel adequate for your needs as you navigate change, consider contacting a good helpline, or reaching out to a professional. Sometimes, specific community support groups can top us up with additional wisdom and connection, so look out for those, too.
Experiment with some different strategies
Some good evidence from psychological science has shown us that “coping flexibility” (our ability to modify and change coping strategies, depending on the context) is particularly powerful for strengthening our ability to cope well with change.
You might want to get ideas from people you admire – what do they do when facing transitions? Or ask them if you aren’t sure – most people will be pleased to be asked and happy to share ideas.
To get you started, here are some favourite ones from our team:
Plan experiences to look forward to. Include daily pleasurable events as well as things you can really look forward to. Ask friends or family to help plan if it feels too hard.
Find ways of making life better for others. This may seem odd advice, but it works as a perspective-taking strategy, reminding us of how many people are coping with hard things, as well as giving us a glow of altruism. Consider how you might help someone else, or participate in some form of community activity, or donate your time or money to a cause that matters to you.
Hold the big picture or focus down. Either looking ahead to a time in the future, or reminding yourself you will eventually look back on this period of change, might be helpful. Conversely, focusing on a day at a time, or a few hours at a time, is a good strategy if the big picture feels too overwhelming for you.