Coping With Change – Keys to Handling Life’s Transitions

Few things test an individual’s mental health like sudden, unwanted change. Indeed, most people live their lives in fear of it. And this fear is responsible for numerous problems, from OCD and panic attacks to depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, change is a part of life, and attempts to resist it are futile.

Change and Modern Life

Life has always been full of changes. The child becomes a man, he marries, has children of his own, sees loved ones die, sets off for war, ages, and so on. But, though in many ways modern life is longer and safer than ever before, it is also more stressful and eventful. Imagine a man living in, for example, rural France 150 years ago. At 14, he would have begun work, perhaps as an apprentice blacksmith or gamekeeper. Since divorce was scandalous, he would probably have remained with the same woman all his life. Now compare this life to that of a descendant living in the same village today. The village would now resemble a small town, with new housing estates built to accommodate the increased population. At 18, his descendant leaves to study in a University 300 miles away. He marries twice and is twice divorced. As for jobs, he would almost certainly try several, maybe commuting to Paris or even London. From morning until night he is bombarded with news stories covering upheaval and change across the world, from global warming to mass migration, from revolutions in Asia to civil war in Africa. And he will live through astonishing technological change. If he was born in the 1980s, he will have been a teenager when the Internet appeared. As for the coming decades, futurologists all agree that the pace of technological change is speeding up and that the 21st century will see a millennium’s worth of progress, from Artificial Intelligence to Space Colonization. Never has it been more important to learn how to cope with change.

How to Cope With Change

Those who enjoy exceptional mental health seem able to adjust to changed circumstances quicker than the average person. But anyone can learn.

Give yourself space and time

When a major change occurs, you need time and space to adjust. Therapists often find that those who have been subjected to unwanted change resist by throwing themselves back into work before they are ready. Someone who cannot cope with grief, for example, will quickly reappear at the office, wearing a fake smile and claiming to be “over it.” The same often happens after a divorce, or when the children leave home. Unfortunately, you must face the pain.

Update your mental map

What is often labelled the ‘grieving process’ is in fact an attempt to update the inner map. If your partner has died, or left you after 20 years, you need to re-orient yourself to a life without them. A hypothetical example may help. Imagine a 55-year-old mother of two named Sarah. She has been unhappy for some time now and one day, unable to stand it any longer, asks for a divorce and leaves the family home. First, Sarah has to accept her new status as a divorcee. She also has to accept that others view her differently. For example, some regard her as selfish, irresponsible, and self-destructive. Others admire her. Friends who are themselves too afraid to end years of unhappy marriage look at her with awe and admiration. Her children, on the other hand, are angry and hurt. She may also find that old friends distance themselves. Since she is no longer part of a couple, maybe she is no longer welcome to the same dinner parties. New people come into her life. She begins socializing with women who never wished to marry and is struck by their different ambitions and lifestyles. She isn’t quite the same person anymore, and there is no going back. The sooner she updates her mental maps, the easier she will find it to navigate her way through this new life.

Maintain a support network

Having people who love and care for you is vital. When major changes occur, you need to feel there is a safety net. Sometimes you will need people for advice, or simply a hug. More generally, the knowledge that you have such people in your life is in itself a comfort. And this safety net is necessary even when the changes are relatively small or harmless, such as selling your house or seeing your child leave for college.

2,500 years ago, the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that “change alone is constant,” an observation that remains as true today as it ever was. Learning first to accept this, and then how to cope when it happens, is crucial for good mental health.

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