Change is always on the horizon. Big or small, significant or not, a choice we make or a circumstance we have to accept. I can’t remember a time when our family had a rather “quiet, boring year”. In the last 3 years alone, we have gone through childbirth, a home move, an unexpected career change, mental health struggles, living through a pandemic and another impending move later this year. Surrounding these are socio-cultural, environmental, political and economic events that also influence the decisions we have been taking day to day.
Susan Bridges puts it quite well in the book, “Transitions”:
“Changes today are faster, simultaneous, and more complex. Acceleration is overriding our natural capacity to assimilate changes and therefore throws us into transition. Long-term stability is a dream.”
We all have our own unique patchwork of life changes and our unique ways of responding to them. Our genes, upbringing, outlook, disposition and past life experiences all affect how we respond to these changing life circumstances, and ultimately our health and wellbeing.
Literature has often referred to the “mental health continuum” to indicate that our mental health and wellbeing are not static. It ebbs and flows in response to our life circumstances. A typical healthy response is to bounce back once the change is settled and we’ve adapted. For example, experiencing grief and loss can lower our sense of wellbeing; yet with optimal support and intervention, our wellbeing can improve again after a period of recovery time. Celebrating an important milestone can also create a period of elevated mood, after which our wellbeing adapts again.
What I find particularly important here is that as we go through the “busyness” that changes tend to create (eg. dealing with logistics / administration, creating new routines, etc) it is just as important to be aware of how the change affects us internally, and how we can best manage our responses so that we ease into optimal wellbeing when the “tides settle”.
What to be aware of in times of change:
Our brains are designed to protect us and keep us safe; therefore it’s quite natural that change triggers a stress response especially when faced with uncertainty and unpredictability - even for positive changes. If not managed well, prolonged stress can lead to physical, mental and emotional challenges (sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, anxiety, unhealthy eating patterns, substance use)
When faced with the unknown or uncertain, our automatic response is to expect the worse - this is another response that our brain takes to keep us safe. However, prolonged negative thoughts and emotions about the change affects our ability to make sound decisions and over time, may increase the risk for anxiety and depression.
Our brains prefer to work on autopilot, it costs less energy to do so than learning something new. While times of change are prime opportunities to set up new habits and routines, it is much easier for brains to fall back to old behavioural patterns.
What can help maintain positive wellbeing in times of change:
Give yourself and your brain time to adapt.
Convert uncertainty to curiosity. Learn about the change to fill in the information gaps.
Build resilience to increase your ability to mentally and emotionally cope with change, adapt and persevere.
Pay attention to your thought patterns. If they tend to be limiting or unhelpful, consider reframing them to more constructive thoughts.
Find ways to exercise control. Focus on what you can take responsibility for, what your priorities are, and what you know to be true (vs. what you don’t know and have no influence over).
Go back to past experiences where you’ve successfully worked through change - perhaps they can offer clues or strategies to help you this time around.
Build your self-care and support system as soon as possible.
Hold on to some things that are familiar (might be a helpful routine, a hobby, a social activity, etc.)
Celebrate the small steps.
Create a personal strategy for adapting to the change. There is no single plan that works for everyone - it is as unique as you and your life circumstances.
Change often comes with opportunities for growth, for reassessing meaning and purpose and for developing new patterns. To best leverage these opportunities, our wellbeing needs to be in a state where we can productively function. I hope the tips above are a helpful starting point or reminder for you when that time comes.