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Handling major life transitions


Throughout our lives, we experience many milestones, whether they occur unexpectedly or are under our control. The most common life transitions we may go through include:

  • A move
  • A serious accident
  • Developing a severe illness and/or recovering from one
  • Rites of passage: entering puberty, adulthood, menopause, aging
  • Career changes: a promotion, a new job or career, a layoff, retirement
  • Family dynamics: a new baby or another addition, an empty nest, a break-up or a divorce, a marriage, a death, entering a new relationship
  • Education: leaving or returning to school, going to a new school, graduation 

According to Bruce Feiler, author of “Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age,” on average, everyone goes through a disruptive event every 12 to 18 months. One in ten of these are major changes he calls “lifequakes,” that lead to transitions.1 More than half of them (53%), are out of our control, such as the sudden loss of a loved one or a job. We choose nearly half of them (47%), such as moving or changing careers. Others, like a natural disaster, 9/11, or the COVID-19 pandemic, we experience along with other people. 

Understanding the Transition Process

Like when a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, we can experience transitions in different phases. Feiler believes a major life event takes us through three stages:

  1. The long goodbye, when we confront our emotions and say “goodbye” to the people or situations we’re leaving behind.
  2. The messy middle, where we shed certain habits and create new ones.
  3. The new beginning, when we unveil our new selves.

Some people handle change caused by transitions better than others. How well you handle these changes depends on how you react to things that are out of your control compared to those that are under your control. This perspective, together with your personality and temperament, can yield some clues. If you believe events are under your control, you may have more success managing transitions compared to someone who feels that outside forces or events control things.2 Also, if you’re focused more on the outcome or the destination rather than the journey, the change process can seem tougher. And, those who are more open to new experiences may deal with transitions more easily than those who prefer predictability.

Coping With Life Transitions

Reaction to change from life transitions often involves stress, and for many, ways of coping with that stress will help ensure a successful transition. These are among some helpful coping methods:

Acceptance. Feiler believes that a successful transition after a “lifequake,” involves choosing to enter the process. It takes courage to express and accept any emotions that arise. In his research, Feiler found that many people feel fear, sadness, and shame in these instances. Yet transitions provide wonderful opportunities to rewrite your life story. Identify the emotions you’re struggling with to accept them and move on. A useful tool for doing so is to journal about your thoughts and feelings.

Reframing. Regardless of the positive or negative nature of a transition, we can tend to expect the worst, seeing the stress caused as a threat rather than a challenge.3 Acknowledge that you may automatically react to any change negatively. Use “self-talk” to make more positive statements about your situation. Statements like  “uncertainty simply means I don’t know the future. It does not mean the future is bad,” will help you transform your perspective and reduce stress.4

Preparing. If you want to make a change, plan how you will react and adjust to it. Often it’s helpful to set shorter, specific, baby steps towards making the larger change. For instance, if you’re thinking of returning to school after a long absence, take a class to see how you’ll do.

“Re-booting.” Dr. Srini Pillay, a psychiatrist and well-known speaker and author, suggests engaging in 15-minute bursts of “intelligent unfocus,” such as a nap, structured daydreaming, or doodling.4 These breaks may help you think more clearly throughout the transition process. In general, “self-time,” whether we relax, meditate, exercise, or get more sleep, eases stressful situations.

Comparing. Often life transitions involve reflecting on the past to some degree. Use that time to remember prior life transitions and how you coped with them. Remind yourself that others you know have been through similar transitions and consider how they handled their situations. What steps did they take to help or worsen their circumstances?  

Getting support. Friends and family who’ve been there can encourage and strengthen you throughout a transition.

Keeping busy. Stay active, keeping your mind and activities focused on tasks that help with your transition, or that simply keep you constructively occupied. 

Adjustment Disorders

When someone feels more stress than usual from transitions – especially when several happen at once – and that stress affects how they function, they might have an adjustment disorder. Symptoms typically start within three months after an event and can last for six months or more, depending on whether the change is temporary or long-term.

According to the Mayo Clinic, genetics, your life experiences, and your temperament may increase your chance of developing an adjustment disorder. Some common symptoms are:

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Sadness, crying often
  • Worrying, feeling anxious or nervous
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Withdrawing from social activity
  • Avoiding responsibilities
  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior

Some of the high-risk factors for developing an adjustment disorder include poverty, existing mental illness or substance use, and childhood trauma.

If you struggle to get through each day, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Without treatment, symptoms may worsen and can lead to other conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or substance use disorder.

Everyone copes with life transitions differently, especially those that occur outside of our control. It’s normal to face issues managing these transitions. But, there are ways to cope to successfully get through them. And, that success can lead to positive results and, ultimately, a more meaningful life.

If you or a loved one is having difficulty navigating through a life transition, contact us today. Among our many treatment therapies, we offer tele-mental health services to make it easier for you. For more immediate assistance, call our 24-hour Crisis Hotline at (518) 483-3261 or (518) 891-5535.