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The challenge of change
Sudden, unexpected and unwanted transitions — such as divorce or the death of a loved one — are clearly hard to bear. Yet even “happy” transitions, like witnessing the marriage of your first-born child, or starting a new job, can be stressful, even difficult, and often overwhelming.
And yet, some people sail more calmly through major transitions than do others. What’s their secret? To learn more, BeWell talked with Donnovan Somera Yisrael, MA, health educator with iThrive at Stanford’s Vaden Health Center.
Sometimes I wish things would stay the same and not change so much. Why is that?
You are definitely not alone when it comes to resistance to change. Remember that inertia is a basic law of physics … things that are in motion tend to want to stay in motion. So the whole universe is with you.
Our brains are wired to seek certainty and permanence — circuitry that likely was crucial for our survival. For example, our ancestors needed to ensure that having an abundance of drinking water was a “permanent state” for their family/tribe to survive. And yet, “the only constant is change,” and “we are permanently in a state of impermanence.” While that sounds ominous, uncertainty is the reason we get excited for Stanford Football games or the new mystery novel we can’t wait to dive into.
How can I cope better with change?
If we can begin to accept the transient nature of things, the only question is how we can get better at preparing for and adapting during and after change. I, myself, have only recently realized the importance of transitions in life. As I am headed home after a long and productive day at work, I have to actively breathe and calm myself down, let go of the work of the day, and get as fully present as possible for my family. Later in the evening, I may need to calm down, let go of my worries, stop thinking about what I didn’t get done, and prepare for sleep.
The art of “being present”
One way to think about transitions is that you are switching from using one part of the brain to another part more suited to the task at hand. Paul Gilbert’s model of emotional regulation systems teaches us that we have a “Blue System” which uses dopamine and other similar neurotransmitters to get us to do stuff. But when it is time to be with family or get some sleep, we want to click into our Mammalian Care Giving System, a.k.a. “Green System” — which is all about calm, caring and connecting. If we are unable to make the transition from one part of the brain to the other, we will find ourselves frustrated — perhaps trying to be with family or get to sleep just as our brains want to check email, peruse our 401k performance, or reconsider that kitchen remodel idea we always wanted to get going on. This challenge in coordinating differing brain activities may explain the difficulty we sometimes have of “being present” in our lives.
Allowing yourself to grieve
During larger life transitions — such as changing jobs, moving far away, or dealing with the death of a loved one, your whole environmental context or life stage is changing. With most change there is some loss, no matter how good the change. Often, we must say goodbye to something that was helpful or good, such as a dream or expectation; or even just what was familiar. So it is OK, even beneficial, to relive/record the good times and allow yourself to grieve. Mourning or grieving helps us to integrate the loss of something important into our lives, and to get to our “new normal.” In our modern world, we seem to have forgotten how to grieve and how to teach our children that grief is a normal response to loss.
While a person’s grief journey can be long and very painful, it is also beautiful: a human’s walking an unwanted journey through the unfathomable. With a healthy dose of compassionate care and perspective-giving wisdom, many people come through this process into what I call “post-traumatic growth.” Even difficult or painful days change you forever; so you take them with you. Regarding the future, look to the excitement of what is to come even as you hold some trepidation over the change and uncertainty. As it turns out, life is paradoxical in nature. Ever notice that weddings and graduations are both happy and sad?
In short, teaching your brain to hold opposite truths at once is the very competency we are seeking. Daniel J. Siegel calls it integration: different parts of your brain, with different needs and knowing, linking and working together. So make sure you set aside some time, at least once in a while, to digest and integrate the past and the future, the loss and the gain, the good and the bad. When the next big change occurs, you will be ready to thrive right through the next stage of your journey.
What if I still feel I’m losing my grip as I try to cope with a large transition? Are there certain behaviors that might suggest I’d benefit from some professional counseling?
This is a great question. Facing a daunting transition will likely ignite feelings of vulnerability, dread or fear — among other difficult emotions. Therefore, what is needed is a healthy dose of courage. We often think of courage as this stable trait that folks are born with, but in actuality it is a mindset or attitude that we can and must cultivate so that we have experience doing it and can call upon it when needed. For example, I love the expression, “Do something every day that scares you.” Assuming that thing represents a reasonable, healthy risk, this attitude is one that says that something “scary” is not bad, but rather needs to be approached. Some would argue that this notion of approaching discomfort is the key to all self-improvement.
One of the best ways to cultivate courage is to receive encouragement from other people. Bottom line: don’t face huge transitions alone. When we mammals are alone or feel alone we are more likely to go into fight or flight, whether we are facing a transition or not. So, practically speaking, this means finding a friend, pastor, rabbi, mentor, therapist, or parent who is able to be with us during our struggle. In other words, during a transition, compassion is crucial. We can all benefit from relating to someone who can begin to calm us down (simply with their presence, perhaps) and remind us of the tremendous capacities that we have demonstrated in the face of challenges in the past.
If you just don’t feel like leaning on a friend or family member during this transition, or feel you need a more professional ear, by all means contact the Stanford Faculty Staff Help Center, which offers free, short-term counseling that can help you assess how you are coping, and — if need be — refer you to some additional resources which could best address your issues.