- Personal Development -

7 Strategies for Navigating Big Life Changes

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Woman walking in a city with a suitcase

These tactics can help you manage the stress that even positive transitions can bring.

Starting a dream job, getting married, kicking an addiction, hitting a goal weight — these are the kinds of experiences we strive for, wait for, dream about. 

So why do they tend to freak us out so much? 

Transformative changes can be thrilling. For a moment, we’re wearing jet packs that speed us into the next phase of our lives. But the sudden acceleration can also be jarring, requiring the emotional equivalent of antinausea meds. Some people get queasier than others, but even for those who embrace change, such seismic shifts can be, well, an adjustment.

“When I decided to leave my job as a school social worker and enter the field of clinical social work, I was beyond thrilled,” says 32-year-old Bryana Cook, who lives in Longville, Minn. “But I also woke up in a panic in the middle of the night wondering if I was making a huge mistake.” 

During the day, Cook felt both grief and excitement — often simultaneously. The degree of uncertainty and instability that accompanied her happiness was unsettling. “Trying to stay positive can be a challenge, even though this change is what I want,” she admits. “I’m proud of myself, but I’m also sometimes scared to death.”

Cook’s ambivalence is not uncommon. Stress is a factor in most transitions, including changes that are welcome and intentional. 

“Humans crave predictability and comfort, even when they’re not so great for us,” says clinical psychologist Stuart Ablon, PhD, author of Changeable: How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School, and at Work.

“With change comes discomfort and anxiety, because we’re dealing with the unknown. It doesn’t matter if that change is getting your dream job or being fired; it’s still major change,” he explains.

“Some people have an easier time than others, but here’s the good news: Being more flexible is a skill that can be practiced. Every time you learn to navigate through change, you’ll be better the next time.”

The following seven strategies can help you weather any kind of change more comfortably. They’ll support you during a welcome transition and prepare you to handle life’s inevitable curve balls.

1. Set Multiple Goals

“What’s shocking to many people is the amount of stress that comes with getting what we want,” says life coach Lauren Zander, author of Maybe It’s You: Cut the Crap. Face Your Fears. Love Your Life. We can get so involved in striving for something that we forget to plan for what will happen when we achieve it.

One reason we lose our footing when we reach a goal, she observes, is that the momentum required to pursue it screeches to a halt.

Most people live in a linear way, proceeding from one goal to the next, Zander says. So we sometimes panic when faced with the inevitable gap between achieving an aim and choosing the next mission. “Where the top used to be is now the bottom,” she explains. “It’s like your dream expired because you achieved it. And that can be both fun and terrifying.” 

To offset the terror, she suggests, layer goals on top of each other; doing so pushes you to think beyond your desired aim and gives you a sense of what comes next. 

Getting married? Plan for what you want to do together during the first two years after the wedding. Finally bought a house after months of searching? Decide which room you’ll paint first, or start plotting out your herb garden. 

“Keep inventing new starting points, and think about where those might lead,” Zander advises. This helps maintain a satisfying sense of momentum, and it offsets the risk of crashing after you achieve something big.

2. Know Your Upper Limit

Anticipating the stress that accompanies all change causes some people to avoid pursuing their goals altogether. 

This type of self-­sabotage may be an “upper-limit problem,” suggests psychologist Gay ­Hendricks, PhD, author of The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level. 

“Most of us have a limit [to what we can tolerate] when it comes to joy and positive energy,” Hendricks notes. “It’s like a thermostat, where you don’t allow the temperature to go past a certain number. We start to get uncomfortable when we feel too good.”

One of his clients, for example, felt miserable when he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The accolade had slammed against the actor’s upper limit, creating a cascade of anxiety and doubt about his worthiness. 

As an antidote to such feelings, Hendricks often recommends a gratitude practice. It’s a useful tool anytime we feel unable to accept what life has offered. 

“Feeling and expressing gratitude for whatever comes up — positive or negative — helps us become more open to our experiences,” he explains. “It helps us open our hearts.” 

And when we react negatively to a positive change, just knowing we may have hit an upper limit can help reframe any resistance or mixed feelings. 

3. Seek Guidance

Maybe you’re celebrating a year of sobriety, and year two suddenly feels harder, not easier. Or maybe you’re about to start your first day of college — at age 50. No matter what mountain you’re summiting, find the flags that are already planted there. 

Just about any story describing another person’s similar journey is useful for navigating change. If you have friends or family members who have been through what you’re dealing with, call them. Or seek out a supportive blog, book, or Facebook group. 

Looking to others’ experiences often triggers insights for your own plan. It’s why sponsors are so vital to many 12-step programs: New members can learn from their experience, strength, and hope.

You might not precisely adopt a more-experienced person’s coping strategies, but you can still discover something helpful and feel less alone.

4. Allow for Difficulty 

Even the most welcome transitions involve some loss and letting go, so if you feel cruddy in the midst of a positive life change, you’re not ungrateful — you’re human. Regret, despair, doubt, or sadness is part of the process, and it’s helpful to acknowledge it. 

“Purge it out,” advises Zander. “Write down every negative thought. Get those double agents out of your head.” 

Embracing darker emotions by recording them in a journal also helps with the transition from one identity to the next, says clinical psychologist Sharon Chirban, PhD. Maybe you were a student and now you’re a graduate. Or you were a business leader and now you’re a retiree, or you are part of a couple that has become a family trio. It’s not just the situation that shifts in these scenarios; who you are also changes. You’re giving up your old identity. That’s not always easy. 

Even hitting your goal weight involves taking time to sync up your mental and physical states, Chirban notes. “When the body has changed significantly, the mind can take years to catch up, much like what happens when losing a limb,” she explains. “You may still have the internal responses that have been reinforced for years.” (For more on this, see “Your Body, Reframed.”)

This out-of-sync feeling can occur with any kind of change. Accepting such difficult feelings will help you move through them more easily. 

5. Get Support

Social support is essential for maintaining physical and psychological health, researchers reported in a 2007 literature review published in Psychiatry. Because emotional support triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin in the brain, it might even boost resilience to stress in general. 

When Cook starts to feel anxious about her career transition, she often picks up the phone. She finds her friend Amanda, who has navigated a number of big changes in recent years, to be a solid guide. 

“She reminds me that meltdowns are normal,” Cook says. “The important thing is to think about the next right move, not to try to anticipate everything that might be ahead.”

6. Watch What You Watch

While you’re going through a big change, you may want to consider your media diet. Maybe you’re a huge fan of searing family dramas or dystopian cringe-fests that leave your emotions in a pile of smoldering ash. That’s cool. But during transitions, when your feelings rise oh-so-close to the surface, maybe try some comedies instead.

According to research by the Mayo Clinic, laughter not only calms the stress response but also improves breathing and releases endorphins. A good laugh can also stimulate circulation, aid muscle relaxation, boost the immune system, and relieve pain. 

Likewise, during times of transition, try cutting back on social media. It’s enough to manage your own feelings about a change without comparing yourself with others. 

7. Practice Self-Care Regularly

Basic self-care practices — getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly, taking deep breaths, and scheduling breaks — can all help you navigate change more smoothly. Such tactics reduce anxiety and may even help you bypass it completely by training the nervous system to be less reactive. 

“Start making small changes when you’re not stressed,” says psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Calm. “Think of it like exercise. If you’re trying to get in shape, you don’t try to do a month’s worth of workouts in one day. You train in very small increments.

“The same goes with training yourself to deal with your stress response,” he adds. “The more you can learn how to calm your mind when you’re not in a period of change, the better you’ll deal with that change when it comes.”

This originally appeared as “Seven Strategies for Navigating Big Life Changes” in the November 2018 print issue of Experience Life.

is a Minnesota-based writer and editor.

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