Life changes like divorce, death of a loved one or loss of a job, can throw us for a loop. But so can happier events like getting married or starting a new job. Significant life changes of any type can be challenging to navigate as we move forward into the unknown. Even if the change is expected or welcomed, it can be unsettling and disorienting. And the more changes we have to navigate at once, the more challenging it can be.
Your Brain on Change
As young children, learning is part of our job, and change is a regular part of the landscape. But as we grow, the brain establishes neural pathways for things we’ve experienced and learned. These “mental shortcuts” allow our brains to quickly process the familiar. Because any big change is an unknown, it’s seen as an evolutionary threat. Our primitive brain doesn’t know if the change is good or not, and our uncertainty can create a negative bias. Except for the rare person who embraces risk and adventure on a regular basis, changes put us on our guard, causing anxiety and stress.
The Stress of Life Change
A big change comes with its own stressors, depending on the area of your life affected:
- Social – the loneliness of moving to an unfamiliar city, going away to college, a rift with a lifelong friend
- Family – death of a loved one, family conflict
- Financial – buying a house, losing a job, a child in college
- Health – yours or a loved one’s acute or chronic illness, or injury from an accident
Some life changes involve multiple stressors. For example, having a baby can create financial stress and family conflict as you sort out parenting duties with your partner. If you’re a single parent, stressors could include loneliness, lack of support, and health issues as you take care of yourself and a baby. Graduating from college can create financial stress as you pay off student loans and social stress as you move away from your circle of college friends.
“Different stressors… have an effective impact on psychological problems.”Hassanzadeh et al., 2017
The stress of a major life change can often trigger a temporary condition called adjustment disorder. In children, adjustment disorder usually manifests in behavioral symptoms like acting out. In adults, it more often shows up as sadness, crying, worry, trouble sleeping and/or withdrawal. Treatment usually doesn’t require medication, but therapy is helpful.
Typically, symptoms of adjustment disorder begin within three months of the life change and last up to six months. It can last longer with ongoing stressors like unemployment. If it persists beyond six months and goes untreated, it can turn into a more serious disorder like major depression. Adjustment disorder can be confused with other disorders such as PTSD, bipolar, depression or stress disorder. In outpatient mental health settings, adjustment disorder is diagnosed in up to 20% of patients. In hospital psychiatric settings, prevalence is 50% or higher. Adjustment disorder should be taken seriously, as it is associated with increased risk of suicide.
“An adjustment disorder is an emotional or behavioral reaction to a stressful event or change in a person’s life.”Johns Hopkins Medicine
Coping with Life Changes
During a big life change, our familiar patterns are disrupted. Especially when a major change is unexpected, we may not want to deal with it, resorting instead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like poor diet, alcohol consumption or withdrawal from family, friends or responsibilities.
A number of strategies can help us adjust to big life changes in a healthy way:
Practice self-care. A good sleep routine, good diet and regular exercise can help immensely with stress. Limit caffeine, introduce healthy snacks and let exercise anchor your day or week. Join that dance class or soccer league you’ve always wanted to try. Structure is grounding but remember to balance it with breaks and time to relax.
Stay active. You may not feel like socializing, but it’s important to maintain contact with others during trying times. New activities like an interest group, a class or a new hobby can distract you from the difficulty of a life change and keep you in the flow of life.
Deal with change on your own terms. In the middle of a stressful situation, it’s easy to “spin out.” Slowing down to recognize your stress factors allows you to address them. Avoid taking on too much change at once. For example, instead of relocating to a new city right after your wedding, it may be better to delay the big move for a while. Where you can, research an upcoming change (like having a baby) to prepare yourself for what you may experience. Approach anxiety-causing situations a little at a time; control what you can to empower yourself.
Be mindful. Meditation, yoga, deep breathing—these mind-body activities are particularly beneficial during stressful periods. It’s natural to feel emotional, so “allow” your feelings. But don’t dwell on the negative; remember the positives in your life and your past successes with change. As much as possible, stay present to avoid worrying about the future.
Find support. Friends, family and support groups can remind you that you’re not alone in your journey. Colleges offer on-campus resources for counseling and support. If the stress of a life change becomes too much or continues too long, seek professional help.
A major life change is challenging territory, and sometimes we need help navigating it. At Best Day, our counselors can help you evaluate your situation and provide the best therapy to ease your transition through life’s big changes.
How We Can Help You?
Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling is here to help you have a better day and find a better way. We treat a wide range of psychiatric conditions for both children and adults. Contact us today, we’re ready to help: