Change is inevitable, and it inevitably creates stress. But that’s not necessarily bad. Whether change is negative (like losing a job) or positive (like graduating from college or getting married), it requires a readjustment of the way we navigate our daily lives. And that creates opportunities for growth as well as challenges to overcome.
Over the last two years, change and the uncertainty that comes with it have been constants for most of us. The anxiety and recalibration that change catalyzes—even good changes, such as getting vaccinated and being able to return to pre-pandemic activities—can leave us feeling drained, out of control, and depressed. In a study done with teens and young adults, higher levels of change, including positive change, were associated with depressive symptoms.
Since there’s no way to avoid change, how can we embrace it and use it as a springboard for becoming stronger and more resilient?
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress in Reaction to Change
At its most basic, stress is simply a response to a situation that calls for some type of reaction. Stress is a survival mechanism—it gives us extra energy and increases our focus and performance. Both large and small life changes can trigger the stress response, including:
- The death of a loved one
- Illness or injury
- A relationship breakup
- Leaving home for college, or having a child leave home
- Losing your job or starting a new one
- Shifting from on-site to remote work or school (or vice versa).
The stress response can be debilitating, both mentally and physically, unless we’re able to use it in ways that benefit us. So-called “good” stress is known as eustress—a constructive reaction to change, associated with feelings of motivation, energy, and inspiration.
Whether we experience debilitating stress or constructive eustress in response to change depends in part on the type of change, and in part on our internal resources. A study of stress and eustress in 839 people during COVID quarantine found that vitality—the enthusiasm, energy, spirit, and sense of connectedness with which individuals responded to their circumstances—accounted for 55 percent of the variance between experiencing change-related stress as good or bad.
What Happens When Change Overwhelms Our Resources
Experiencing extreme change, or a high number of changes within a short period of time, can tax our emotional resources and our resilience—our capacity to cope constructively and bounce back from the negative effects of stress. This is known as allostatic overload, and it can produce both mental and physical symptoms, including:
- Increased substance use
- Anger and irritation
- Problems sleeping
- Chronic pain
- Trouble concentrating
- Volatile emotions
- Decreased motivation
The intensity of change during the pandemic has taxed our resources like never before, says Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, Clinical Services Instructor for Newport. “We don’t have many resources left to fend off stress the way we usually do, so things that used to be little now feel much bigger,” she says. “The volume has been intensified on everything.”
How the Brain Responds to Change
Like us, the brain develops patterns and habits, and resists being pushed into new ones. When our routines are disrupted by change, the brain’s conflict sensors are activated as it builds new neural networks. Moreover, our brains are wired to give more attention to negative events than positive ones, and to automatically find the downside in every situation or event.
This “negativity bias” is a holdover from early human history, when it was imperative to remain continually alert to potential threats in order to stay alive. Humans who focused on the dangers around them were more likely to survive and reproduce, thus passing on the negativity bias to future generations.
Unfortunately, the negativity bias no longer works in our favor; it can be destructive to relationships, mental health, and well-being. In order to override this tendency, we must consciously work to counteract it. Mindfulness and positive psychology techniques retrain the brain to focus on what’s good in both changes and everyday moments, through noticing and savoring positive experiences and emotions.
10 Healthy Ways to Cope with Change
Whether or not you’re naturally sunny and optimistic, you can strengthen your resilience and increase your coping ability, no matter what comes your way. Here are 10 therapist-approved and science-backed techniques for navigating change.
Get organized. When we feel out of control, it can be helpful to exert what little control we do have. That might mean figuring out the best way to keep track of tasks at a new job, creating an action plan for getting to know the city you just moved to, or setting up a daily schedule for self-care in the wake of loss or a breakup.
Reframe change-related stress as an exciting challenge. Research shows that when we think about stress as excitement, we perform better under pressure and feel better about the results. Studies involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance showed that people who told themselves they were excited rather than stressed felt more confident and competent during the experience.
Process grief and loss. In order to move forward after changes that involve the loss of a loved one, a relationship, or a long-term job, it’s essential to acknowledge and process grief. This may include connecting with loved ones who are also grieving, joining a support group for people who have experienced similar losses, and/or accessing help from a mental health professional.
Activate your strengths. Draw on your unique skills and qualities in order to navigate and reframe the stress that comes with change. Look backward to move forward, by recalling what’s worked well in the past when you faced change, and putting those strategies into play. In one study of coping strategies during COVID, acceptance, humor, and the ability to reframe stressful situations were all associated with better mental health.
Revisit your comfort zone. In the midst of change, it can be reassuring and relaxing to return to what’s familiar and grounding. That might be a workout or yoga practice, a favorite TV show or book, or a morning or evening routine. These small moments of stability and continuity can support you through the process of change.
Stay in the moment. When our nervous systems are on high alert and we’re feeling uncertain about the future, we tend to foresee the worst outcomes. This is where mindfulness can be a powerful intervention for shifting out of the stress response. A regular meditation practice; mindful movement, such as yoga; or simply taking a few deep breaths can help the body and brain come back into the present moment.
Use change as an opportunity to reevaluate. Research shows that marriage, birth, and divorce rates all increase in the wake of traumatic events, such as a hurricane or a pandemic. That’s because major life changes, particularly those that threaten our health and well-being, often force us to reconsider what matters most. Change can provide a lens through which to reassess one’s values, relationships, and goals, and correct course if necessary.
Prioritize self-care and self-compassion. During times of upheaval, whether internal or external, self-care—spending time in nature, exercising regularly, healthy eating habits, and getting enough sleep—often goes by the wayside, increasing our stress levels. Prioritizing these activities and routines can significantly support our ability to cope with change while building resilience. And self-compassion is just as important as self-care; it’s proven to help us steer through change more smoothly.
Draw on your support network. Research shows that our relationships and social connections are the most powerful drivers of happiness throughout our lives, including in times of change. So when we’re struggling with the stress of uncertainty and life transitions, it’s essential to draw on these connections for strength and stability. In addition, it’s not unlikely right now that our friends and loved ones are also experiencing some form of change, so we can support each other in finding the way through.
Seek help from a mental health professional. When a life-transforming event significantly disrupts your well-being, a trained and licensed therapist or accredited treatment program can help you move through loss and change into an exciting and fulfilling future. Newport Healthcare’s programs for teens, young adults, and families are designed to build resilience and healthy coping skills, and heal trauma related to chronic and long-term stress. Contact us to find out more.