Coping with Change

As the saying goes, change is the only constant. Given this truth, why is change so stressful?

The brain has a function similar to a motion stabilizer on a video camera. With this feature, the videographer can be jostled and bumped while filming without creating footage that leaves the viewer feeling queasy. Like a Steadicam, the brain orients towards stability, giving you a sense of calm while glossing over the moment-to-moment changes happening all around you. But when a big change hits, you feel jarred and destabilized.

It’s not just the difficult life changes that strain you. Surveys of stressful life events show that even positive experiences like winning the lottery, getting married, and retirement are all near the top of the stress scale, alongside the obvious stressors, such as death of a loved one and divorce.

This week, my family is facing one of our most bittersweet life changes. My eldest child leaves on Tuesday for college across the country. Not surprisingly, my brain’s emotional Steadicam is overwhelmed. I feel sad, proud, nervous, and mostly excited to watch her take on the world. Our close-knit family not being together day-to-day will be a huge adjustment for each of us.

The view is always changing. Given this, how do we best cope with the big changes that disorient us?

1) Acknowledge that change always involves loss. The grieving experience is more obvious for the teary parents at college orientation but less so for the bride on her wedding day. Change always involves letting go of what you’ve grown accustomed to, so you are grieving the life you’ve known, even if you are moving toward something better.

2) Find a steadying narrative in the face of uncertainty. The brain doesn’t tolerate ambiguity, so it creates narrative to gloss over the unknown. If your mind offers anxious stories about what is ahead, actively generate positive scenarios as well. Hold an array of possibilities.

3) Seek the growth opportunity. Even as change upends you, watch for how this new experience creates openings for you to develop new skills and strengths. Actively step towards your best self.

Coping with a big change involves a contract-expand process, like breathing. With change, the collapse happens as you grieve the sense of steadiness you had. Exhale all the way, get your bearings, and expand into your new reality. Your new normal is teaming with possibilities—and change. . .

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