Healthy ways to cope with life transitions

Photo: Margarita, Another cycle of beauty.

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.” 

Paulo Coelho

What are life transitions?

Life transitions are significant changes in our lives that may redefine and shift the course of our overall experience and beliefs about who we are, how we do things, and the roles to play.

Change is a constant in life; some we expect to happen, some we hope that will happen and don’t, and others are unexpected and unpredictable. 

Expected and predictable life changes are related to the natural development in life that comes with age and cultural expectations, such as moving out from our parents’ home, going through school, starting a relationship, starting a new job, etc. Unpredictable changes can be losing a job, developing a chronic illness, losing a significant other, being forced to move from your place of residence, etc.

Even when sickness and death are intrinsic parts of the life cycle, they can sometimes feel unexpected or premature, such as the death of a child or car accident that leaves us or a loved one with a permanent physical disability.

Some examples of life transitions are:

  • Divorce.
  • Breaking up.
  • Losing a job.
  • Retirement.
  • Change of career path.
  • Change of religious or spiritual path.
  • The gradual or sudden change of financial independence.
  • The gradual or sudden change in physical or mental abilities.
  • The loss of a significant other.
  • The loss of identity defined by your role in society, such as a parent, caregiver, spouse or any job position.
  • Becoming a parent or caregiver.
  • Marriage.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Loss of a pregnancy.
  • Changes in health.
  • Inability to get pregnant.
  • Overcoming addictions.
  • Empty nest.
  • Surviving an abusive relationship.
  • Coming out.
  • Gender transitions.
  • Graduating.
  • Moving to a new residence, city or country.
  • Migrating from your country of origin.

What are the most typical reactions to life transitions:

During the initial phases of a life transition, we may feel numb and experience a sense of unreality before finding a way to adjust, grow and reorient ourselves and move on feeling more resilient and wiser. ‘I can’t believe it’ ‘It feels surreal.’ ‘What did just happen?.’ ‘What have I done? What was I thinking?.’ ‘I don’t know what to feel.’

When a life transition is forced or imposed

We may feel sad, hurt, angry, bitter, irritable and even lost and confused. ‘This doesn’t make sense’ ‘I didn’t deserve this.’ We may blame other people for leading to the undesired changes or ourselves and feel guilt or shame. ‘If I would have done.’ ‘If I was more …’ ‘If I was less …’ ‘it’s their fault that I ended in this situation.’’ They caused all this mess.’ ‘They are responsible for his death.’ ‘If they only were caring enough to manage the company well.’  If we stay in this space for too long, it may increase our sense of confusion, or we may find ourselves feeling paralyzed by anxiety or depression. 

We don’t need to go through this feeling alone. We can talk to someone we trust or someone neutral who will not judge but somewhat relate to us with compassion and empathy. Sometimes, just verbalizing our true feelings to someone else creates a shift in our sense of vitality and motivation to move forward.

During difficult transitions

We may experience insomnia or hypersomnia. Insomnia is sometimes a response to anxiety, rumination, feeling stuck and trapped with not enough options to regain a sense of hope and self-agency. Hypersomnia can be an expression of not wanting to be part of life or to be engaged in life because we feel depressed and even helpless. 

When we experience these overwhelming feelings of lack of agency and hope, some people can relapse into addictions or other old unhealthy behaviours. It’s beneficial to reach out to someone we trust during this time, such as a therapist, friend, family member, or mentor.

A complicated life transition

A complicated life transition is when multiple life changes, losses or shifts happen simultaneously or in a short period. We feel a deep sense of disorientation, grief and loss. We may experience overwhelming emotions, and life feels like an overwhelming task for us. We may experience a spiritual crisis and overall disillusionment. ‘Why did this happen?’ ‘Why me?’ ‘I feel cursed by life.’ ‘The weight is heavier of what I can bear.’ ‘This feels unbearable. I don’t know if I can ever cope with this.’

What makes some of the life transitions more difficult than others?

Life transitions may take us to face current or past stories involving grief and loss. The present circumstances awaken past experiences of loss that maybe we have pushed down or neglected.

To find relief, we may need to deal with the feelings attached to stories of grief. The origin of the word ‘grief’ means ‘to carry a heavy burden.’ Acknowledging the heaviness is the first compassionate step to take, and it opens up us to the possibilities awaiting us in the future. It’s perfectly fine to say: ‘This is really heavy.’ ‘This is hard to deal with.’ ‘It hurts.’ ‘I feel lost.’

Noticing and connecting with those feelings of grief without judgment is when we begin to heal and carve a path of growth, wisdom and to uncover strengths that we didn’t even know to have in us.

What are the healthy steps we can take to move through life transitions?

1. We can open space for noticing, naming and accepting the feelings with an attitude of kindness and compassion. 

All feelings hold energy and intensity; therefore, we may take a few breaths and allow the feelings to surface and be there and flow. Emotions don’t need our control; they will take care of themselves if we just observe the rising and falling, expanding and shrinking. 

Noticing and naming feelings helps to regain a sense of self-agency and may even have a soothing effect. ‘Right now, I am feeling scared. That’s ok. I have been scared before. It’s not new’ ‘At this moment, I feel so hurt and angry. It’s not the first time. I know how to pass this’ ‘I feel my whole body is so tense right now. I will relax my shoulders.’ ‘I feel so restless and confused right now; maybe a walk and fresh air will help.’ ‘I feel so exhausted. I need a distraction. Maybe I’ll watch a movie.’

2. We may remind ourselves that at times it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and engulfed by painful and intense emotions.

From past experiences, we may know that feelings rise like a wave and take us away before we can even be aware of it. We can allow ourselves to step back, observe us feeling overwhelmed, and observe our body reactions with an attitude of knowing that it will pass. 

We may take the position of a curious observer with the intention of learning more about who we are and how our body responds when we feel overwhelmed. ‘I’ve done this before. This feeling will pass too.’ ‘I feel overwhelmed right now, and it will not last forever.’ ‘My heart is going fast, breath in, breath out. Drink some water.’ ‘I need to talk to someone, share the weight. This is hard.’ 

3. We can find ways to ground and anchor ourselves while having challenging feelings and thoughts. 

Once we notice and name the emotions and body sensations, we can regulate their intensity. We can practice Mindfulness: notice and touch different surfaces and textures, bring our attention to hearing the sounds around, and notice and orient our sight towards what we see in the space where we are. One helpful grounding technique is to notice three different sounds, touch three different textures, notice three different items of a particular colour or shape, notice the sensations inside the mouth or smell three different things. 

4. Ask yourself, what are these feelings trying to tell me? What are these feelings telling me about what is important to me?

It’s helpful to remind ourselves that these feelings express our most dear values in life, our goals, and our desires. ‘I feel scared and afraid of failing because doing this right is important to me.’ ‘I feel worried because being financially stable for my family is important.’ ‘I feel disappointed and hurt because loyalty is something I value in relationships.’ ‘Losing them hurts so much because I love them.’ ‘I miss being back home; I feel sad because being close to my family brings the most meaning to my life.’ 

It’s soothing and comforting to remind ourselves that these feelings are attached to our values and what is important and meaningful to us.

5. Pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves and learn to discern what stories serve us and what are the words that don’t help us anymore.

Helpful stories are those that offer comfort, build resilience and expand our wisdom. ‘I am going to figure this out. I have good friends I can rely on if I need support.’ ‘It’s ok to be sad and exhausted. My body needs to rest and recover’ ‘I am grateful for the time I’ve got to enjoy the fruits of that job.’ ‘I did the best I could. I am doing the best I can. I’ve got this’. ‘It’s scary, but I made the right decision to walk away from toxicity.’ ‘I don’t need to be perfect, I just need to show up.’ ‘It’s ok if I fail and to make mistakes. This is new to me.’

Unhelpful stories are those full of self-loathing, criticism, lacking self-kindness and unreasonable expectations. ‘I should have known better.’ I should be over it by now.’ ‘My life is over. There is no hope for me.’ ‘I failed my family. I am a failure’ ‘I am good for nothing. I am a loser.’ 

Those unhelpful stories can hook us and drown us in a negative spiral of rumination. Every time we notice one of those stories popping up in our minds, we can name it and then release it. We have the capacity to let go and find something to do that can activate your mind and body in a more compassionate and meaningful way. Those are the times we need to redirect our attention to doing something else that helps with letting go. ‘I let go of the story of failure.’ ‘I let go of the story of helplessness.’

6. Explore and name the things we value and find meaningful and vital in our life.

Difficult emotions, painful memories or worrying about the future remind us that we are alive. 

Suffering has the power to move us towards thinking about the essential things in life. Maybe we rediscovered how important it is to us having healthier relationships and moving away from toxic environments. Perhaps we became more aware of the passing of time and our mortality and can now find concrete ways to slow down and connect with others and nature more profoundly. Maybe we learn to make time to visit friends and family. Perhaps we find ways to balance being career-driven and enjoying other things we value, such as relationships. Maybe we want to reflect on creating a more purposeful life and reaching out to a mentor, a therapist, or a spiritual guide.

7. We ask ourselves how we can expand our capacity for empathy, compassion and kindness to ourselves and others and find activities that reflect our intentions.

‘How can I grow from this experience?.’ Name the parts in us that feel more robust, more resilient, more assertive and grounded. 

Perhaps we build upon the intention of becoming a more patient listener, more interested in other people’s stories, more understanding of ours and other people’s shortcomings. 

Identify the changes and adjustments we need to make to activate and turn our values into actions. ‘How can I start communicating my needs and ideas more often to those who matter to me?.’ ‘Maybe I need to care less about what others think and take the risk of doing what I want to do.’ Maybe we start to forgive ourselves and accept that we have done, we are doing and will do the best we can do in each moment. And perhaps we begin to perceive other people from the same angle.

8. We can have a ritual or ceremony to mark the end and beginning of a new season in our life. 

We may invite people who matter to us and share stories of hope. We may lit a candle, write in a journal, write a letter or a song or poem representing our current life transition. We may paint or draw something that conveys the past, present and hopes for the future. Perhaps we collect the items we don’t need anymore for the next stage in our lives and safely burn them. Maybe we write on a piece of paper our hopes and good intentions and keep them in a beautiful box that we can revisit from time to time.

9. Life transitions take energy. We may learn to step back, cut back activities, write down our priorities for the day, and select to do things congruent with our energy level.

We may learn to appreciate more what we still have, who are in our lives and what is in our life that we wish to engage more in doing and feeling. Perhaps we start naming the small things we feel grateful to have or do. Maybe we decide to end or distant ourselves from some relationships that are not in tune with what we need or we can handle in this new beginning. Some people begin to write a gratitude journal at the end or start of the day. Some people begin the practice of expressing out-loud something they appreciate about people in their life very time the opportunity arises.

“Human beings demonstrate enormous courage, deep compassion… Knowing they can be hurt, humans still love others. Knowing they can die, humans still care about the future. Facing the draw of meaninglessness, humans still embrace ideals.”

Dr. Steven C. Hayes