7 Tips For Navigating Big Life Transitions
“The only thing that is constant, is change” to quote the famous Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who believed permanence to be merely apparent and change to be the only reality in nature. Change can be difficult to adapt to, for all sorts of understandable reasons, yet it is a part of human experience and inevitable that most of us will undergo several major personal and professional transitions during our lifetime, be it the beginning or ending of a relationship, starting a family, a job change, or a loss.
It takes mental and physical energy to adapt to change. Ultimately, it is our core beliefs about change that play a big part in how we navigate big life transitions and how easily we find that renewed balance in its wake. More often than not, it heralds discomfort and anxiety in dealing with the unknown. Stress is also a common denominator in most big life transitions whether they are desired or not, but the more well-equipped we are to navigate these transition points, the better positioned and more adaptable we will be in today’s fast-changing world to leverage these moments and emerge as stronger, better versions of ourselves.
William Bridges, a recognised change consultant and author of Managing Transitions, developed a Transition Model that focuses on transition as opposed to change, his theory being that change happens to individuals, which can cause resistant responses; whereas transition is a process that we experience as we go through change. The model highlights three stages of transition that we go through when experiencing change: Stage 1 is Ending, Losing and Letting Go – a phase of resistance and emotional upheaval wherein fear, sadness, anger and a sense of loss is experienced. It is key here to acknowledge and accept these emotions in order to move on to explore new ideas; Stage 2 is the Neutral Zone – the disorienting “What’s next?” phase. While potentially a confusing and uncertain time, it can also be a phase of great creativity and renewal in exploring new ways of thinking; Stage 3 is the New Beginning – that point of acceptance, renewed energy and growth when you begin to embrace a new way forward.
While this model was developed to assist organisations with managing change in the workplace, its key principles are easily translatable in helping with big life changes. With these stages in mind, here are seven top tips for navigating and thriving during life’s major transitions:
1. Recognise How Difficult Change Can Be
Big life change will more often than not bring with it a rollercoaster of emotions. It is important to not underestimate how hard significant transitions can be and to give yourself the time to adjust and to transition through the different stages at your own pace. Make sure you connect with those in your network who can listen to what you are experiencing and support you through the change process.
2. Be In The Now
When going through a big life change, it is easy to get stressed and distracted with both ruminating about the past and contemplating what the future might hold, delving into every nuance of what it might or might not entail – which if left unchecked can be overwhelming. Try to remain in the now; accept the point at which you are right now and take things one step at a time. Ekhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, stresses the importance of living day to day in the present and transcending thoughts about the past or future.
3. Make the Most of Your Neutral Zone
The Neutral Zone in a time of big transition can feel, on the one hand, like an uncomfortable ‘no man’s land’ but it is also an opportunity to take the time to slow down and pause; trying some meditation and mindfulness techniques at this time will help to clarify insights that will surface as emotions calm down. Taking the time to constructively take a moment helps to lower stress, build a stronger and more positive mindset, and opens up your thinking to new possibilities, opportunities and insights to evolve and grow. View stress not as a threat but as a challenge and appreciate the benefits of change.
4. Acknowledge the Emotional Stages of Change
It is important to remind yourself that in spite of change feeling chaotic, running the gamut from anticipation and excitement through to fear and dread, there is a relatively predictable, recognisable and sequential way in which we can understand and navigate through change. The stages commonly experienced are loss, uncertainty, discomfort, insight, understanding and integration. Don’t bury your emotions. Acknowledge any negative emotions and ask yourself what is positive about the change that is happening.
5. Understand Your Upper Limit
Anticipating the stress and emotional discomfort that comes with big change can cause some people to avoid pursuing their goals altogether. Gay Hendricks, PhD, author of The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level suggests that this form of self-sabotage has to do with an “upper limit” problem. We all have an internal thermometer of sorts with an “upper limit” setting of how much success and happiness we will let ourselves experience. When we exceed the limit of our success comfort zone, we can subconsciously do things to sabotage ourselves in order to fall back to that familiar place where we feel in control. As an antidote to that upper limit point of discomfort and when feeling unable to accept what life has offered, Hendricks recommends a gratitude practice. “Feeling and expressing gratitude for whatever comes up – positive or negative – helps us become more open to our experiences,” he says. “It helps us open our hearts.” Even if that proves a challenge, in just recognising that we may have hit our upper limit can help to reframe any resistance and emotional uncertainty.
6. Set Multiple Goals and Start Building a Plan
Having clear values and goals is vital to giving meaning to your life and the changes that are occurring. Lauren Zander, life coach and author of Maybe It’s You: Cut the Crap. Face Your Fears, Love Your Life, observes most people live in a linear way, moving from one goal to the next, which can lead to panic when facing the inevitable gap between achieving an aim and choosing the next project. She suggests layering our goals on top of each other, which pushes us to think beyond our immediate aim and lends us a sense of what comes next. “Where the top used to be is now the bottom. It’s like your dream expired because you achieved it. And that can be both fun and terrifying,” she explains. “Keep inventing new starting points, and think about where those might lead.” It also pays to break things down into smaller goals to make it all less daunting. Start with one incremental action step and go from there, one small step at a time.
7. Practice and Prioritise Self-Care
In spite of big life changes and the associated stress having the potential to make you feel out of control, you have the power to refine and simplify your daily routine to look after your needs. Getting enough sleep – eight hours if possible, exercising regularly, doing mindful breathing, scheduling breaks and healthy food intake are some of the most important things you can do towards making self-care a priority. Not letting go of these basic self-care practices helps to reduce anxiety, to let you navigate change more smoothly and encourages your nervous system to be less reactive. Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Calm also suggests to start making small changes when you are not stressed and “thinking 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.” He adds, “The same goes with training yourself to deal with your stress response. 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.”
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