Josh Killam, LPC
Change is inevitable whether we want it to or not. It is one of the truisms of life that we must learn to cope with or become its victim. It shows up as necessary change, voluntary change, and unexpected demand for change. For example, when we were faced with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Change happens, and there is not much we can do to stop things from changing. If we choose to resist change, then we suffer the consequences of stagnation. If we change too frequently, then we suffer from not committing to one area of growth. Routine and structure are mandatory for a well-organized life and psyche, so is accepting change. Part of living life is an attempt to balance between these things, change, and structure.
Like most things, change requires a significant degree of awareness. How can change be helpful if you struggle to handle the transition? If you are not careful, change will knock you off your axis and cause significant distress to your wellbeing. Unfortunately, more often than not, this is what a lot of us experience. One question that I ask myself is, am I ready for a change? Even if the answer is no, it does not mean the change can't or should not happen. It just means that I am aware that I do not feel ready. Our feelings and internal experiences do not need to dictate our outer world; however, they need to interplay and work together. So even if you are not ready for a shift, you must be aware of how you feel about the transition.
One way I cope with my internal chaos is by over planning or over-preparing to feel safe. I will plan my way right into an anxiety response, and I will disguise it (remember we are capable of self-deception) as a thorough, well-thought plan to navigate the upcoming change. This looks like constant thinking, planning, tinkering, and moving around. Not once do I stop to observe how my internal state is managing the fact that a part of my life is changing and my nervous system needs time to react to it. My anxiety protects me from feelings of fear of the unknowns. It keeps me busy and productive. Which in turn helps me appear prepared for the change. All the while, my internal state is dysregulated and full of chaos. To not discount anxiety too much, yes, I am often over-prepared for change, and I am logistically prepared for what is coming. However, internally and emotionally, I am scattered, distraught, and isolated from my internal emotional state.
Change provokes feelings of fear and threat of danger for me. I combat these feelings with control and overthinking. This goes back to the constantly moving or over-analyzing behavior that I mentioned earlier. When I react impulsively, I work myself up into a state of panic while trying to defend against the fear of change. In reality, this has me feeling on edge, irritable, and short-tempered. As a result, other areas of my life, including my relationships, take a hit. My nervous system does not recognize a simple process of change. Instead, my nervous system interprets fear as a threat which leads to impulsive defense reactions. For example, I obsess over my list of "to-do's" to the point of exhaustion without actually making any changes, so all of my energy is on an internal spin cycle without any way of release.
That's the thing with change; the emotions produced from upcoming change need somewhere to go. When used appropriately, that energy goes outward toward something valuable, like packing up boxes and moving them. It helps navigate the difficulties of change. Change is complex and challenging. The emotions manifest from impending change are intended to be a helpful tool in navigating the transition. Change can literally feel like impending doom. We need an internal awareness to navigate this effectively. However, you can only go over a list of "what to pack" so many times before you are panicked and feel like you will explode.
We all have different ways we try to cope with change in our lives. Is it essential to know why you cope the way you do? Yes and no. Yes, we might have unresolved trauma from childhood that affects how you react to change as an adult. Do you need to go to intensive psychotherapy to work through it to navigate change? Maybe but probably not. Could it be helpful? Yes, it most certainly could. What I think we need most is an understanding of why were are the way we are. Two excellent questions you can ask yourself. First, how do I respond to change? Why do I respond to change the way I do? Then you can begin paying attention to how to navigate the change. I was not aware that I struggled with transitions and change for a lot of my adult life. Whenever there was a significant change in my life, I would have an anxiety response and be dysregulated for a few weeks without ever really understanding that this resulted from the changes in my life. My attempt to change this (pun intended) coping skill was by sitting with these questions to better understand myself. By developing a deeper understanding of ourselves, we can find whatever solution we are looking for.
We are capable, myself included, of living moment to moment with anxiety and not even recognize that we are carrying all of that negative energy around with us. We deserve more. We deserve to be able to navigate our world with peace and tranquility. With love and acceptance. How do you navigate change? Mindfulness is a helpful approach to change that can often be enough to help you calm yourself to the point of feeling safe. The idea of mindfulness here is not to solve any problem but rather to help you ground yourself in the moment to see things more clearly. I am not in the business of trying to sell you a "way to make change easier" I don't believe that this is a worthwhile aim. Change is supposed to be challenging. It is part of what strengthens us for the difficulties in life. Instead, my hope is that you learn to understand more deeply how you cope with change so you can move into a more peaceful acceptance of the change, rather than waging war against your emotions.
When I am faced with a significant change like navigating a post COVID-19 world, I practice making time for my big emotions. I give them a space to run and express themselves. This looks different for everyone, but for me, it looks like identifying them, putting words to them, and then giving them a story. Whether that is by journaling or talking them through with someone, I trust. I practice feeling the tightness in my chest, the increased heart rate, and shallow breathing. I practice sitting with the overwhelm that comes with giving my anxiety space. I work to not turn away from it or to get distracted. If you have a relationship you feel safe in and trust, you can try working through this process with them.
When attempting to approach the change mindfully, I practice not acting on the change. I practice sitting and venting emotional energy rather than physical energy. I say to myself things like, "it is ok to be scare of this, this is a huge change for you, and you are capable. My feelings are not dangerous. My feelings are what they are, and that is ok." I will then go through and try to name my feelings. "I am afraid of failing, I am afraid of this not working, I am scared that I am not good enough to make this change. This change will make my life harder, and I am worried that I am not capable." Whatever your feelings are, name them. We need to hear from ourselves and others that our feelings are acceptable. I cannot reiterate this enough. We need to be told by ourselves and others that our emotions are ok. Part of the anxiety is that we do not know this to be true. It is possible that you are not aware that some of your feelings are acceptable, no matter what they are.