To Your Health: Coping with change
“The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.” – Japanese proverb How do you typically respond when your life circumstances change? Do you resist the change and try to keep things the way they were? Are you like the oak in the Japanese proverb? Or are you more like the bamboo that is flexible and resilient in the face of change?
Life changes almost always cause stress — even if they are positive changes. A new job, a promotion, a new child in the family, a marriage or any opportunity to do things differently can upset the status quo and make our days more challenging for a while. And if the life change is unwelcome or seems mostly negative, the upset can be much greater.
Some of the lessons about change that I’ve learned in my work as a psychiatrist are:
1.) Accept change as a normal part of life.
If you spend large portions of your energy trying to defy change, get angry at it, or “turn back the clock,” you’ll probably feel more misery than happiness. Accepting changes that are inevitable is the first step in effective coping.
2.) Watch for negative thinking.
When unwelcome or troublesome changes are occurring in our lives, it is easy to slip into a negative pattern of thinking that can make it harder to cope. For example, you might have thoughts such as “I’ll never be able to get used to the new way of doing things,” “This is one change too many — I can’t handle it,” or “Nothing ever works out for me.” These types of negative thoughts can stir up lots of upsetting emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness and anxiety. If you can spot your negative thoughts and check them out, you may find that they aren’t entirely accurate. Maybe you are thinking in extremes. Maybe you can find ways to better cope with the change.
3.) Use your strengths to help cope with the change.
If you are confronted with a change that is causing distress, it can help to take an inventory of the strengths you have used in the past to cope with stress. Then you can try to tap these positive attributes to manage the current situation. Do you have good problem solving skills that you’ve used in the past? Do you have a sense of humor that could ease some of the tension? Do you have spiritual beliefs that could help you get through a difficult time? You probably have a number of strengths that will help you respond successfully to the challenge of change.
Instead of keeping all of your concerns about the change to yourself, it usually helps to talk about it with people you trust. Expressing feelings is an important step for most people in reducing the tension and unease that are so common in the face of difficult changes. Discussions with others may also give you some ideas for coping. A family member or friend might have some excellent suggestions for how you can adapt to new circumstances and move forward in your life.
5.) Take care of yourself.
When changes are causing stress, there can be a risk for using coping skills that may give short-term relief but have an overall negative impact. For example, some people might eat more “comfort food” that is very high in calories and will cause weight gain if continued. Others could go on shopping sprees or drink excessive amounts of alcohol. Instead of falling into this type of trap, try to engage in positive activities that build health while helping you cope. Examples could be either starting or increasing the level of activity in an exercise program, emphasizing a creative outlet (such as music, crafts or journaling) or spending more time with family and friends.
6.) Write out a “coping card.”
The final tip is to bring all of your ideas for coping with change together on a “coping card.” Take a few minutes to write down your plans on a card (or on your computer). This card can give you a quick way of organizing the plan and reminding yourself to stick with the plan. Carry the card with you, or check it on your computer often. Having a short list of key strategies should help you stay focused on using your best ideas for coping with change.
Editor’s Note: UofL Today reprints To Your health articles from the “UofL Physicians-Insider” newsletter. Read the entire August Issue (opens as a PDF document).