“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius never lived to see his wise words printed on coffee mugs and tea towels, but we think he would have approved of such little reminders. Because change is universal, and the emperor’s advice is sound. We all experience change. The way we think and feel about change—even, at times, embracing change—makes a difference in how well we get through it.
We may tend to think of some changes as good (buying a first home) or bad (the death of a loved one). But most changes are more complicated, and even very good changes, or minor ones, can throw us for a loop. It’s helpful to remember this when things are changing, and to understand that our reactions are both normal and temporary.
A less typical and longer-lasting reaction to change is called adjustment disorder or stress response syndrome. If your reactions resemble the symptoms of depression, you may have stress response syndrome. With the proper mental health care, your symptoms may recede within a matter of months.
Expect the Unexpected
Some attribute this advice to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Others, the Patrick Swayze character in Roadhouse. The point is, no matter how smoothly and regularly you arrange your life, unexpected changes will happen. Are you expecting them?
A 1970s study of employees undergoing changes in the phone industry revealed two different responses to widespread and rapid change. “Adaptive” subjects chose to see all changes, whether wanted or unwanted, as an expected part of the human experience. “Struggling” subjects seemed consumed by memories of the good old days. They were focused on the unfairness of their lot and with getting back to where they had been, rather than moving forward in their new reality.
It takes practice, but you can refocus your attention away from the past and toward the future. Remember the wisdom of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going
A lot of the stress of change comes from fear: Will things go well? Will they get better? How will we survive? Rather than focus on your fears, think about the values that define you and remind yourself that those don’t change even when your situation does. If, for example, you lose your job, you might remind yourself that you’re still a hard worker, a loving parent, and a loyal friend.
Studies have shown that people under stress of change can build resilience by conducting an easy exercise. Spend ten minutes writing about a time when a value you hold has had a positive effect in your life. The reflection works because you rise above the situation and find affirmation in your own best qualities.
You Are What You Do Repeatedly
The flip side of preparing for the unexpected is knowing how to stay steady in a storm. When everything else is topsy-turvy, it helps to maintain all the good habits you can. Eat healthily, get regular exercise, spend time with loved ones. If change intrudes, it’s okay to bend these habits, but try not to break the ones you count on.
You’ll emerge on the other side of the change stronger, wiser, and more prepared for whatever life may throw at you.