How to Keep It Together When Everything Keeps Changing

coping with change

As humans we are creatures of habit. Whether it’s personal upheavals like the loss of a loved one, or more routine updates like a new job or moving, change has a profound effect.

And then of course, there are the huge societal disruptions: political turmoil, the climate crisis, and of course, the pandemic. Change is even more challenging to deal with when the pace is so fast: how can we stay grounded when everything is shifting? How can we remain hopeful when everything keeps changing?

Rapid Change Causes Stress and Hopelessness

We feel instinctively that change is an unpleasant experience. But what about the effects on our mental health?

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, says that even slow-paced change can be really difficult. “These days, change has been happening rapidly, which can cause a slew of health concerns like anxiety, depression, flare-ups of physical health problems, and much more.”

She adds: “There’s even an entire diagnosis that was created for people who are having a hard time adjusting to change (adjustment disorder) because of how common it is for people to struggle with too much change all at once.”

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, “an adjustment disorder is an emotional or behavioral reaction to a stressful event or change in a person’s life. The reaction is considered an unhealthy or excessive response to the event or change within three months of it happening.”

AD is more common in children and adolescents. Symptoms include tearfulness, hopelessness, worry, and fear of separation.

Change can have big implications in your career as well. According to a 2015 study in the Journal of Business and Psychology, “change is more likely to lead to stress when the change has consequences for matters that are central to employees’ sense of self.”

Change Can Exacerbate Depression and Anxiety

Change, especially when it’s unexpected, impacts pre-existing anxiety and depression, “by confirming negative beliefs that ‘things are not okay,’” says Ertel.

“A lot of anxiety relates back to the beliefs that something bad is about to happen and ‘waiting for the next shoe to drop.’ A lot of depression relates back to the feelings of hopelessness that things can get better. When too much unexpected change occurs, a person who has anxiety or depression may find that the change confirms their negative thoughts about themselves and the world.”

Hopelessness is another one of the tricky symptoms that’s wrapped up with change. “It is easy to start losing hope when you feel as though your feet are not planted on solid ground,” says Ertel. “Hope includes the idea that things will get better, and if you’re living amidst constant change (and in 2020, a lot of that change has felt very negative), it can be hard to hold on to hope.”

The Climate Crisis Has Far-Reaching Consequences For Mental Health

The most significant change facing us in many generations is, of course, climate change. And there’s increasing evidence showing that “extreme weather events — which are more frequent, intense, and complex under a changing climate — can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety, depression, complicated grief, survivor guilt, and vicarious trauma.” That’s according to a 2018 study in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems.

The report added: “Incremental climate changes, such as rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and episodic drought, can change natural landscapes, disrupt food and water resources…and give rise to financial and relationship stress, [and] increase risks of violence and aggression.”

Encouragingly however, the researchers also found that “paradoxically, these same disastrous circumstances may also inspire altruism, compassion, optimism, and foster a sense of meaning and personal growth.”

First Things First: Ground Yourself

Okay, so change is really hard and potentially even damaging for our mental health. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. It is possible to move towards those feelings of optimism and compassion that the climate change researchers mentioned. There are several tactics we can use to feel grounded, regain a sense of stability, and crucially, feel hopeful again.

“Everything feels like it is swirling right now,” Ertel observes. “2020 has been a whirlwind of chaos. One of my go-to skills for moments (months?) like these is to ground myself so that I can feel planted even when everything else is going off the deep end.”

She suggests using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Use your senses to identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

“It sounds simple and maybe even a bit silly. However, taking just a few moments to bring yourself back to the present moment can make a world of difference when you feel like your mind is flying away from you.”

Control, Radical Acceptance, and Forgiveness

Ertel recommends figuring out the things you do have control over. Many changes are way outside of our power, and trying to control them can just increase helplessness.

She explains that radical acceptance is critical. “Radically accepting our circumstances is not the same as throwing in the towel. Instead, radically accepting our circumstances and feelings is an act that allows us to understand that even though this is scary, we need to do it/live it/feel it anyway.”

The next part is showing compassion towards yourself. “Forgive yourself when you’re having a bad day,” says Ertel. “We all have them — especially right now! It’s okay to just really not be feelin’ it, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Give yourself the permission to feel it through without all of the extra negative self-assessments of what you ’should’ be feeling or doing differently.”

Values and Concrete Goals Are the Path to Hope

One of the most difficult aspects of constant change is how it makes us give up hope. The first step to regaining a sense of hope is examining our own personal values, and then making specific goals related to those values.

“Feeling a sense of accomplishment by starting and completing personal goals is a great start — no matter how big or small the goal might seem to others!” says Ertel. “For example, having a value of quality time with loved ones might equate to a goal of having a family game night within the next couple of weeks. This goal gives you something to look forward to (hope) and also something memorable to hold onto after you’ve completed the goal (accomplishment).”

Our Reaction to Change Can Help Us Regain a Sense of Self

Change causes stress and can exacerbate depression, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. Climate change is a particular worry, and can lead to everything from PTSD to grief.

But it’s not hopeless: we can avoid being swept away by the effects of change. By letting go and accepting things as they are, we counterintuitively start to feel more grounded. Honoring what matters to us in life can help us overcome the effects of constant change. If you’re struggling to deal with the changes we’ve experienced in the recent past or the changes that might face us in the future, trying online therapy can be a convenient way to take action and start feeling better.

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