If there’s one thing that’s inevitable in life, it’s change. Sometimes those changes are small, but every once in awhile they’re major — think marriage, divorce, loss of a loved one, a new job, having children, going back to school, or buying a house. These transitions often uproot our world, sometimes in ways we aren’t prepared for or don’t want to deal with.
For all the pain, uncertainty, or joy these major life changes bring into our lives, there’s no doubt they can take a toll on our mental health as we try to navigate our way through uncharted territory.
Why Major Life Changes Are So…Major
There’s a reason major life shifts can impact our mental health, and it comes down to how the brain functions.
“When you change, it actually activates the conflict sensors in the brain and this causes brain chaos that we call cognitive dissonance,” Dr. Srini Pillay, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells Talkspace. “This activation of the conflict sensor becomes stressful to people.”
And not everyone is affected equally. Pillay suggests that personality determines how change impacts our mental health. For those who seek novelty, change is usually easier to swallow, while those who feel most comfortable with status quo will find life transitions more challenging.
Positive Change Impacts Our Brains in the Same Way
The mental health implications during serious adjustments don’t discriminate. Even change that’s generally positive, such as celebrating your new marriage or having a baby, registers in the brain the same way as a more difficult event. The brain feels more comfortable with old patterns, and anything new presents a dilemma.
“When it comes to positive life changes, the brain is still challenged to do something different,” says Pillay. “Even if that change is positive, it can induce anxiety or uncertainty or a feeling of unfamiliarity and this generally precipitates habit pathways in the brain. Meaning as soon as you feel stress, you want to go back to old habits.”
How to Cope with Major Changes
The brain needs time to adjust, no matter the life event we’re going through. To help the process along and maintain our mental health, we can try a few of the following strategies.
One of the major reasons we struggle with change, and why it can result in cognitive dissonance, is the element of uncertainty. Uncertainty is the enemy of our biological impulses — if we’re unsure whether an animal is a house cat or a blood thirsty tiger, we’re in trouble. Our brain doesn’t like the odds of equations with unknown variables, so it defaults to a negative bias for safety.
“A study…showed that in people who are uncertain, 75 percent of people mispredict when bad things are going to happen,” Dr. Srini Pillay explains. “The uncertainty biases the brain to expect the worst. That doesn’t mean that change is great and you should expect the best, but you should recognize that your brain will go into…an automatic negativity bias.”
To help soothe the uncertainty that’s causing the brain to fire its stress responses, level the playing field with neutral self-talk phrases such as, “Uncertainty simply means I don’t know the future. It does not mean the future is bad.”
Make A Plan
We may not all be planners, but as we work through a major life shift, it’s a good idea to become more organized. To do this, change what Pillay calls “goal intentions” to “implementation intentions.”
“Rather than saying, ‘I’ll take it as it comes. We’ll see how we’ll handle this,’ which often increases the amount of uncertainty upfront, [make] the intentions more specific by adding an actual time to it,” Pillay suggests. “By making the intentions more specific…you can decrease the uncertainty and therefore make it easier to embrace the change.”
If you’re inviting a romantic partner into your living space permanently, for example, plan exactly how the transition will happen. Will they spend three nights a week at your place for a trial period before making the move? How will personal space be defined? Whose couch will go in the living area? Suddenly, what seems like an amorphous life event now becomes a manageable set of actions.
Build In Brain Breaks
Many times change takes considerable focus — planning a wedding, negotiating a new job, or starting a business, for example. It may seem prudent to push ourselves into overdrive during these times, but our brain really needs breaks throughout the day to run most efficiently.
Pillay recommends several strategies in his book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind, which include 15-minute bursts for short naps, structured daydreaming, and doodling. In fact, one study showed that those who doodled while listening to a boring phone call retained 29 percent more information than those who didn’t. These short creative bursts for your brain, which Dr. Pillay calls “intelligent unfocus,” can jumpstart your ability to navigate major change.
“When you’re focused, you are essentially collecting the different pieces of the puzzle with your mind, but unfocused time is the time you give to your mind to get these puzzle pieces together,” Pillay tells us. “If you’re going through a change with just continuous focus throughout the day, you are not giving your brain a chance to put these puzzle pieces together.”
Deal With Grief And Loss
Sadly, many major life changes are events we don’t ask for, such as losing a loved one, or suffering an injury or illness. Both difficult and positive adjustments may feel like a loss, as we let go of one way of being for a new path.
“Grief and loss can often be found at the heart of major life changes, especially ones that [we] have little or no control over,” says author of Life Transitions: Personal Stories of Hope Through Life’s Most Difficult Challenges and Changes and Texas-based psychotherapist Heidi McBain. “This can lead to a lot of mental health issues, but the big ones are typically depression and/or anxiety.”
McBain emphasizes the grieving process as crucial to navigating change. She helps clients by “letting them know that grief takes time but they will feel better, normaliz[ing] that others feel the same way they do, [and] discuss[ing]…how these major life changes have impacted their relationships.”
Self-care is an old standard, but an important one. Don’t forget the importance of self-care, including maintaining a regular schedule, eating healthy, sleeping enough, and exercising.
“Often with major life changes, self-care goes right out the window,” says McBain. “It can help to choose one thing each and everyday that you do just for you and your own well-being such as exercise, meditation, [or] journaling.”
And of course, reach out for help when you need it, whether that’s a trusted loved one who can lend an ear or a shoulder to cry on, or a mental health professional who will support you through any major life transition.
Change is Inevitable, Make the Best of It
Change is not only inevitable, it can lead to beautiful opportunities, even when they come from the deepest wells of pain and loss. When we greet uncertainty and the unknown with self-care, self-love, and support, we have a much better chance of maintaining our mental health during major life changes and finding our way to a future that holds many new adventures.