How to Stay Balanced When Change Rocks You
We all encounter change on a regular basis. Our life tasks change as we grow from childhood to adolescence, then adulthood. Our bodies change, sometimes through intentional efforts, but often, not. We move, we say goodbye to relationships, we change jobs and careers. Despite our efforts and mental mindset to keep things relatively predictable and routine - at least in some way - change is gonna come.
Anicca (in Pāli) and Anitya (Sanskrit), refers to the notion of impermanence, the inevitable transient, evanescence and inconsistencies in life, and is a central doctrine of Buddhism and many other spiritual traditions. The experiences of birth and death, rising and falling away and inevitable transmutation of all things is inexplicably and universally experienced as part of this human life. Resistance to the impermeability of matter and states is said to create suffering.
And RESIST we do! For spiritual seekers, recognizing reactions to change becomes their focus and work on the path to awakening. For regular folks, and heard from ample clients of mine over the years, this same struggle is inferred in the words: “I hate change.”
We may not use our reaction as a pathway to awakening, but there is a common recognition that changes in life, even changes we want or seek out, can create some degree of stress and havoc in our lives.
Unpleasant emotions, like fear, panic or confusion and doubt commonly arise alongside change. We feel vulnerable, insecure and unsure when our ‘norm’ has flipped and altered. We may even feel angry or more irritable, like our tolerance fuse has been cut in half.
Physiological sensations in the body can accompany these emotions. We may feel more anxious or panicky, notice more shallow breath, chest or muscle tightness, gastro-issues, shakiness or other unpleasant sensations. Our appetite or ease of sleep might get thrown out of whack.
We can feel overwhelmed. Defined as “overcome completely in mind and feeling”, overwhelm is like reaching the limit of your inner resources such that any additional request for your attention is experienced as painfully taxing (i.e., “too much”).
Certainly, there is a lot of individual variation in reactivity to change. People who lean towards a more trepidatious or anxious temperament will struggle more with change, seeking comfort and reassurance in routines and predictability much more than risk-takers, adventurers and people who feel stagnant with structure and routine.
If you’ve had negative or traumatic experiences in your life that have not been healed or processed, similar feelings of helplessness, fear, powerlessness or grief can arise again when triggered by changes, even though the circumstances may be completely unrelated. For example, if you were moved often as a child, thrust into constant change outside of your wishes or control, you might long to have greater control as an adult, laying deep roots and resisting change with intense fervor.
Maybe you experienced the death of a loved one or suffered another type of painful loss in early years. This unresolved grief in childhood can be triggered when your spouse loses his job in your thirties, for example.
If parenting was inconsistent or unreliable in your childhood (poor attachment with your primary caregiver), it’s possible you will be more reactive when things in your life shift into the unknown. It can be difficult to connect the dots, which makes our own response to ourselves more confused and complicated.
Though change is inherently part of nature, our mental and emotional hardwiring is ironically challenged when change happens. How we navigate our internal experiences and outer world is fluid and we are continuously influenced by neurological processes of what’s referred to as our ‘reptilian brain’ (unconscious and automatic) and our more ‘evolved’ parts of our brains (e.g., area of the prefrontal cortex). In over-simplified terms, we have ‘old hardwiring’ in our default system (e.g., fight-flee mind-body activation) and we have our more ‘evolved’ parts of our brain functioning that allows us to infer cause and effect, anticipate problems and see the forest for the trees, so to speak.
Our advanced neurology is both a gift and a curse. The curse becomes the ways that our minds can get carried away with thoughts of ‘what will happen in the future’, which can hook us with worrying loops that don’t end until we’re pulled back into the present moment and we realize we’ve just experienced an entire barrage of scenarios (worst cases) in our mind that haven’t even happened. In times of uncertainty we are particularly vulnerable to being swept away into this mental vortex.
The gift of our brains is our capacity for conscious thought - to consciously choose our response to what’s happening around and inside of us. Paired with exciting innovations in Psychology whereby we understand our brain’s plasticity (e.g., the work of psychiatrist Norman Doidge), we now understand that what we practice (for example, meditation) has the potential to actually change our brains, hence, change our experience (Rick Hansen's work rocks!).
So while we can’t control and prevent hard or random things from happening to us, and we may feel inner barriers to breaking out into new exciting ventures for ourselves because of fearing the unknown, there are practices and tools that can help us navigate changes - good or bad - with a greater sense of power, resilience and fortitude.
How we deal with our life circumstances becomes a gateway to how we come to know ourselves, trust our Self, and build self-mastery. It’s an intimacy that is unique and rich with potential to discover the depths of our power and resilience.
When I recently moved to a new home, community and country with my husband and three kids, I could explain away the overwhelm, validated by my own and others’ recognitions that ‘of course’ moving is stressful. There’s so much to do! We all understand very well the taxing experience of moving countries, the logistics, the chores of it all. What I was struck with was the feelings of insecurity that arose through this time of change. It was as though the confidence I felt and carried with me in my old city stayed there - like a robe that was left on a hook in my old home. The ground beneath me had fallen away and I was pushed to find it quickly, as my kids needed me to be their safe, secure rock.
Hyper aware of my kids - their fears, worries and apprehension - undoubtedly amplified my own on their behalf. I was surprised and caught by negative and fearful thoughts, feelings of vulnerability and insecurity, and exhaustion that tag-teamed with adrenaline. It was as though my system went through a tailspin of sorts and my inability to predict my feelings made me feel like everyday was a mystery, every moment possibly bringing me adrenaline and excitement or sadness, fear or excruciating sensitivity. Feelings of overwhelm washed over me in the way that waves repeatedly brush the ocean shore.
My reactions to my feelings and experience were varied - shifting from confusion, self-judgment and anger (which BTW served to make me feel much worse) to laughing at myself, seeing how my naivety that revealed a certain innocence, over-confidence and humility. Reminders from friends, colleagues and cues in my outer world reminded me to come back to self-compassion.
With the practice of Mindfulness carrying me through and offering moments of awareness and clarity, I was awake enough to notice the many waves of feelings and thoughts and to observe with enough distance to not be fully swept away (some of the time).
Though not easy and between moments of large waves taking me for a time, eventually I could label and whisper to myself, ‘This overwhelm…’, ‘This fear…this insecurity’. Doing so helped me hold on with more capacity to see what felt like inner chaos simply as it was: thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Life moving through me.
Then I noticed gratitude seep in. Gratitude for this opportunity to learn about myself, discomfort and all. Making small and gentle decisions for myself in attitude and behavior, I slowly realized - and remembered - this is all a part of it. I am OK. In fact, I felt closer to myself in some way. I was exercising the muscles of self-trust.
In the wise words of Alan Watts,
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
Certainly not exhaustive or unique, here is a list of the things that helped me plunge into it and come out dancing:
What Can Help When Change Rocks You:
Mindfulness. It’s especially difficult being in the present moment when things in your life are uprooted and unknown. Letting go of judgment is hard, but cultivating an attitude of non-judgment with yourself and whatever arises during a transition phase can offer immeasurable spaciousness and peace. This means letting go of expectations about how you should feel or how you think it should go. Your mind wants to fill in gaps of uncertainty and will often be very busy trying to do so. Using an anchor for your attention can be helpful here, such as practicing guiding your attention back to your breath, or sounds, or sights whenever you notice your attention has wandered from the present moment. Whispering to yourself “Just this” can be a helpful guiding anchor to simplify the mind and bring you into presence.
Support and Connection. Receiving support from people in your life can be a real resource in times of stress and uncertainty. Whether friends, co-workers, family, church community or even the kindness expressed from strangers, contact with others even if sparingly has immeasurable impact on fostering a sense of strength, belonging and connection to ride the difficult waves of change.
Remembering your Accomplishments. Reminding yourself of things you’ve overcome, coped with and courageously overcame can be helpful. Think about things that were hard for you in the past and remember briefly how ‘bad’ you felt only to scan through and see how far you’ve come - reassuring yourself from real lived experience that you can carry on and you ‘got this’, because you’ve done something like this before.
Rest. Feeling exhausted is common when experiencing stress and change. Taking time to rest your body is important self-care. Practicing basic yoga or taking a walk can be instrumental in accessing a little more space and resiliency when adjusting to the whirlwind of change. The body is a temple, after all.
Routine. Regardless of what change you are amidst, continuing to engage in even one small routine behavior can be grounding. For example, if you have a certain morning routine at the same time each day, see if you can keep this consistent. Or if walking your dog or reading before bed is your thing, try and keep this one piece going amidst whatever external changes are occurring. One little consistent thing can go a long way to help you feel routed, grounded and aware of some degree of control and consistency that is possible despite other areas that feel incredibly a-flux.
Faith. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, recognizing the reality of impermanence and having faith in the mystery of life can bring about a deeper sense of trust in one’s ability to thrive despite circumstances. Much suffering comes from our resistance to reality - wanting things to be different than how they are. When we can let go of trying to control our world and surrender to something greater - even if its Mother Nature herself - we are better able to enter the flow of life.
Self-Compassion. Being kind to yourself through difficult and uncertain times can feel like swimming upstream - and it’s what can help the most. Regardless of your ‘default’ reaction to things in your life (e.g., fear, helplessness, vulnerability, negativity), being comforting and compassionate to yourself has the capacity to steer you away from greater pain and isolation. Like being your own caretaker - placing your hand on your heart-space, breathing in with awareness of the breath’s soothing quality and whispering to yourself that “You’re OK, I’m here….this is part of life/being human, and we can get through this”. Yes, it might feel awkward or weird at first - resistance to a kind response to our own pain is common, but this is often how we express our care and concern for loved ones in our life. When we get past the initial self-judgment, the beneficial impact of self-compassion is experienced as the same as receiving external compassion. We may feel soothed and comforted. We may feel a bit more resourced and capable. It may take practice over time, but what you may notice right away is that you’re less likely to spiral down a path of further self-criticism or worsening of negative thoughts and feelings. And that’s something.
Patience. Time undoubtedly does not heal all wounds, but when it comes to adapting to changes in life, it has its place. What seems new and unknown initially will inevitably over time become the new normal. Practicing patience with yourself offers a little bit of grace when it may be the only thread holding you.
Change is a shared fate for us humans
Knowing how to deal with it, however, is not common knowledge. We do the best we can with what was modeled to us or how we instinctually react to our experiences in life, but often our instinctual reactions are not always the most helpful. They may even be harmful for our mental health.
This list of tools is not exhaustive, but hopefully there’s something new for you to try the next time you feel thrown into an abyss of unknowing. And let’s be clear, that’s not an “if”, it’s a surefire “when”.
Cause change is most definitely gonna come.