How to deal with change (and why you find it so hard)

Losing your job, getting dumped, getting booted from the rental you absolutely adore – these are all changes that understandably feel rubbish.

But sometimes, even good types of life alterations can make us feel anxious, stressed, and just a bit off.

Landing a new job, moving in with a partner, move to a bigger, better home. All good things, but these can make us stressed out messes, too.

And the same extends to small changes to our daily routines, too. Having to get a different breakfast than planned or swapping shower gel scent seems to have the power to throw our whole days off course.

If you find change tough, you’re certainly not alone – and there’s a scientific basis for our discomfort.

‘In the world of psychology, we often talk about issues such as anxiety and depression,’ Owen O’Kane, a psychotherapist with over 25 years experience in physical and mental health, tells Metro.co.uk. ‘We talk less about change and its impact on mood and anxiety.

‘This is often referred to “adjustment disorder” with anxiety and depression often the secondary symptoms that follow.

‘Change makes us very uncomfortable as we are hardwired to seek comfort, security, and stability within our basic hierarchy of needs, i.e., physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-worth and self-development.

‘When our hierarchy of needs are interrupted, or threatened in any way, we feel destabilised. We become distressed. The global pandemic of the past few years is a classic example of this.

‘But notable life events such as divorce, bereavement, illness, moving house or redundancy are known to create considerable challenges for many people. Essentially coping with uncertainty and unpredictability becomes difficult.’

Change, for many people, triggers anxiety and low mood – even when the change itself is a positive or minor thing.

That’s because we tend to like things the way they are. We like knowing what to expect.

When change is thrust upon us and we have to adjust, that causes genuine mental strain.

‘Periods of adjustment in life tend to create anxiety,’ Owen explains. ‘The human condition generally prefers certainty, order, and predictability.

‘Anxiety is defined by an “intolerance of uncertainty.”. It is not surprising that the not knowing, unpredictability and change of circumstances creates anxiety and low mood.

‘Life isn’t delivering what we know or what we want it to be. The problem then is, we begin to resist life.’

The good news is that there are ways to deal with this overwhelm. While we might never get totally comfortable with change – and we’re unlikely to radically shift who we are to the point that we love major disruptions to our lives – we can learn to cope in a healthier way.

Here’s what Owen recommends.

Show yourself compassion

Remember that it’s natural and common for change to make you feel a bit off-balance. Don’t beat yourself up for that.

‘Recognise that you have just come through a very challenging period and accept that you may feel a little destabilised,’ Owen advises.

‘Often during periods of change we can be harsh and judgemental towards ourselves. This never helps.

‘A dose of self-compassion goes a long way during periods of change. Stop and consider how you support a best friend who is struggling, and then apply this to yourself.

‘Remember when you struggle, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. It simply means you are human.’

Talk it out

‘Talking this change through with someone you trust will help you process the events,’ Owen says.

‘Always seek professional support if you are struggling to cope or symptoms feel overwhelming. Sometimes periods of change and adjustment need professional support, and this is important to recognise.’

Trust that you will manage to adjust

Acceptance of change is a key step to dealing with it. You don’t have to love change, but you do have to accept it.

Owen explains: ‘The key is to learn to tolerate and accept uncertainty and change, trusting that you will cope, manage, and adjust.

‘When the adjustment period has passed, the anxiety will likely ease, and your mood should improve.

‘Initially, as you adjust to your new circumstances, this will feel counterintuitive and uncomfortable. But the more you resist life as it is, the more you will struggle.

‘That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work at healthier changes, but it does mean learning to accept that which can’t be changed.’

Change your mindset

‘Many people have patterns of thought that are unhelpful,’ Owen notes. ‘It’s well documented that periods of change can aggravate bouts of critical or negative thinking.

‘A recent research study suggests that around 60% of our thoughts consist of negative content.

‘Learning to restructure these thoughts into more helpful, flexible thoughts can be liberating.

‘For example, if you have just been through a difficult period of change in your life you may notice thoughts such as:

  • This isn’t fair
  • Nothing good happens to me
  • I’ll never get over this

‘Such thoughts could be replaced with alternatives

  • Sometimes difficult periods happen, but they pass
  • This is difficult but I have some other good things in my life
  • I will recover with time and patience

‘How we feel about life is more than often linked to our response to the event, rather than the event itself.’

How To Be Your Own Therapist by Owen O’Kane is out now in hardback, ebook and audio download.

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