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Coping with change


Change can often be uncomfortable, stressful or in some instances frightening. People need help with change when they’re finding it hard to cope with the change that is occurring, if they are trying to resist the change that is occurring or if they are feeling out of control/overwhelmed with the change.


People are often frightened of change because there is the fear of the unknown; what’s going to change, is it going to affect me/my personal relationships, will there be disruption to my life/routine, etc. A good way to deal with these unknowns is to carefully consider them. Think about all the potential outcomes and then determine what would be the best and worst case scenarios. Then, write them down.


Another method that I suggest to clients, colleagues and friends is to reflect on the last time they were faced with change and managed it effectively. Do you remember learning to drive, your first day at University or starting a new job? Oftentimes these experiences are not as bad as they first appear and may just take some time and effort to familiarise yourself with. I’m also confident that the reality of the change did not match the (often negative) perception.


When going through significant change it can be important to determine how much control you have over the situation; being able to understand the role you play and how much you are expected to adapt to it may help you to put things into perspective. An example that a lot of people experience is the “dreaded” house move. With this, there are many small things you can do to make the process easier. Make a to-do list and check each item off when you complete it. Set milestones in place so that you can reward yourself when you have completed a sub-task of the change. Make a list of the things that are under your control; keep an eye on the ones that are not, but apply focus to the ones that are.


Linked to the above, if the change is beyond your control take a reflective approach. Accept that there are some things beyond your control and learn to be comfortable with this. Without being trite, you can view change as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than as a setback.


Even though it can be challenging, focusing on the positive aspects of change can really help you to manage it ; whilst these positives might not be obvious at the outset, seeking them out can be of great personal benefit as you develop your reflection skills as well as determine the positive elements of the change. Double win! A common example that I see is when people have moved away from the area that they forged relationships in; you might well be away from friends and family but you will also learn a lot about yourself and how to be more independent.


If the change is unexpected and/or unwanted yet elements of it are within your control, you may be able to take a proactive approach to managing it; focusing on the problem at hand, setting goals to proactively tackle the challenge, developing a detailed step-by-step plan of action and asking for advice from trusted friends, family members and colleagues are all useful strategies that you can use to take control of components of change that may be occurring in your life.


If the change ahead of you is really big or there’s too much change happening at the same time, then it’s natural to feel overwhelmed; this is when it can be a good idea to ask for help/support. You can ask friends, family or colleagues for help or emotional support, or you can look to the professional support services that are available to you.


There is a very good chance that at some point in your life a change in your life has been so consuming and overwhelming that you’ve considered whether you will be able to cope. Change may be positive, like a promotion at work, or painful, like losing your job. Perhaps the change is out of your control , like a manager being replaced, or a result of a decision that you have made, like relocation. It is important to consider that your reaction to change may vary from excitement to fear, resentment or a confused combination of emotions.


In all instances, your attitude to change will determine how you experience and manage it. As a result, I’ll look at the different ways of approaching change, the reactions that you might have, and how to cope with and prosper from change.


Research has shown that people manage change in two distinct ways; escaping or controlling.


Escaping is predicated on avoiding the change; taking steps to help you to avoid the anticipated difficulties of the change, e.g. deliberately missing training of a new process at work or showing up late to a meeting about upcoming organisational restructuring. You may ignore the phone call/email from a colleague who got the job you wanted or throw away letters from HR about potential redundancies. You may even seek respite from the changes occurring in alcohol or drug misuse.


Controlling, however, is positive and proactive; you manage your feelings, seek support and do whatever you can to be active in the change rather than a passenger. You are not a "victim" of the change.


When it comes to real life, the majority of us respond to major change with a combination of both. However, control is commonly the better approach to take, as it will be very challenging to avoid change in the long-term without becoming weary or harming your reputation.


Reacting to change typically follows the below four phases:


Disorientation and shock – sudden and/or large changes can oftentimes have a physical impact so in the initial phase, you will likely experience feels of confusion and uncertainty. Your first priority should be to ascertain reliable information to be able to make sense of the situation. Ask for updates on the change, check if others have experienced similar change and be comfortable in talking about your concerns with colleagues, family and friends. However, try to remove yourself from rumours; these are often without foundation and negative and are unlikely to ease distress. Ask yourself if there are any potential benefits that you may have overlooked. It’s unlikely that you’ll have enough information at this stage to reach a firm conclusion, but it is key to try to remain positive.


Anger/other emotional responses – the initial disorientation and shock you experience usually leads to a range of strong emotions including anger or fear. Even if the change is one that you yourself have initiated, you may find yourself oscillating between pessimism and optimism; this is natural and will help you on your way to change resolution. At this stage, it’s important to carefully balance your emotional response; acknowledge the way you feel but be mindful of what, when and how you share these feelings.


Coming to terms with change – your focus will start to shift from the negative to positive, from what you’ve lost to what you may gain. This may take some time. Subconsciously, you may be resentful or uncooperative towards the change, but this is likely to only cause yourself or others distress. Consequently, seek out and emphasise the positive elements of the change.


Acceptance and progression – this is the stage at which you fully accept the change; this doesn’t mean that you forget everything that came before as you are likely to have gained indispensable behaviours, relationships and skills that you can now carry forwards. The key thing is that you are progressing.


It’s important to note that advancing through these stages is not usually simple of sequential; you may get stuck at one stage or you may advance quickly but then take a step back. Oftentimes, there is no clean, clear division between one stage and another.


As explained above, life is full of change. We will all experience transitions in work, relationships, physical health, mental health and our general environment. Sometimes we know change is happening while at other times it happens suddenly and/or unexpectedly. The result may be wonderful or a huge disappointment (or even somewhere in between).


Being able to cope with change is often called resilience; below are some of my thoughts on how you can develop your personal resilience.


Determine your level of control - Oftentimes it’s too easy to obsess on events over which we have no control, or individuals who may never change their actions or behaviours. Rather than focussing on blaming others or attempting to swim against the tide, those who are resilient are able set their sights on what is under their control. To do this, ask yourself, “What can I take responsibility for?” When you work towards possible change, you’re less likely to feel caught in a challenging situation.


Practice self-care - Life’s changes/transitions involve losses; death, relocation, loss of a job, a relationship ending, etc. Even when the change/transition is positive, such as a promotion at work, it can be natural to feel a little sad. You should attempt to acknowledge the loss and reflect on what you’ve learned from the experience. Try to take these learnings with you on the next step of your life journey. If you are struggling with the transition, consider talking to a wellbeing practitioner.


Examine your thoughts - During times of change, it can be easy for your mind to take shortcuts; you may see everything in black or white or you may assume an overly pessimistic perspective. If you are able to take a step back and examine your thought patterns and their rationality, you may find space to nudge your thinking towards resilience. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness may help you with this. Also, if you are able to reflect on challenges and transitions that you have successfully navigated in the past this can be of immense benefit; consider the actions and behaviours that you might be able to recall enabling you to see through the current challenge.


Remain in the present – If you are spending time and energy worrying what the future may bring or the mistakes that you may make, you might forget to remain in the here and now and observe what’s happening in your environment. To come back to the present you can tune into your body; pay attention to how it responds to stress, set aside some time to relax and bring your focus back to the present.


Discover your priorities - Resilient people see change as an opportunity rather than a setback; transitions that occur allow you to discoverer what your priorities are. Ask yourself how you want to spend your time? What’s important to you? Do you feel there are times when you are wasting your time and energy? With greater clarity of your goals and values you will find you will be more resilient to the stressors of change.


You should make a conscious choice to prioritise your mental and physical health; when you experience change you should not be afraid to ask for help. We are naturally social, and thus we are not built to manage all unexpected life events without the support of others. Talk to colleagues, family and friends who may be experiencing similar change. If necessary, you can speak to a mental health professional about developing your persona resilience. You can’t avoid change, but you can embrace it and see challenges as an opportunity to learn, develop and thrive.


If you’d like to find out more about this topic or any others previously discussed, please get in touch via the homepage for a free consultation today.


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