science of us

How to Stay Zen During Times of Transition

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Even the most thrill-seeking among us are, deep down, creatures of habit, at least to a certain extent. The brain is wired to be wary of change; we’ve evolved to be on high alert for new creatures and climates, because reliably knowing who to trust, where to live, and what to eat increased our odds of survival.

Even as the circumstances of human life have changed, that tendency has stuck with us. Research has shown that infants struggle with change, like being removed from a swaddled blanket, and adults react more intensely to novel faces than familiar ones, explains Abigail Baird, a psychology professor at Vassar. Although the threats we face now are less acute, being cautious of new figures and new circumstances still helps us navigate the world safely; having a routine allows us to do it more efficiently.

As a result, we tend to maintain our routines for long periods of time, says David Pillemer, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of New Hampshire. “A transition can be exciting but it’s a disruption of routine, and a disruption always involves an adaptation. You have to change, and you have to grow,” Pillemer says. In other words, a transition is work. The process can be uncomfortable and overwhelming — but specific strategies can help you navigate it successfully.

Acknowledge what you’re losing.

Transitions always include an element of loss. If you relocate to a new city for a promotion, you’re also leaving behind friends or family. If you go through a breakup to ultimately find a better partner, you’re also leaving behind a relationship, and a person, you once cared about.

“All change begins with an ending. The first thing people need to understand is in endings, we need to talk about what we’re losing. It’s a very uncomfortable process,” says Susan Bridges, president of the transition consulting company William Bridges Associates and co-author of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Mourning and processing a loss is an important step toward later embracing the change that’s caused it. It’s okay — normal, even preferable — to not feel entirely celebratory about your new big step just yet.

Establish realistic time frames.

You can’t prevent yourself entirely from feeling overwhelmed, but looking ahead can at least help you enter this new phase knowing what to expect, says psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For instance, many people are eager to reach retirement. But if they haven’t considered how to spend their time — like finding hobbies to explore or securing a part-time job — that coveted period can devolve into an unhappy, television-filled daze. “It’s just like packing for a trip. You’re usually happier when you’ve taken a little time packing than when you’ve done everything in a big rush,” Krauss Whitbourne says.

Take some time to set realistic expectations for how you’ll feel as the transition unfolds. In the first three weeks, you might be completely overwhelmed; in the next three months, slightly unsettled. Maybe it will take a full year for those emotions to fade enough for you to appreciate the change you embarked upon. When you feel anxious, these expectations will remind you that you won’t always feel this way. “No matter how good the transition will ultimately be, there will be pluses and minuses. It’s perfectly normal to have stress along with the good,” Pillemer says.

Just make sure to think critically about what’s stressing you out. “Push back against irrational anxieties,” says Robert Taibbi, author and licensed clinical social worker. “Recognize maybe it’s the day or the mood, but I’m going down a rabbit hole that will lead to criticism, and I need to keep perspective.”

Make a list of action items.

Identify concrete tasks you can complete that will help you move forward. If a move is stressing you out, make it a point to go find your local grocery store or coffee shop. If a breakup has you trapped in a rut, sign up for a fun group class or an online dating site. “Think: here’s what I can do today to keep moving and keep going,” Bridges says. Each tiny step will help you feel more comfortable and confident with your new situation.

One thing that should definitely be on your list: reaching out to your support system. Friends and family who have known you for a long time can be a strong anchor through change, providing reassurance, advice, or even just help with physical tasks like packing boxes (you know you have a true friend when they agree to help you with a move). It also couldn’t hurt to ask someone you respect if they’ve ever been in a similar situation, because they may have uncovered important lessons in the process. “We learn more from positive examples. Find somebody that seems to have navigated a transition successfully and take a page from their playbook,” Krauss Whitbourne says.

Take time to reflect.

Transitions also offer a unique opportunity for reflection. Packing up your apartment in preparation for a move, for example, might lead you to rehash old memories from your time there as you sort through the things you’ve accumulated. These reminders, in turn, can help you think about how you’ve grown, and how you hope to grow in the future. Leaning into those thoughts can help you embark on the next chapter.

“Change unplugs you from moving forward in one direction all the time, so it gives you a chance to reflect on your values and what’s been important to you and who has sustained you,” Krauss Whitbourne says. “Reflection can help readjust the course you’re on to go in the right direction.”

Reflecting on previous transitions that went well can also be reassuring — and shouldn’t be too much of a mental stretch, since research suggests periods of change might be especially memorable. Pillemer and his colleagues, for example, have found that our memories tend to cluster around moves we’ve made over the course of our lives, a concept the authors dubbed “The Relocation Bump.”

There are a few explanations as to why memories are more salient around transitions, Pillemer says, but one is that transitions provide the landmarks throughout our life story. It’s difficult to categorize time as a series of hours, days, or years, but distinct stages and environments help organize our autobiography. We can refer to events as occurring “right when I moved to New York” or “after my daughter was born.” Pivotal transitions turn our countless days of existence into a compelling narrative.

Identify new opportunities.

Another helpful approach is to explore the opportunities that the change made possible. The disruption may lead you to learn new skills or form unexpected relationships. Years ago, Taibbi and his family relocated to Charlottesville, Virginia, to be closer to family. Taibbi struggled deeply with the move, he says; before, his life was consumed by his career, but now, he struggled to find a new job. He fell into a depression as he sorted through the experience. But he had always wanted to explore writing, so in that time he decided to start, starting with stories for magazines and eventually tackling his first book. When a new job did materialize, Taibbi decided to take a part time position so he could continue writing and spending time with his children.

“Now there was space for me to explore and experiment. It gave me an opportunity to develop a new side of me,” Taibbi says. “I’ve written 12 books now and I would have written none.”

These types of moments, along with time and effort, can help feelings of anxiety and unease to subside. When the transition period comes to a close, you’ll be ready to dive in to whatever the change has brought you. “The best thing to do is to look at that time of uncertainty as being a time of exploring,” Bridges says. “This is where the opportunities are.”

How to Stay Zen During Times of Transition