To be alive means to live with change. Change is constant, much going unnoticed in the bustle of our daily lives, but there are those that will undoubtedly cause us to stop and notice. Many of these more noticeable life changes, or transitions, are often expected, joyful occasions— birthdays, graduations, marriages, and job promotions, for example, are some of the recognizable milestones we commonly look forward to. And then, there are transitions that come without expectation and are beyond our control such as natural disasters, illnesses, deaths, and economic downturns. Whether or not a change is expected and welcomed, or unexpected and jarring, with it can come overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, worry, doubt, confusion, and anger. For example, we can be both excited for our retirement, and worried about its possible financial impact. We can be happy to move and sad to leave. Events that come suddenly, such as job loss, illness, disaster, or death can leave us little time to process what’s happened, let alone cope with its impact.
How we manage these events depends largely on what was learned early in our lives. If our parents and caregivers were able to provide stability, comfort, and safety during times of transition, as children we learned to adapt to change with relative ease and are able to move through the various stages of life with adequate coping skills. However, if our early environment was traumatic, chaotic, or simply lacked the modeling of healthy coping skills, as adults we may experience unexpected emotional reactions during even minor transitions as we cling to the narrow, outdated, ineffective means of coping developed during childhood.
Emotional responses are expected, but debilitating feelings of being stuck that bring on depression or explosive reactions such as panic attacks, substance abuse, rage, or violence must be examined and healed.