Surviving Change

Oscar is a physician who worked at hospital for more than 11 years. Recently, a new department head made a number of administrative changes that significantly affected the medical staff. Although Oscar tried to adapt to the changes, he found that he wasn’t enjoying his work as much as he used to and started to have feelings of dread when thinking about how much more anxiety and disappointment he could take. He enjoyed working with his co-workers and his patients; but, after a few months, he knew if he stayed at the hospital his mental and physical health would suffer. He decided to leave the place he loved and took a job at another hospital in a neighboring city. He regretted having to do this but saw no other alternative.

Arlene and her former husband lived in their home for over 25 years. It was there that they raised their three boys and where she made many friends and volunteered at community agencies. It’s been two years since her last child moved out. For many months, Arlene has found the house to be too big. It also requires too much of her time and effort to maintain. Consequently, she started thinking of moving to a smaller residence in another city. Arlene believes that it will be a good move for her, but she is still anxious about leaving the place and people she has known for so many years.

Both Oscar and Arlene are experiencing situations where they believe change is necessary for them because of external circumstances. Moreover, both are making the change from a place they have known and enjoyed for a long time and are now going to an unknown place. Although they are the ones making the choice to “move,” their decision is not free of challenges.

Many people experience similar dilemmas. They may have to leave a job, change residences, or transition from living at home to moving away to college. Getting married and starting a new life with another person as well as choosing to get a divorce also require giving up a life to which one may have become accustomed. Holmes and Rahe (1967) include these as “life events” that can be very stressful. For example, leaving a job, moving away to a new residence, or getting married or divorced can prompt feelings of

  • Fear—of the unknown
  • Worry—as to whether you made the right decision
  • Guilt—for leaving those who depended on you such as co-workers, consumers, neighbors, and relatives
  • Anger—if you did not want to make the change but believed you had to
  • Loss—with respect to familiar people, surroundings, and routines
  • Regret—if you believe the change has more losses than benefits
  • Sadness—missing what you had

It takes energy and patience to start a new job, get used to a new living situation, or having (not having) a spouse. It is also taking a risk by venturing away from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Old habits may not work, and new strategies will have to be developed. Changes in important areas of people’s lives will test their inner resources and require adaptation if they are to successfully overcome stress and other negative effects. Few life transitions go smoothly and effortlessly. Consequently, any major life change can take a toll.

Yet, there are also positive aspects to life changes. For example, it is an opportunity to

  • Grow and expand—your skills, experience, and interpersonal relationships
  • Start afresh—not being encumbered by the past
  • Become excited—by the challenges, new experiences and opportunities
  • Gain more awareness of yourself—by learning how you handle and adapt to change

Facing and adapting to the challenges that derive from life changes enhance a person’s self-confidence (Stewart, 1982). The individual can see how well she or he is making the transitions and as a result become more self-assured and accepting of oneself as being capable and in control of the new situation. In fact, when people focus on the positive aspects of the change and realize how well they have adapted, resilience is reinforced. 

Another important variable that can assist the individual is support from others. Having someone in your corner whom you can depend on for guidance, encouragement, and even serving as a sounding board, can instill hope and courage.

If a person is considering making a life change, a cost-benefit analysis can help in the decision-making. That is, in deciding whether to make the change, how much benefit would the individual want to have in comparison to cost? Clearly, not all life changes are under a person’s control; however, a cost benefit analysis can still be useful by helping to put the issues into perspective. 

Whether a person stays in a situation (problematic or not) or leaves, both alternatives take energy and incur risk. How people adapt to whatever choice they make can be aided by using their inner strengths. Focusing on the positive rather than the negative enhances resilience and people’s ability to cope with stress. It opens the door rather than closes it. It broadens perspective and life opportunities.

Our lives are a journey and the paths we take might have been instigated by negative or positive circumstances. The outcome of the adventure, however, can be influenced by how we approach it. Not only can we survive major life changes, our lives can be uplifted by them. It is up to us to decide our behavior and perspective.

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