If you’ve ever watched a tree swaying in the breeze, you’ll have been impressed by the way it stretches and adjusts to the changing conditions.
It takes a pretty strong wind to blow down a tree. As a living, growing entity, it has evolved to cope with short and long-term pressures. Sure, the wind doesn’t just bounce off it as it breezes over a rock—but neither does a rock have the ability to grow.
As people, we’re closer to the tree than to the rock, but we have an added capacity that makes dealing with change a bit more complicated: sentience. We know, we understand, and we feel; we can also be fooled, twist what we know, or misjudge. When a significant change occurs in our personal or professional life, or that of our community, it is not always easy to sway in the wind and just return to growing.
That’s because change—even positive change—runs counter to our emotional and biological preference for stability. Change is stressful. It activates the feelings and the hormones that we associate with the fight-or-flight response. It’s no wonder that grief can make us just want to run away, or that unjust developments in the workplace can provoke destructive reactions from the most placid of colleagues.
Strategizing periods of transition:
Well, not to hate on trees, but human sentience lends us a massive advantage over our leafy neighbors: the capacity to strategize, to consciously learn, and to savor the mutability of life on Earth. This requires presence.
When a big change approaches or occurs, we benefit from acknowledging this presence a little more pointedly. Presence is a curious blend of objectivity and subjectivity: the awareness of oneself, but also of oneself in the grander context of things. When the stress of change takes over, our objective side requires extra focus.
For example, states of mind that we might typically process internally can be written, sketched, or listed on paper to prevent our subjective feelings from running away with us. We can ask ourselves: what am I feeling? What can I do? What can’t I do? What can and can’t I know? Why are these feelings and capacities important to me?
When my own analysis of what I can and can’t do takes the form of a list, ticking off each “I can” as I achieve it helps me to feel like I’m working with the change. It can help to banish feelings of powerlessness.
This feeling was studied by researchers at Yale, and the results were curious and empowering. They found that what we do with stress—how we absorb, repress, or redirect it—is more impactful on our health and success than the stress in itself.
In other words, if we transform that fight-or-flight energy into positive action, we’re likely to affect more positive change—and to put our body through less strain.
Life cycles versus the unexpected:
It’s part of a broader strategy of aligning life’s cycles with its linear chapters; with balancing change—the narrative of life—with routine and rhythm. Maintaining harmony between these patterns in our life is one of our greatest challenges. I associate it with my desire for adventure during stable times and longing for stability once that adventure starts to get too intense.
When change strikes, the narrative of life tends to push the cycle of routine out of its best rhythm. This cycle is made up of things like getting to work on time and calling to check up on your friends; but also fundamental needs such as eating and sleeping. For most urbanites, exercise probably factors in somewhere between these poles. We no longer hunt and gather as a natural habit, so we have to make a conscious plan to exercise regularly, instead.
When change disrupts these cycles, it is important to address them. Factors such as getting to work may be negotiable. It’s why we have bereavement leave and sick pay. But sleep, healthy eating, and exercise are non-negotiable. They are essential to our ongoing well-being. Just as important, taking care of this essential maintenance enables us to face up to the challenges that come with transition.
In fact, it can be a good idea to go even further and develop new routines in response to the upheaval that we’re experiencing. I sometimes find it easier to focus on a new regular activity than to see the value in pre-existing ones.
Taking a daily walk through the local park, stretching it out with some YouTube yoga, or spending 20 minutes a day touching up the garden can all be effective ways to ground ourselves when everything else feels tiresome or temporary. Checking out a new sitcom and promising yourself an episode after lunch every day can lend a moment’s escape and also supply a delivery of “happy hormones” such as dopamine and serotonin.
Watching something silly can also help to remind us that the human condition is inseparable from humor, no matter how gloomy the circumstances. They say that comedy is tragedy plus time, but the presence of a tactful friend who can help you see the absurdity in any situation can sometimes be the field treatment we need.
Get help if you need it:
Finally, while coping strategies are valuable and will almost always provide at least some respite from the stress of change, we should learn to recognize when we’re unable to cope alone and require professional help. As a good rule of thumb, if you’re still suffering symptoms of change-related stress after three months—pick up the phone.
Many of these ideas and more can be referenced in this bright new visual guide to change-related stress. It’s a great resource to have on standby when things get tough.
Change is part of the human condition. It is part of life on Earth. We don’t have to suffer alone or in perpetuity.
Author: G. John Cole
Image: Justin Snow/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Kenni Linden
Social Editor: Kenni Linden