Coping With Major Life Transitions
Published on 6th January, 2020 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
As we welcome the new year, many of us might be entering a new phase in life. From graduating to moving away from home to having children, major life transitions can be rough (Renjan, 2018; Reitz, Shrout, Denissen, Dufner, & Bolger, 2019). The fear of entering an entirely new environment with new responsibilities without close friends and family whom we have previously counted on for support can be rather stressful (Bagnall, Skipper, & Fox, 2019). Transitions occur throughout our lives. As we grow older, we have to deal with a plethora of changes, such as retirement and bereavement (Vrkljan, Montpetit, Naglie, Rapoport, & Mazaer, 2018). Even as wise and mature adults, these transitions can be equally stressful and anxiety-inducing.
Why are transitions difficult?
Major life transitions can be difficult if they occur rather suddenly and unexpectedly. Examples of unexpected major life transitions include the sudden passing of one’s parents or being selected for overseas work posting. These transitions can be very stressful as we not be prepared to handle the new responsibilities and/or to lose our familiar support system.
However, even major life transitions that are positive and expected can be stressful. Many times, with major life transitions - even when they are expected, we are usually venturing into the unknown. A pair of seemingly blissful newlyweds might be anxious about their future married life and the additional responsibilities they take on as a husband or wife. Similarly, a fresh graduate who has landed his dream job might find himself doubting his abilities to cope as he has never held a full-time job before. Self-doubt about whether we can successfully make it through the transition can generate a lot of stress and uncertainty (Bagnall, Skipper, & Fox, 2019). Our quality of work and psychological well-being may be greatly impacted if we are too overwhelmed by stress and anxiety.
Coping with major life transitions
Have a major life transition coming up? Here are some helpful tips to help you cope better in this stressful period:
1. Prepare before the transition
As transitions can be stressful, some may not want to think about the upcoming transition at all to avoid feeling anxious. However, we will eventually have to go through major life changes no matter how much we dread it. As such, it is better to face the stressor and prepare oneself mentally, physically and practically to ensure a smoother transition (J & S Garrett Pty Ltd, 2011).
If you know that there is an upcoming major life transition (eg. having a child or retirement), talk to someone who has been through a similar transition. A fear of the unknown account for a significant amount of the stress brought about by transitions. Talking to a person who has been through it helps demystify the whole experience. It can also help you anticipate what challenges are to be expected. This not only enables you to be mentally prepared for the future challenge but you can also physically prepare for the potential problems. For example, if you find out that coding skills might be beneficial in your new job, you could take a few coding courses before starting your new job. If you don’t know anyone personally who has been through a similar experience, you could scour through online forums and blogs to find people who have shared their experiences online. The power of Google is on your side!
Research has shown that ample preparation for upcoming changes is associated with better mental health outcomes and can enable one to cope better with the changes (Vrkljan et al., 2018). As they say, planning is half the battle won. So, before entering a major life transition, plan, plan and plan again.
2. One step at a time
Major transitions can be very overwhelming as we are suddenly bombarded with so many new responsibilities and tasks. Aiming to tackle a large goal all at once might be too unrealistic. Doing so might lead one to feel stressed when one fails to reach the goal immediately (J & S Garrett Pty Ltd, 2011). A study found that job beginners had lower self-esteem when they fail to meet their work expectations (Reitz et al., 2019). As such, it would be good to write down small and specific milestones that you wish to achieve in your new environment rather than only setting a large goal. For instance, instead of aiming to become the world’s best parent, you could set smaller daily goals like- “I will spend an hour each evening talking or playing with my child during the weekdays” or “I will read one parenting book this week”. The completion of these small goals serves to assure you that you are making progress towards your goal even though you might not be where you ultimately want to be yet.
3. Being kinder to yourself when encountering setbacks
Successfully adjusting to changes in major life transitions takes time and continuous effort (Hanke, Backhaus, Bogatz, & Dogan, 2017). It is normal to feel nervous and anxious when dealing with something new. Also, as with unfamiliar matters, one is bound to make some mistakes here and there. As such, this is a period where you should be more forgiving towards yourself. Especially when the transition was unplanned and/or unexpected, give yourself ample time to get used to your new responsibilities, environment and the people around you.
You can cope with the change
As cliché as it may sound, change is the only constant. We will inevitably go through major transitions in our lifetime, be it getting our first jobs or experiencing the death of a loved one. We cannot stop change but we can adapt and learn how to cope with it better. Transitions bring about uncertainty and anxiety. However, if you reflect on your past, there are certainly many transitions that you had overcame. While they were scary initially, the anxiety went away as you develop the skills to cope with the situation.
You can find out on the findings of a recent study examining the psychological impact on students and parents of students who were entering secondary school here.
Bagnall, C. L., Skipper, Y., & Fox, C. L. (2019). ‘You’re in this world now’: Students’, teachers’, and parents’ experiences of school transition and how they feel it can be improved. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1–21. Retrieved from 10.1111/bjep.12273
Hanke, P., Backhaus, J., Bogatz, A., & Dogan, M. (2017). The Transition to Primary School as a Challenge for Parents. International Perspectives on Early Childhood Education and Development, 21, 225–240. doi: DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-58329-7_15
J & S Garrett Pty Ltd. (2011). Coping with Transitions in Life: A Life Effectiveness Guide. Coping with Transitions in Life: A Life Effectiveness Guide (Vol. 4, pp. 1–24). J & S Garrett Pty Ltd.
Reitz, A. K., Shrout, P. E., Denissen, J. J., Dufner, M., & Bolger, N. (2019). Self-Esteem Change in the Transition from College to Work. Journal of Personality, 1–14. doi: DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12519
Renjan, V. (2018, March 18). Commentary: School transitions can be a stressful and intimidating struggle for many students and parents. Retrieved December 26, 2019, from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/school-holidays-transitions-stressful-struggle-10017694.
Vrkljan, B., Montpetit, A., Naglie, G., Rapoport, M., & Mazer, B. (2018). Interventions that support major life transitions in older adulthood: a systematic review. International Psychogeriatrics, 31(3), 393–415. doi: 10.1017/s1041610218000972
Article written with Charmaine Leong. Charmaine is a psychology undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Charmaine is an aspiring clinical psychologist who is passionate about raising awareness of mental health issues in Singapore. She is currently on internship with ImPossible Psychological Services under the supervision of senior clinical psychologist, Haikal.