How to Stay Balanced During Major Life Changes by: Renee Fabian
If there’s one thing that’s inevitable in life, it’s change. Sometimes those changes are small, but every once in awhile they’re major — think marriage, divorce, loss of a loved one, a new job, having children, going back to school, or buying a house. These transitions often uproot our world, sometimes in ways we aren’t prepared for or don’t want to deal with.
For all the pain, uncertainty, or joy these major life changes bring into our lives, there’s no doubt they can take a toll on our mental health as we try to navigate our way through uncharted territory.
Why Major Life Changes Are So…Major
There’s a reason major life shifts can impact our mental health, and it comes down to how the brain functions.
“When you change, it actually activates the conflict sensors in the brain and this causes brain chaos that we call cognitive dissonance,” Dr. Srini Pillay, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells Talkspace. “This activation of the conflict sensor becomes stressful to people.”
And not everyone is affected equally. Pillay suggests that personality determines how change impacts our mental health. For those who seek novelty, change is usually easier to swallow, while those who feel most comfortable with status quo will find life transitions more challenging.
Positive Change Impacts Our Brains in the Same Way
The mental health implications during serious adjustments don’t discriminate. Even change that’s generally positive, such as celebrating your new marriage or having a baby, registers in the brain the same way as a more difficult event. The brain feels more comfortable with old patterns, and anything new presents a dilemma.
“When it comes to positive life changes, the brain is still challenged to do something different,” says Pillay. “Even if that change is positive, it can induce anxiety or uncertainty or a feeling of unfamiliarity and this generally precipitates habit pathways in the brain. Meaning as soon as you feel stress, you want to go back to old habits.”
How to Cope with Major Changes
The brain needs time to adjust, no matter the life event we’re going through. To help the process along and maintain our mental health, we can try a few of the following strategies.
1. Redirect Uncertainty
One of the major reasons we struggle with change, and why it can result in cognitive dissonance, is the element of uncertainty. Uncertainty is the enemy of our biological impulses — if we’re unsure whether an animal is a house cat or a blood thirsty tiger, we’re in trouble. Our brain doesn’t like the odds of equations with unknown variables, so it defaults to a negative bias for safety.
“A study…showed that in people who are uncertain, 75 percent of people mispredict when bad things are going to happen,” Dr. Srini Pillay explains. “The uncertainty biases the brain to expect the worst. That doesn’t mean that change is great and you should expect the best, but you should recognize that your brain will go into…an automatic negativity bias.”
To help soothe the uncertainty that’s causing the brain to fire its stress responses, level the playing field with neutral self-talk phrases such as, “Uncertainty simply means I don’t know the future. It does not mean the future is bad.”
Stay tuned next week as we continue looking at helpful solutions when faced with transitions…..Live Life On The Promise Of Impact!