How to Cope with Major Life Changes

New town. Family emergency. Aging parents. Job trouble. Life is going to throw you some curves and you'll be up for every one of them with our expert advice.


Coping with Life Changes

When was the last time you had to deal with a big change? For many of us, disruption to familiar routine sparks anything from mild anxiety to extreme terror. Maybe something's been pushed on us, like being downsized or getting sick. Just as likely, we've made a risky but necessary choice, like relocating to a new town or having our elderly parents move in with us.

Shift happens, like it or not—that's part of the human adventure. Then why do we resist so much? It's partly a natural fear of the unfamiliar. "People think of change as something dangerous," says Auriela McCarthy, author of The Power of the Possible (Beaufort Books). "But it helps to remember all the ways your life has been altered in the past and realize that not only did you not keel over and die, things often turned out for the better."

Fighting what's happening just leads to frustration and keeps you from growing to your full potential. "When you try to put your life in a box and keep it the same all the time, you're making something dead out of it," says Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., coauthor of Saying Yes to Change (Hay House). Welcoming new things can even be good for your health. "People who greet what life offers with curiosity have stronger immune systems and live longer," Borysenko adds.

So how do you push past the reluctance and fear? The first step is realizing that even though you can't control what pops up in your life, you can alter how you react. "When change happens, say yes. Learn and grow from it," says Borysenko. Taking a live-in-the-moment attitude will help keep you from miring yourself in what-ifs and should-haves. Another attitude booster: Think about people you respect and love who have faced difficulties head-on and come out stronger for it. Reflecting on their success will open you to the idea that new possibilities lie ahead for you, too.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that you already have the inner resources to make the most out of anything that comes your way. Bring out your natural resiliency by taking a look at how you can deal with six of life's most common upheavals.

Getting a New Boss

Why it's scary: Even if you weren't that crazy about your old manager, at least you were familiar with her style. A newcomer might be more demanding, less open to ideas, or even have a leadership style so alien that your job performance is affected.

How to deal: Schedule a meeting with your supervisor shortly after her first day. "Ask, 'What are your expectations? What are the areas that are important to you?'" says Joel Garfinkle, a career coach based in California. "If you're working right away on things the boss cares about, you have a better chance of earning her respect."

Instant sanity-saver: Keep your resume polished and make it a priority to reach out to all your business contacts, just in case your boss's strategic plan includes making staff cuts.

Moving to a Different Town

Why it's scary: Adjusting to a new house and finding schools, doctors, and stores—not to mention friends—is time-consuming, but it's the emotional tumult of a move that's the real stressor. "We don't realize just how much of our identity is tied up in where we live," says Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D., a relocation expert from Seattle and author of Making the Big Move (New Harbinger).

How to deal: Look at the move as an adventure requiring research. "Wherever you go, ask strangers to tell you what they love about the area to get clues about where you can start putting down your own roots," says Goodwin. Several years ago, Rebecca Bell Sorensen had to move unexpectedly from New York to Minneapolis when her husband took a new job. By pushing herself to talk to people, Rebecca quickly learned what the city had to offer. "The 'discovery' attitude definitely worked for me," she says.

Instant sanity-saver: Take a short-term class instead of committing to a particular social group, and don't try to become immediate best friends with everyone you meet. Each day, look for little sources of simple comfort, like a bakery that makes the same kind of croissants you loved back home or a hobby you enjoy in your spare time.

Getting a Divorce

Why it's scary: Even if you initiated the split, or totally agreed to it, the reality can sometimes feel like you've lost a limb. Habits and daily routines once dictated or influenced by another adult are now up for grabs. "After my first marriage ended, I felt like I was suddenly living in a vacuum," says McCarthy, who was inspired to write her book when she realized how much her resistance to new things had tainted not only her marriage, but also other relationships.

How to deal: Refuse to let fear or anger dominate you. "If you're caught up in being a victim, you can't gain any kind of wisdom or take responsibility for creating your best life, because part of you is still locked in the past," says Borysenko. "Once you realize you have no choice but to change, many interesting things can start to happen." Now's the right time to lean on your support group—even if you have to invent one first. "I made a list of all the people I could call and get together with," says McCarthy. "I felt stronger and safer knowing I had lots of people I could turn to."

Instant sanity-saver: Exploit your new freedom. Try things you've always wanted to do but couldn't or didn't get around to while you were married. Sign up for a pottery class, join a hiking club, or audition for a community theater production.

Dealing with a Serious Illness

Why it's scary: Just getting the flu for a week is disorienting enough. But when big health problems strike, you realize how vulnerable you are and the future no longer seems so certain. When Teme Ring developed chronic fatigue syndrome, her law career was sidelined. Many days, Ring was so exhausted she could barely get out of bed, and she had to cut back on most of the activities she enjoyed with her two sons. "I went from feeling like a Super Mom to feeling like a Pooper Mom," Ring says.

How to deal: Give yourself time to grieve. "We can't move on until we honor what's gone," says Borysenko. "You can't jump past the fact that you've lost your sense of invincibility." It's okay to cry and rage; bottled-up emotions will only break through later on, usually at awkward times in embarrassing ways.

Instant sanity-saver: Cliched as it sounds, laughter is wonderful medicine. To keep herself in high spirits, Ring read books by writers like Dave Barry and watched old Saturday Night Live sketches and variety shows on cable. Embracing her love for the stage, she even took a stand-up comedy class, which taught her more about the power of seeing the bright side. "As often as possible I ask myself, 'What's funny about this?'" she says. "I'm not always able to find something, but when I can, it builds my strength for the times I can't."

Caring for Elderly Parents

Why it's scary: When one or both parents become dependent, you have to take on heavy responsibilities, from assessing their daily needs to managing their money. If you opt to care for a parent at home, it's a stressful, round-the-clock job; if you choose a care facility, you may feel guilty. The emotional impact of the role-reversal is devastating too: You're no longer the little girl relying on her mom and dad for comfort.

How to deal: Surround yourself with as much professional and personal support as possible. Monica Corton, whose elderly parents live miles from her New York City home, hired a care manager who advises her on major decisions about her parents, and a team of nurses, therapists, and aides for the daily tasks. Then, says Monica, "I just keep moving forward, telling myself I'm doing the best I can and that there's no point in second-guessing myself." But while you're eliminating guilt, you do need to acknowledge your sadness, says Alexis Abramson, author of The Caregivers' Survival Handbook (Perigee Books). The best antidote? "Focus on being grateful for the time you have with your parents, even though it's sometimes difficult," she advises.

Instant sanity-saver: Forget about being a martyr. "Get plenty of rest, make time for some exercise, and avoid self-medicating with junk food," says Abramson. "In addition, don't neglect your other important relationships any more than you absolutely have to."

Switching Jobs

Why it's scary: As exciting as it is to launch a fresh career—especially if you were eager to leave your old one—it's still easy to feel that new-kid insecurity and worry that you might not be up to the challenge. "The first 90 days of a job can be very intense," says Garfinkle. "New hires feel they have to learn everything instantly."

How to deal: Boost your self-confidence and gain a reputation as a smart worker by tackling small projects that can be done easily and well. Start building relationships with colleagues you like and think you can trust. And count on the fact that you'll feel more comfortable and competent after that initial three-month trial period.

Instant sanity-saver: Write down your feelings without stopping to edit them, then put the paper away. After three days, go back and read it, jot down anything that's changed, and put it away again. Three days later, reread the paper—then shred it. "That sends your subconscious mind the powerful message that you're adapting and moving on," says McCarthy.

Helpful Tips for Any Situation

These qualities prepare you for anything.

  • Flexibility: Being open to trying different things will help bring you out of the past so you're able to embrace new possibilities.
  • Presence: If you stay in the moment, focusing on your immediate needs and feelings, you won't get overwhelmed.
  • Gratitude: You have many blessings, big and small. Count them; better yet, write them down—often.
  • Acceptance: There may be no way to prevent a boss from firing you or to keep a family member from getting sick, but you can choose your own actions and attitudes. Acknowledge what you can and can't control.

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.