Take a newlywed, a parent of adolescents, and a person who is recently divorced or about to retire. What do they have in common? They are all going through transitions.
"From childhood through adulthood, people are continually at the beginning, in the midst of and resolving transitions - some expected, some not," says Nancy K.Scholssberg, the author of "Taking the Mystery Out of Change"
(Psycholgoy Today, May 1987).
The idea that there is a "midlife crisis" is an artifact of the media, she says, because there is no single predictable, universal adult experience - there are many. Crisis, transition and change occur all through life.
The transitions we experience as adults, which may come at any age, include:
- Anticipated transitions: the major life events we usually expect to be a part of adult life, such as marrying, becoming a parent, starting a first job, or retiring.
- Unanticipated transitions: the often-disruptive events that occur unexpectedly, such as major surgery, a serious car accident, a surprise promotion, or a factory closing.
- Non-event transitions: the expected events that fail to occur, such as not getting married or not having a baby.
Ironically, even transitions that ordinarily make people happy, such as getting married, moving to a bigger house, or getting a better job, can cause acute stress.
If life is a journey through transitions and crises, then the challenge is to become increasingly more adept at coping with these changing life processes. How can you do that? Here are strategies to increase your flexibility and skill in managing life's stresses:
- Think of yourself as an ever-growing, ever-becoming human being who needs to keep stretching to respond to ever present inner and outer forces of change. Keep placing yourself in positions to learn.
- As you collect information about your world and circumstances, try to be an "open" rather than a "closed"
system. In cybernetic theory, a closed system operates from a set of assumptions that are regarded as "truth" and not questioned. Any information that does not "fit" the system's assumptions is rejected.
An open system, on the other hand, consistently examines and revises assumptions as new information dictates that changes are needed.
- Give yourself permission not to always have your act together. Going through transitions requires a breakup of familiar and often comfortable niches and routines. It also often requires leaving something - suffering a loss - as well as going somewhere relatively unknown.
If you find yourself stressed or anxious at being thrown off kilter by new circumstances, don't consider that you are flawed in your ability to cope. The problem likely lies in having to assimulate too much new information, too many changes too fast in the transition you're experiencing.
Consider that you're doing the very best you can. If you could be doing better, you would be.
- View your life transition as a cluster of stresses that can be broken down into discrete parts. By viewing the transition as the sum of its parts rather than one overwhelming whole, you can find ways of reducing stress in a number of areas.
- Assess the multitude of choices you have in any given situation. That will give you a sense of having some control over what is happening to you.
- Realize that the stress is probably temporary. You will get through or adjust to the transition. The immediate future does not constitute the rest of your life.
- Add up your own strengths for coping with the situation. You've probably coped with tough situations before and survived and you have some skills to bring into play now. If you don't know what your strengths are, ask other people to tell you.
- Don't hesitate to ask for help. Other people can give support, perspective, and point out options. Reaching out to others and sharing your vulnerability is part of the learning, stretching and healing process.
- Whenever possible, enjoy the trip. Your perspective of the transition - whether it is positive or negative, desired or dreaded - will determine to some extent your ability to adjust effectively to the situation.
Says one author about the typical way we view life: "We see ourselves on a long trip that spans the continent. We are traveling by train. Out the windows we drink in the passing scene of cars or nearby highways, of children waving at a crossing, of cattle grazing on a distant hillside, of smoke pouring from a power plant, of row upon row of corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of mountains and rolling hillsides, of city skylines and village halls.
"But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. On a certain day at a certain hour we will pull into the station. Bands will be playing and flags waving. Once we get there so many wonderful dreams will come true and the pieces of our lives will fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle. How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the train for loitering - waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.
"Sooner or later we must realize there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is in the trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us.
"So in your transitions, stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more, cry less. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough."