I was recently brought to tears on the 33. It wasn’t a cascade so much as a swell, the sort you experience after a surge of emotion—in my case, a strange amalgam of nostalgia, wistfulness, joy and relief.
I was headed downtown to meet a friend for drinks, you see—my first solo social engagement since giving birth. After many weeks of near constant attachment to my outrageously beautiful, exhaustingly dependent daughter, I was remarkably untethered.
I also happened to be driving my once-normal commute, a route I took regularly pre-pandemic before remote work orders plus Covid anxiety, followed by maternity leave, confined me mostly to the house. In my car, alone, on the way to the bar, I had flashbacks of a life that used to be—vivid, if fleeting, reminders that, for me, for practically all of us in one way or another, so much has changed.
Change is certain
Welcome or not, change is a stressor. It destabilizes us, and our brain reacts accordingly, choosing a path of resistance or acclimation, as it sees fit.
Change is also inevitable. Having a baby is just one of many seismic shifts a person might experience in a lifetime. Starting or ending a relationship, losing or changing your job, relocating, graduating, empty nesting, retiring: the list is endless.
Mix in a pandemic and its tangential economic and social forces, and the winds of change seem more turbulent than ever. In fact, 74% of U.S. adults say their life has changed as a result of Covid-19. Among them, 44% say it has changed a great deal, accordingly to a Pew Research Center study.
Critically, the ability to weather change is important to one’s well-being. Buffalo-based therapist Holly Eliza Jones, MS, LMFT, who focuses on helping clients unburden themselves of beliefs and behaviors that no longer serve them, says practically everyone grapples with change, either because they have a hard time coping with it or they want to effectuate it.
Whether we initiate change or change happens to us, it comes with a transition period that asks us to adapt to a new reality. When one’s ability to healthfully navigate that transition is compromised, it may sometimes lead to mood changes, depression, anxiety or other mental health struggles.
Under an illusion
One reason change is difficult is our tendency to cling to illusions.
“As children, we create templates of who we are and develop strategies that keep us safe,” Jones said. “We attach to those templates like they are real and attempt to apply the old strategies to current issues.”
It’s akin to living in a fantasy, she continued. When change disrupts the sense of self or safety we’ve constructed, adapting can be difficult.
“We tend to shift or deny shift based on what we are identifying with. So, if you identify as a mom, for example, there are aspects of motherhood that you embrace, and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh. Finally, this is it. This is me,’” Jones explained.
At the same time, you might have aspects of your template or fantasy that are in conflict with the change before you.
That much feels true for me. Once upon a time, my life was marked by productive mornings, a dedicated fitness regime, long hours at the office, interesting side projects, social events and planning my next trip. The ideas I generated, the miles I ran, the projects I accomplished, the experiences I had and the accolades I earned were my identity.
Now, I am a mother, and in the throes of the fourth trimester, little in my day-to-day corresponds with my former sense of self. While my heart relishes every gummy grin and cuddly contact nap, a part of my brain hasn’t completed the transition. It remains calibrated to my old life, grasping for some semblance of what used to be and trying to rediscover who I am in the absence of my old measures of success and happiness.
The result is a palpable grief, a mourning for a bygone way of being that exists side-by-side with the supreme joys of parenthood.
That makes sense to Jones, who says that all change is marked as much by death as birth (metaphorically speaking). It asks us to put old belief systems and identities to rest just as it asks us to nurture what’s new. And in that dichotomy, there can be conflict and sorrow.
Dropping the story
Embracing change means letting go of your illusion and adjusting your story, according to Jones. It means going toward what is in front of you rather than what you wish was in front of you and allowing yourself to feel whatever comes up for you in the process. Self-compassion, she stressed, is key.
“It is important to honor...the person inside you that wanted or hoped for what didn’t happen. Often this is a youthful part of ourselves rooted in attachment to someone, something or a certain type of life.”
Jones says that acceptance is a practice that is easier for some than others.
“I think when you have a more rigid template, or higher neurosis around perfectionism, or your environment is more critical or shaming, it’s much harder to accept change.”
A sound support system of family or friends is a protective factor that appears to mitigate the most difficult aspects of change. Subscribing to some sort of faith, whether religious or spiritual, is another. Then, there’s meditation, which can help you get present, process change and equip yourself with the skills to manage the emotions that change can cause.
Jones recommends Deepak Chopra's course Hope in Uncertain Times to get into a routine of sitting with yourself and acknowledging the significance of what you are going through. And she calls Pema Chödrön’s books When Things Fall Apart and Welcoming the Unwelcome wonderfully supportive. There are also no-cost meditation resources like Insight Timer, a website and app with more than 30,000 free mindfulness recordings.
A growth experience
Whether you find change distressing, invigorating or both at once, it is always an opportunity for personal development.
“Change disrupts our routine, which takes us out of unconscious behaviors,” Jones said. “When we go through a disruption to a routine, belief structure or pattern, we get awake, we get alive, we get conscious. The aliveness can feel, and often is, uncomfortable, but learning to settle ourselves among the discomfort is where growth exists.”