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Carol W. Berman, M.D. Headshot

8 Tips for Navigating Life's Transitions

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One transition we eagerly await is winter turning into spring. It brings abundant sunshine, trees blossoming, warm breezes and a relief from snow. Many of life's transitions are more difficult for people, especially transitions from childhood into puberty; marriage into divorce or widowhood; high school into college times, etc. These important changes in life have a major impact on us and are tricky to navigate. We can't avoid them. One thing we know: Change will occur whether we are ready or not. As Heraclitus said: "No man ever steps into the same river twice."

When I speak to my patients, family and friends, I realize how troubled and confused we all are by these transitions. One common scenario is the "empty-nest syndrome," in which parents miss their children who have left home to go to college, get married or just go to work. Now many adult "children" are moving back in with their parents after college or after losing their jobs, so nests aren't so empty anymore, but then parents have to readapt to that change. Today I have found that psychiatrists (including myself) are often treating singles who have divorced and are seeking new relationships. The transition to retirement from a busy work schedule is also anxiety provoking. Since the economy has not fully recovered I have patients who are forced to declare bankruptcy, which causes shame, self-deprecation and isolation in many cases.

Here are some tips on how to handle the transitions:

1) Realize that transitions are inevitable. There is no use in wasting energy to stop the changes. Like puberty or widowhood, these naturally occurring events must happen. Try to accept the change.

2) Another choice: Instead of being passive and letting changes occur, try to be active by anticipating what could happen, how you could make it better, and how to solve problems as they surface.

3) Adjust your usual schedule around the transitions. For instance, one patient of mine always had trouble sleeping as winter passed into spring. I suggested that she set her alarm to wake up earlier so that the light shining through her curtains didn't disturb her as much and she was more in control of her sleep/wake cycle.

4) Take the time to acknowledge the past, the present, and what you believe is the future. This time out may feel like a waste, but it will allow perspective on the situation. One of my patients was unemployed for seven months. We discovered that she was constantly accusing herself of inadequate work skills, blaming herself for being fired, even though it was clear that her company had downsized. She was able to examine the origin of this problem from the past, take inventory of her present abilities, and finally let herself look forward to her future.

5) If you find that anger or sadness, or some other strong emotion, is holding you back, acknowledge the emotion. Many of us are constantly stuffing emotions, especially negative ones, because our society reinforces logic and intellect over any emotion, even happiness. These emotions are pathways to a deep intuitive part of ourselves that needs to surface and be dealt with.

6) If you are able to break the transitions into smaller pieces you may deal with them better. For instance, a high-school student who is graduating in June may go and visit the college she will be attending in the fall. Then she can talk with students who have been to college, she can decide what classes she would like to attend, etc. When a major change is broken down in this way, it is not so overwhelming.

7) Reinforce each positive step you take towards the transition. A patient of mine was frightened of moving into a supervisor's position. She followed my suggestions of crediting herself as she advanced. When she was given more responsibility she gave herself credit for being able to handle the new work. Then after she attended a supervisor conference and did well, she celebrated the event by having dinner with some colleagues.

8) Educate yourself about what this transition means to you. For instance, a woman going into menopause read about the topic and understood as much of the biology as she could. She realized that menopause for her meant she wouldn't have to worry about birth control or deal with messy periods anymore.

Try framing it this way: Be happy that changes constantly occur. If you don't like what's happening to you now, wait a while and it will change. If you do like what's occurring now, enjoy it as much as possible, because it will be different soon.

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