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Five ways to cope with change

Change is always in the air. Even during the times when it feels like day-to-day life is consistent, our lives are constantly evolving. Yet no matter how microscopic a moment of change might feel, we often seek to avoid it, opting instead to stay in our comfort zones.

Sometimes, change can feel life-altering and often it comes out of nowhere, sideswiping us and everything we thought to be true about ourselves. Significant changes in lifestyle, such as the transition from the security of high school into university, or changing work environments, can naturally leave us feeling unstable and uncertain.

A multitude of unexpected and significant changes have hit us at once – things like suddenly having to study online, becoming unemployed or being unable to visit friends and family – and we should forgive ourselves for feeling like we’re headed in a downwards spiral. Emotionally, we’re in the midst of a trying time, and it can feel impossible to pick ourselves up.

But, if we allow ourselves to embrace the emotions that come with change, we can prepare ourselves to tackle it head on and come out better for it on the other side.

Be open to change

Dr Carmel Sivaratnam, Senior Research Fellow in Deakin University’s School of Psychology says, ‘The first step to coping with change is to accept that changes are a part of life and often help us grow and develop skills that we wouldn’t have developed if we didn’t have to deal with the change.’ She highlights starting university, which is a significant life change, and explains that change is in fact good for us. ‘Going through change helps us to develop skills,’ Dr Sivaratnam explains.

When we navigate periods of change, it enables us to build a sense of confidence. She explains that at one point or another there will be a sense of accomplishment that comes with getting through the discomfort of change and realising we have a handle on this new environment. That sense of accomplishment could come from finally settling into your work/study from home routine, or re-discovering an old hobby you loved but didn’t have time for before now. Maybe you’re learning a new skill, or successfully mediating household quarrels.

Whatever it is, it’s at times like this we grow. That’s something to be proud of.

Work out what’s in your control and what isn’t

Whilst change can cause anxiety and discomfort, distinguishing between aspects of the change you can control and those you can’t will better equip you to handle the change positively. Dr Sivaratnam says, ‘While we can’t always avoid change, there may be some things that are under our control, or things that we can do to help adjust to the change much easier.’

For example, Dr Sivaratnam explains that whilst its normal for our social circles to change over time, and for people to move in and out of our lives, changes to friendships can be among the most difficult to navigate. Although the loss of a friendship can make us feel unhappy or isolated, she says the key is ‘being aware of your emotional response and looking after yourself’.

Anticipating what’s likely to make you feel anxious, and engaging in activities you enjoy to counteract that emotion, will take you a long way to improving how you cope with the change.

'While we can’t always avoid change, there may be some things that are under our control, or things that we can do to help adjust to the change much easier.'

Dr Carmel Sivaratnam,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Connect with people who understand your experiences

If you’re finding it difficult to deal with a new transition, it’s much easier to talk to someone than go it alone, according to Dr Sivaratnam. ‘Reach out to others who may be experiencing a similar life change or who have been through this before.

‘The support of others around us is often what carries us through difficult or uncomfortable periods,’ she says. Seeking out a mentor, friend or family member to talk to can make a world of difference. ‘People who’ve gone through that before can share coping strategies,’ she adds. Many large organisations such as employers and universities have extensive peer support networks you can join that enable you to connect with like-minded people.

Be flexible

A big part of successfully managing change involves letting go of any preconceived ideas or set attitudes of how things should be. We tend to use expectations that are useful in helping us ‘set the scene’ for what’s ahead, Dr Sivaratnam suggests. But the unpredictability of our circumstances can be a huge cause of stress and anxiety, so, ‘Being able to let go of some expectations which no longer fit with what is going on around us is vital in being able to deal with change,’ Dr Sivaratnam explains.

For example, if you’re transitioning to online work or study, it could disrupt your schedule more than you’d anticipated. Although you might think you can go about things as you normally would, ‘You might need to readjust your time or something in your lifestyle until you’ve transitioned,’ she says. And when it comes to maintaining meaningful relationships with friends, you might need to get more creative with technology to keep in touch.

Embrace change one step at a time

When you’re finding your way in a new phase of life, Dr Sivaratnam says you don’t have to feel comfortable with everything immediately. ‘Set a number of key goals for yourself relating to coping with the change and focus on achieving these one by one,’ she suggests. If everything seems a bit much, break it down. ‘Celebrate little victories. Set a small goal. You don’t have to be good at everything straight away,’ she concludes.

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Dr Carmel Sivaratnam
Dr Carmel Sivaratnam

Senior Research Fellow, School of Psychology
Deakin University

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