On Transition: How To Take The Stress Out Of Change And Uncertainty

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I just moved across the country from Massachusetts to Utah.

Do not worry, it was planned. For a very good reason. But despite how planned it was, moving is still ranked as one of the top stress-inducing activities for human beings. I have moved numerous times in my young adult life and, even though I am really really ridiculously good at it, it is still a daunting and difficult process. 

The part that I am best at is getting in to my fully packed car, starting the engine, and driving to wherever my new home will be. I do not feel any stress during that piece of the process. Once I arrive in the new location, a little stress comes in the form of the to-do list at the new living situation (i.e. utilities, internet, unpacking, organizing my belongings, etc.), all of which is dependent on the extent of preparation prior to the journey.

Speaking of preparation, that is where all of my stress lives. I am quite good at planning the preparation and checking off all of the things that lead up to leaving my apartment spotless and concealing the keys in the freezer for my landlord, but still the process of doing all of those things is so burdensome.

I felt a constant simmer of cortisol flow inside me for about a month and a half, my sleep was affected because my brain exploded with "WHAT ARE WE GOING TO ACCOMPLISH TOMORROW???" brainstorms the second I turned out the light, and my body felt like it was riding around on the Tilt-A-Whirl ride at the carnival (google it) swirling from work to packing stuff up to "sleep" and back to work. 

Before you determine that this is just my diary entry about how successful my trip along the Oregon Trail went and a discussion of my personal stress triggers, let me clarify that this post is about transition. 

People hate change. People fear change. It is uncertain, unpredictable, uber terrifying. Change is literally the total opposite of familiarity, and human beings are wired to seek out and settle into any sense of familiarity available. Our brains crave it so that it can log the most efficient ways to survive. 

Of course we also need novelty and uncertainty for our brains to grow at all, but human beings enjoy trying to control that uncertainty by planning way ahead for something or overanalyzing every single possible scenario even though they have zero knowledge about it. 

As a result, transitions can be challenging for people in so many different ways. 

I, for example, get stressed in the daunting preparation of moving. Others may not pack much so the preparation is super easy but they get stressed by the drive itself. 

As I mentioned above, the overall process of moving is split up into:

  1. Preparation and planning
  2. The action of the change
  3. Settling in to the new state

Moving is an easy example to use for a stressful change, but I want to think beyond that now and ask you how you react to change. 

Let us think of some examples of change, large or small, that you may experience throughout a given day:

  • a rainstorm
  • a surprise meeting
  • a car accident
  • a surprise party
  • someone buys you a drink
  • your computer crashes
  • you sleep through your alarm
  • you wake up before your alarm

See, change can be all kinds of things but those things do not have to always be a surprise. Like moving across the country or knowing you have to lead a meeting today that you usually do not have to, change causes some level of stress. 

Reflection Homework:

  1. What changes or transitions have you experienced recently that you expected / could plan for?
  2. How did you react to them?
  3. What changes or transitions have you experienced recently that you did NOT expect / could NOT plan for?
  4. How did you react to them?
  5. Did you react differently depending on whether or not the change was known ahead of time? Why or why not?
  6. Go back to the three categories above and zoom in on your reaction. Which of the three steps of the change process caused the highest reaction?

A lot of people are so distracted by the stress of their change that they are unable to perceive what specifically about that change is causing the stress. If you are able to answer the above questions, you will be able to focus in on what stresses you out the most. 

If you always stress about the same segment of a change, how might you prepare differently for that segment in the future?

If you make a list of recent changes and notice that your stress is divided up through the different segments of each change, what do those changes have in common?

This awareness will lead you to preemptively quell the stress before it even begins in the future.