Adjusting to change can be difficult, as even positive life transitions tend to cause some stress. Over the course of a lifetime, a person can expect to experience a significant amount of change. Some of these changes, such as marriages, births, and new jobs, are generally positive, although they may be accompanied by their own unique stressors. Other major life transitions, such as moving, retirement, or entering the “empty nest” phase of life may cause a significant amount of stress. Those who find themselves experiencing difficulty coping with life transitions may find it helpful to speak to a therapist in order to become better able to adjust to changes they cannot control.
Certain changes, such as entering school, starting a new job, or starting a family, can often be exciting, even when they cause some amount of stress, because they are generally considered to be positive changes. Many people look forward to obtaining a degree, rising in their chosen field, or having a home and family.
Change can encourage the development of skills or knowledge, and might also bring about greater awareness of a condition or group. For example, the family of a person diagnosed with schizophrenia might become more aware of severe mental health conditions and their effects. Or the parents of a child who comes out as gay might become interested in LGBTQIA issues and equal rights and work to increase awareness. Change can also make clear what is important in one's life and allow for greater self-discovery and self-awareness.
In 1967, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed a social readjustment rating scale that was designed to roughly approximate a person’s likelihood of future illness based on his or her stress level. The scale is a list of common stressful events, both positive and negative, all of which are assigned a numerical value of “life-changing units.” For example, marriage, the basis for comparison, was assigned 50 life-changing units. Some other events on the scale include the death of a spouse, which has a value of 100 life-changing units, being fired (47), and revision of personal habits (24).
The scale was developed and validated by male subjects, but data from both male and female subjects in cross-cultural populations has provided fairly useful results and has shown correlations between stressful events and health concerns such as heart attacks, pregnancy complications, diabetes, and broken bones, as well as non-medical difficulties such as poor performance in school or work.
Because responses to stress can vary greatly between individuals, the scale is meant to be only an estimation of the ways that stress can affect life, not a predicting tool.
Because change can cause stress, it can have an effect on one's daily life. A person facing a big change might, for example, experience depression, anxiety, or fatigue; have headaches; develop trouble sleeping or eating well; or abuse drugs and alcohol. Persistent symptoms of stress might improve with treatment in therapy, but an individual may also be able to prevent some of these symptoms by:
A diagnosis of adjustment disorder can occur when a major life stress or change disrupts normal coping mechanisms and makes it difficult or impossible for a person to cope with new circumstances. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, symptoms of this condition tend to begin within three months of the stress or change and often include a depressed or anxious mood, changes in daily habits, feelings of overwhelming stress and panic, difficulty enjoying activities, and changes in sleeping or eating. For example, a man whose wife died suddenly might become anxious and panicked as he tries to cope with his new situation, finding it difficult to go on his typical daily walks or prepare meals.
This condition may also lead an individual to engage in reckless or dangerous behavior, avoid family and friends, or have thoughts of suicide. A diagnosed adjustment disorder generally indicates that a person is experiencing more emotional turmoil than others facing the same situation might experience. For example, a young woman who cries frequently after the death of her mother is likely experiencing distress typical to the major life change she has experienced, but a man who quits his job and stops speaking to his children after the death of his wife might be experiencing a significant amount of difficulty adjusting to his changed situation.
There is no particular treatment for adjusting to change, but several different tactics may be helpful. Talking about changes in life with a therapist, such as a marriage, the death of a family member, the loss of a job, or the approach of middle age, can be helpful to some. Any type of therapy is likely to be well suited to helping a person cope with dramatic changes in life.
When life changes prove difficult and lead to stress, anxiety, or depression, a therapist can also help treat those issues and help one explore coping strategies. When people know that they do not cope well with change, speaking with a therapist before any significant changes in life occur may be warranted. In this way, one can prepare for changes and become better able to face them in the future, even without prior knowledge of potential changes.
Last updated: 04-24-2015
Adjusting to Change / Life Transitions Articles