As we go further and further into this new normal caused by Coronavirus it is becoming very obvious that the world is changing rapidly around us. What many of us are needing to learn very quickly is how to cope with big life changes? (And maybe not just cope with survive and then thrive!) What may have been unthinkable in January is now happening such as:
- Home working being the norm for office workers
- Major cities, such as London, putting together proposals to make their city centres car free
- International travel becoming almost impossible in the short-term
- No large conferences or gatherings to happen for potentially at least a year
- The older generation, especially grandparents becoming very proficient at using video calling technology such as Facetime, Zoom etc
- The professional services industry poised for large-scale redundancy programmes
How to cope with big life changes
With such a sudden and drastic change to life as we know it, we have all been hit with the reality that we can’t control every aspect of our lives and many of us are struggling to deal with that fact. It’s increasingly becoming clear that we are not in a 3-month blip but a time of immense societal change. While we can’t stop change from happening, we can control how we respond to it so that we come through the other end even stronger than before. To help you get through this difficult period, here are our essential coping strategies if you want to know how to cope with big life changes.
An important thing to remember is: our brains are wired to resist change
Our brains are powerful tools, tools that can become weapons, and in the instance of change, that’s exactly what they become. According to Dr Srini Pillay, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, when there’s change, “the conflict sensors in the brain become activated and this causes brain chaos that we call cognitive dissonance. This activation of the conflict sensor becomes stressful for people.” Put simply, Cognitive Dissonance is that uncomfortable feeling that you get where you try to maintain two inconsistent beliefs at the same time or when you believe in one thing but act in a contradictory way. For example, in the case of the Coronavirus, many of us know things have changed drastically but our brains are struggling to really believe it. This discrepancy and conflict of feelings within us can be very unnerving but it is normal.
How to cope with big life changes
The first step to coping with change is to understand the brain’s initial response to it. If you understand that this ‘stress response’ is just the initial reflex while the brain processes what’s been thrown at it, then you are more likely to be able to break out of this spiral and to accept the change as the new normal. Secondly, it’s good to acknowledge that everyone has a different personality so everyone’s response will be different. According to Dr Pillay, for those who seek novelty, change is usually easier to swallow, while those who feel most comfortable with the status quo will find life transitions more challenging. However you deal with change, that’s okay. Don’t compare yourself to others as change doesn’t affect everyone equally. If you keep both of these important facts front of mind, the following 16 coping strategies will help maintain your mental health in the weeks and months ahead.
1. Don’t fight it, find healthy ways to deal with it
In times of big change, it can be so easy to lose track of ourselves. If we feel like we’re being tossed about by life and like we’ve lost our footing, then the feelings of intense anxiety that arise can be hard to shift. Although it’s difficult, it’s really important that we try. Obviously, this is easier said than done, since initial resistance to change is an evolutionary response as our brain shifts into protective mode. Like everything, however, with some training, our brains can learn to accept change and adapt to a different routine. Rather than wishing things were different, try finding healthy ways to deal with your emotions so that you can let them go instead. Focus on things that will increase your mood and energy levels such as:
- Being present in each moment.
- Physical activity.
- The things you can control (your routine, your to-do list, self-care, the work for the future).
2. Remind yourself that even good change can cause stress
Most people, and I say most people, because it depends on your personality type, can cope with sudden changes if they’re considered positive purely because of their mindset. Just think of major life changes such as becoming a parent for the first time, buying a house or getting a promotion – these are both very big and often stressful changes to our lives, so why, if these same conflict sensors are activated, can we deal with ‘positive’ change better? Put simply, it’s because we view them differently. When we have the right perspective, we can channel our stress into being proactive which eventually helps us get through this anxious and uncertain time. On the other end of the spectrum, when it’s a negative change, our brains default to a negative bias as a protective mechanism. With uncertainty, our brain automatically expects the worst as it doesn’t like the odds of equations with unknown variables. Studies have shown this, “wherein people who are uncertain, 75% of people mispredict when bad things are going to happen. “ Still thinking about how to cope with big changes that cause uncertainty?
- Recognise that your brain will go into an automatic negativity bias.
- Redirect uncertainty by repeating neutral self-talk phrases out loud – e.g. “Feeling uncertain doesn’t mean the future is negative; it just means I don’t know what it holds at this moment” – this is a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy technique.
- Reframe your perspective – focus on positive details as much as possible and try to find an opportunity or lesson in the situation. This will help you find empowerment in the situation rather than feeling helpless.
3. Create a realistic plan
The best way to deal with the negative emotions that come with times of big change and uncertainty is to take control of what you can. Instead of getting swept away with the stressful tide (which considerably adds to the feeling of unease and helplessness), make a plan for what you can do to ease it. Start by writing down a list of everything that requires your attention. It could be a mixture of personal and business tasks, anything that you’d like to get done. Once you have your list, you can prioritise and plan when you want these items to get done. A simple to-do list can help you to regain some sense of control and it keeps your mind focused. And that’s not even mentioning the satisfying feeling that you get when you can cross these tasks off as done. Think small wins every day. If you want to take this action plan a step further, then think about setting yourself some goal intentions. I say “intentions” because you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself during an already stressful time. So what do you intend to do? Do you want to focus on self-care or your business development during this time? Whatever it is, be specific and add an actual time to it. E.g. I will meditate 10 minutes every morning or I will focus on business development for 20 minutes every Tuesday and Friday.
4. Keep to your regular schedule as much as possible
The more change that is happening, the more important it is to stick to your regular schedule. Again, this comes down to you taking control of what you can. The more control that you have, the less uncertain you will feel and the more able you will be to accept the changes that are happening around you. Having some things that stay the same, like getting up at 8 am and checking the news with a cup of tea or settling down before bed to read a chapter of your book, gives us an anchor. These routines and habits remind us that some things stay the same and that’s calming for the mind. Not only that, but studies have also shown that when we concentrate on tasks at hand, this gives our unconscious mind a chance to keep processing and problem-solving, resulting in us reaching better decisions than when we are actively thinking about it. If you’re very stressed and anxious, try writing down your routine so that you can tick it off as you go each day. It’s one less thing for your brain to think about.
5. Exercise often, however you can
It’s really difficult to motivate yourself to exercise when confined to the house, but we all know that exercise is good for us. It boosts our mood, it helps us sleep better, it keeps us healthy, and it significantly reduces symptoms of depression. Where you can, try adding it into your routine every day. You can start with a little every day and then keep adding to it, whatever works best for you. It’s just essential for your physical and mental health that you do something. Perhaps you have some gym equipment at home or you can use household items? Maybe you get enough exercise when you clean the house or you prefer to put on some music and dance around the living room? Whatever it is, it’s important to get moving to get those endorphins flowing. The recommendation to stay strong is three to four times a week for 15-20 minutes per session.
6. Try to eat as healthily as possible
I appreciate that this is a hard one to keep on top of and you are not alone. According to Consultant Nutritionist Dr Rupali Datta, “People eat a lot of food to comfort themselves and divert their attention from the current situation. They turn to mostly sugary and high-fat foods to feel relieved.” At a time where we are all at home and we’re feeling sad or fed up, it’s almost a reflex to turn to bad and unhealthy food as the last thing we want to do is to spend time planning and cooking. All that does though is make us feel worse as sugary and fatty foods reduce our energy (causing sluggishness) and they increase symptoms of depression. So what do we do? If you want to know how to cope with big changes, start eating foods that will boost your immune system and affect your mood positively. The Association of British Dietitians recommends essential fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, Omega 3 oils), complex carbohydrates (oats, grains, brown rice), lean protein (meat, fish, eggs, lentils, beans), and whole grains, fruits and veg for essential vitamins and minerals. Like everything else that you need to do, put cooking healthily into your plan, add it into your schedule and get it done.
7. Take care of yourself
Too many of us don’t take care of our health. We get caught up in the busyness of life, we prioritise work, and we juggle until we’ve burned out. Sound familiar? It’s a sad reality, especially since our mental health is the foundation for everything that we do from our mood and wellbeing to our focus and productivity. With having to be constantly there for your clients at the moment, it’s easy to find yourself working very long hours with little in the way of a break. In a time of such anxiety and uncertainty, our self-care needs to be a priority. You may not ‘believe in it’ or you may not think it will make a difference, but like everything in life, it just takes practice. Dr Steve Orma, a CBT clinical psychologist who specializes in treating insomnia, anxiety, and stress, says that “to manage anxiety, you need to consistently check in with yourself about what you’re worried about, then address it. Just as we create routines with exercise for our physical bodies, we should do the same for our mental health.” As well as eating healthy and getting enough good quality sleep, here are a few exercises that you can add to your routine every day:
- Daily journaling
- Meditating for 10 minutes every morning
- Any form of exercise (e.g. yoga)
- Time for headspace/self-reflection
8. Seek support
No one gets through life alone, and in a time where we are confined to our homes and encouraged to social distance when we do venture outside, social support has never been so important. Numerous studies have shown that social support is essential for maintaining good physical and mental health. So what does this mean? It means that we should be talking, we should be seeking comfort in our family and friends, and we should be asking for help if we need it. Chances are, your friends and family need this too, so call them or skype them and laugh or cry together. Ask them if they are really okay. Download apps where you can play games together. Spend quality time with your family at home playing games and talking about life, when else do we get the time to really focus on this? We realised our members were needing someone to be there for them during the Coronavirus crisis. That’s why we implemented daily ‘positivity’ group calls, monthly virtual member days, alongside our more normal fortnightly accountability calls.
9. Think proactive, not reactive
It’s really easy in times of such stress to react to things emotionally, whether it’s lashing out at a family member because you’re stressed or scrubbing the whole kitchen clean because you have so much nervous energy. While this might be the easiest way to let out some of your feelings, it’s not very healthy and it doesn’t help you really deal with those feelings. For our clients, we often find ourself explaining the difference between busyness that is reactive and busyness that is proactive. Being busy as a reaction to stress often involves you being less productive and carrying out low-value tasks just to feel like you’re actually doing something. This tends to be more of an avoidance mechanism and it doesn’t serve any purpose other than to exacerbate the stress. With proactive busyness, this is where you channel your stress into a plan to make sure that you’re prioritising that high-value work that will make the biggest difference, the tasks that will serve to relieve your stress. So in your situation now, if you have your routine ticking along and you want to be more proactive, think about what you can take charge of now to help you be in a better position later. This can be personal tasks or tasks for work. For example, is there anything that you can do which will have a positive impact on you now but will also make a difference later? Perhaps focusing on growing your social presence online? This is satisfying your social needs now but it is also essential for networking and winning new clients when everything is back up and running later. In fact, many of our members are finding by being proactive on social media they are winning clients right now.
10. Turn venting into action
Everyone is in a very similar position at the moment so talking about it is inevitable. While this is great for support and not feeling alone, it can get detrimental if the people you are talking to are solely venting. This negativity and panic can be contagious. Positive social support of high quality can enhance resilience to stress, so if you’re talking to family or friends and their negativity is affecting you, try gearing the conversation towards action. Brainstorm together and talk about what you can do to make yourselves feel better? Hopefulness can be contagious too.
11. Delegate or outsource low-value tasks
There must be some tasks that you can delegate or outsource to take the pressure off you during this difficult time. After all, we can only spin so many plates. If you have a team that you’re managing, delegate tasks or projects to them; they are there to help you. If you have certain tasks that you want to do but they are taking too much time, outsource them. I know this is a time of financial hardship for many, but if you can outsource the low-value tasks to give you more time to focus on the big picture stuff, then that’s a win in my eyes.
12. Build-in brain breaks
With such strong feelings of uncertainty and unease, our focus is going to be affected. We are all wondering how to cope with big changes right now and we’re doing the best that we can so naturally, we are not going to be as productive as we are used to. Instead of trying to firefight through your days, accept this and build-in brain breaks to your plan. The Pomodoro Technique has long told us that we focus best in 25-30 minutes spurts. One scientific study, in particular, one in the journal Cognition endorsed this work-and-rest approach as it found that performance gradually decreased when people work 50 straight minutes at a task and that they were more productive if they took two short breaks within this same period of time. So what does this mean? It means that for every focused task that we do, after 25-30 minutes, we need to complete a brain break activity for 1-3 minutes. ‘Brain breaks’ are short creative bursts for your brain, a period of “intelligent unfocus” which can jumpstart your ability to navigate major change. How? Because they stimulate your brain in a different way which improves concentration and efficiency while relieving stress. The most effective brain breaks incorporate some level of physical movement to stimulate neurological pathways and help both hemispheres of the brain work together (e.g. doodling, a pressure point massage, stretching etc). As explained by Dr Pillay, when you’re focused, you are collecting different pieces of a puzzle with your mind, but unfocused time is the time you give to your mind to get these puzzle pieces together. When trying to cope with such a big change, we need to be spending more time in a reflective and problem-solving state, otherwise, we are not going to put those puzzle pieces together. This results in higher stress levels so make sure to give your brain time to recharge so that it can run more efficiently.
13. Make gratitude your new focus
A simple but effective way of putting your situation into perspective is to focus on gratitude. What are you most thankful for? What is going really well in your life right now? What do you appreciate? Start off each day with writing down three things that you are grateful for, they can be anything at all from your health and your family to that essential cup of coffee in the morning. Focusing on the positives is a very healthy mindset to try and nurture. Has this sudden change made you and your family closer? Has it made you start practising healthier habits? Has it made you become more assertive, grateful, or courageous? Are you getting a buzz from being really close and helpful with your clients right now? Maybe it has helped you prioritise what is most important in your life. It is very easy to focus on the negatives, but change always presents us with the opportunity to grow so it’s important to acknowledge how things have gotten better as a result of it.
14. Work through any grief and loss
This may seem like a weird tip to give but bear with me. When addressing the question “how do you deal with sudden change?” you have to address grief and loss. Why? Because we don’t just experience these feelings when losing a loved one. Grief and loss can often be found at the heart of major life changes, especially ones that we have little or no control over. Just look at our current situation with the Coronavirus. Lots of people have lost loved ones but many have also lost jobs; many people’s businesses may go under, many have gone under, many can’t physically see their relatives, many people are stuck in a foreign country, many have to cancel their weddings, and the list could go on. Maybe your accountancy practice was growing rapidly until the Coronavirus hit? Trying to navigate this major time of change can feel like a loss in many ways so the only way to come out the other end stronger for it is to progress through the grief process and let these feelings go.
15. Limit your exposure to social media and the news
There’s power in knowledge, it allows us to properly take care of ourselves, but sometimes the more we know, the more overwhelmed and worried we feel. Social media and the news can fuel feelings of panic and helplessness, so take a step back from it during this time and limit your exposure to it as much as possible. Social media, especially, evokes negative feelings. During stressful times like this, it can be very easy to browse through the “highlight reels” of everyone’s lives and feel like you’re the only one who’s struggling. If you find that you’re comparing yourself to others, step away from it. With both social media and the news, try to schedule in a certain amount of time each day to look at it and that’s it. A small window of time after you finish work is ideal. Not only does this help you keep focused during the day but it gives you time to wind down before bed too.
16. Don’t be so hard on yourself
The biggest secret for how to cope with big changes is to give yourself a break. It’s okay to feel a little out of control or scared or depressed. This is normal when life as we know it has changed so drastically. You shouldn’t push yourself too much or set your expectations too high as you won’t be functioning at 100% right now, so give yourself a break when you need it. If you’re finding it hard, don’t be hard on yourself. Focus on the good, the positives and laugh as much as you can. Laughing increases dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins which all serve to make you feel good.
Change will happen, all we can do is cope with it
We can rarely if ever, control major life changes like the Coronavirus, but we can control how we cope with it. Knowing how to cope with big changes can become easier once you break it down, the most important things to remember though are to recognise that our brains initially resist change which makes us feel scared and that everyone copes with change differently. Only we can control how we cope with change and we can cope with by implementing these 16 strategies into our daily life. They may take a lot of practice and we will need to prioritise them but they will get us through this tough period with our mental health intact. In fact, for many of us, we may even come out the other end much stronger.