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10 Tips for Successfully Navigating Major Life Transitions

Transitions are hard, but we can learn how to react to transitions in ways that help us thrive.

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We are currently dealing with a global pandemic that has forced all of us into a time of transition to varying degrees. Some of us have had our lives changed immeasurably, while others have only had to make relatively minor adjustments to their daily lives. However, we are all facing a life transition.

Life Transitions Happen to All of Us

Most major life transitions consist of a series of smaller transitions that pile on top of each other. For some people, their work has continued through the pandemic and their social lives may have even continued more or less as before. However, others have lost their jobs, lost their homes, have children who cannot attend school in person, and don’t know how they will get back on their feet. The latter is an example of a major life transition that is caused by a series of smaller transitions happening all at once.

We all have times in our lives where transitions pile up. When transitions accumulate and we find ourselves going through major transitions, we have to stop, focus, and figure out a new way of doing things. We have to adjust to a new way of living.

Life transitions include things like moving, getting married or getting divorced, starting or leaving a job, moving, adding a child to your family, having a serious illness or injury, losing a loved one, losing a pet, or any other major loss. As we have seen by living during a pandemic, transitions can affect large groups of people – natural disasters lead to major life transitions for thousands of people at a time. Or, they can impact only you and your immediate family. 

Bruce Feiler, author of Life is in the Transitions writes, “Lifequakes may be voluntary or involuntary, but navigating the transitions that flow from them can only be voluntary. We must choose to deploy the skills.” He explains that we can all learn skills to help us move through transitions more successfully. Our response and reaction to transitions that is always voluntary.

Regardless of the type of transition you face, you are likely to be experiencing a wide range of emotions. Fear, anxiety, sadness, stress, loneliness, longing, tiredness, and sleeplessness are common emotions that can be hard to handle. You may be feeling more positive emotions too, depending on the type of transition, such as excitement, relief, and joy. You may even feel a mixture of these emotions. For many people going through major life transitions, they are simply overwhelmed and don’t know where to turn for help.

I have recently dealt with the loss of my mother after a 3.5-year battle with cancer, in addition to dealing with the pandemic. In my reading about transitions both for building our company, All Life Transitions, and for my own personal growth, I have learned a lot. I know I don’t have all the answers, but these tips are helping me navigate this time of change. I hope they will help you too.

Tips for Navigating Life Transitions

1. Ignore advice about passing linearly through specific stages.

A lot of writing on transitions refers to stages and processes that you must pass through. People talk about problems caused by “skipping steps” of grieving. In my own grieving, I wondered what those steps were. I haven’t seen a “how-to grieve successfully” manual. Feiler’s research shows that transitions rarely follow a clear, linear process. More often, transitions are described as zigzags, rollercoasters, loops, and curlicues. I find this approach makes more sense and takes pressure off of me from feeling the need to grieve or transition “properly.”

2. Know that you aren’t alone – changes is inevitable.

Feiler’s research also shows that life changes are happening with increasing frequency and that the average person spends nearly half his/her life responding to major transitions. There is something about transitions and hard times that can make us feel alone. We feel like no one understands our pain, and yet, most of the transitions we have are things that others have faced too. While the details and circumstance may be unique to each of us individually, there is a good chance that others do know how we are feeling and may even be a great resource.

 “Even an online community of people going through similar experiences can give you an emotional boost, as well as some practical tips,” Susan Krauss Whitbourne, writes. Just know – you are not alone, and if you don’t know where to turn, there are many resources available to you online and in this article.

3. Focus on your successful transitions.

Given that we all go through multiple life changes, you have probably had to navigate major life changes before. Whether it was a move as a child or moving out on your own – you have likely experienced other transitions. Maybe the transition you are going through now is bigger and more difficult than any before but thinking back on previous transitions and focusing on how you survived can be helpful. It can be a good reminder that you have done hard things in the past. Author, Glennon Doyle, reminds us that, while life can be difficult, “We can do hard things.”

4. Give yourself time.

Feiler’s research show that it takes 3-5 years to progress through major transitions. This is a long time! However, it helps to know that your long time of change is not unique. It’s simply a part of life.

My mom was diagnosed with leukemia about 3.5 years before she died, and now I’m dealing with her death. After reading Feiler’s book, I realized this entire time has been full of transitions. From her initial diagnosis and early treatment, where she stayed with us a lot of the time, to her later treatments where she was treated closer to her own home. Like other cancer patients, her journey was a rollercoaster with a series of highs and lows and twists and turns. Our lives were driven by a force beyond our control. We never knew what each day would bring.

Eventually, she exhausted her treatment options. She ended up on hospice care and passed away two weeks later. That was the ultimate “transition,” which is the hospice word for dying.

Now, I’m in the final stages of this transition – the grieving, mourning, and recovery process. I don’t know how much longer it will last, but just knowing that transitions take 3-5 years, and I’m a good 3.5 years in gives me a sense of comfort. It makes me feel like it is alright if I’m still struggling for a good while longer.

I hope you feel the same way regardless of what your transition is. It’s going to take time, and that’s ok. This is why we need to learn to navigate our transitions as well as possible. They are a big chunk of our lives.

5. Avoid self-medicating.

I’m not sure that I need to write much on this one. We all know it’s tempting to self-medicate with whatever form of self-medication you use. However, when we do so and numb our feelings, we cannot process them. Those feelings will eventually come out. It’s better to deal with them in a healthy manner; rather than trying to escape from them with self-medication.

6. Exercise.

There have been numerous studies showing how important exercise is for our body and mind. We know that for some people, exercise can be one of the best treatments for depression. (For people with severe depression, exercise alone is likely not enough.) However, we all know that it can be hard to exercise when you are feeling down.

My suggestion is to start slow and start with something you enjoy even a little bit. If all you can do is a short walk today, then do that. Start where you are and have grace for yourself. If exercising twice a week seems overwhelming, do one day a week. You do not have to go from no exercise to doing it all. Have patience with yourself and accept your limits.

We are living in a time where you can find endless workout videos for all types of workouts for free online. If you have not been exercising at all, you might try some different programs and see what you enjoy.

It is also very helpful to have an exercise buddy. If you are going through a life change and have people offering to help you, take someone up on it, and ask them to exercise with you. Whatever you do, just get started.

Personally, I started working out again two years ago – in the middle of my transition time. I started with a beginner workout class twice a week. I was committed and didn’t miss a class, but that was all I did. Eventually, I added in walking or yoga on other days. Then I added in more strength training and running. Now I regularly workout five to seven days a week. My key to keeping going was starting small and doing what I could at the time.

Gradually, the health benefits and the mood improvements gained from exercise made working out something I look forward to doing. I plan my day around my workouts and make sure that I don’t run out of time for taking care of myself.

7. Practice mindfulness and gratitude.

It seems like in the past five years or so there was been a lot of talking about mindfulness and gratitude. In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, uses research to show that we can choose happiness and influence our mood for the better with some simple activities. Similarly, in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, she shares the tools and behaviors that she used to help get through the sudden death of her husband.

Both of them wrote about focusing on gratitude, as have numerous other researchers and writers. Basically, a gratitude practice is taking time in your day to notice things to be grateful for and writing them down. Even in our darkest hours, we can find something for which to be grateful. The act of writing down that which we are grateful for is particularly beneficial.

Similarly, mindfulness is something that has been studied and written about for decades, but it is becoming increasingly popular. Mindfulness refers to being fully present in the moment, free from judgement, aware of our thoughts and feelings but not focusing on them. Practicing mindfulness can help reduce our stress and increase happiness. There are many great resources and books available on mindfulness and even classes to learn more like the MBSR – Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

8. Lean on your network of support – family, friends, and online communities.

When you are struggling, the people who love you want to help. However, they often don’t know what to do. They may make vague offers of help because they don’t know what else to do. Accept those offers for help. We have times in our lives where we are the ones offering to help, and we have times where our job is to accept offers of help.

9. Learn from others.

While there has not been a lot of research done on transitions, there has been some. I highly recommend Bruce Feiler’s book, Life is in the Transitions. If you are finding yourself in an unplanned and difficult transition, Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B may be a great resource for you, too.

10. Follow curiosity and be creative.

Sometimes the hardest part of a transition is not knowing what comes next. If you are dealing with a loss of some sort, you may feel a hole or void. Elizabeth Gilbert author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, encourages us to follow the things we are curious about even if we don’t know where it will lead us. Gilbert writes, “I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” If there is something you are curious about, this may be the best time to explore it.

You do not have to know where it is going to take you, and you should not expect this curiosity to lead you to a career. You should just explore and see what happens. Gilbert encourages us all to create something – whether it’s art, writing, food, a garden, or whatever – creativity is part of us all. Gilbert writes, “Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants to lead you. Keep in mind that for most of history people just made things, and they didn’t make such a big freaking deal out of it.”

I encourage you to use this time of transition to explore your creative side. Many of us are already doing this during the pandemic as evidenced by the many pictures of sourdough bread, Tik Tok dance videos, and musical performances we see on social media. There is something about a time of transition that makes us want to create. I hope you will allow yourself to do so.

In closing, while transitions may be voluntary or involuntary, we must voluntarily choose how to respond to them. We can choose to take action and respond in ways that are productive and even creative. We can lean on our support systems, and we can come out of transitions better than before if we choose to do the work. in Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire: The Guide to Being Glorious You, Jen Hatmaker writes, “Insist that you are worth the work, because the people who adore you are worth your best.” I think this is pretty great advice for us all.

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