Hello my Zebras and Spoonies. Thank you for coming over and hanging out with me for a little while. I am really glad that you are here.
Something that we don’t tend to think of as a stressor in our lives is our life transitions. These are the times in our lives that we are having a role shift or a major change in the way that we are living. Some examples of these are marriage, the birth of a child, retiring, the death of a significant person in our life, a disabling accident, or having a chronic illness that develops to the point of disabling us, getting a new job, traveling to a new location, a new place of living, getting a new house or a new apartment, getting divorced, graduating from school (high school or college), empty nest syndrome, and many others. All of these are times in our lives where we change the roles that we’re playing. With that comes a shift in our identity and how we see ourselves.
These are always stressful times. We don’t always think about them that way, but it’s true. Whenever we change the roles that we are playing in our lives, we experience stress. These roles identify who we are and give us cues as to how we are supposed to behave with others. Role changes mean a time of uncertainty as we refigure out these rules and redefine ourselves. Traveling means going into new places where there are new cultures and where we won’t know anyone else. Births mean figuring out how we are supposed to take care of this new life and the way that we want to engage with them. Deaths mean letting go of meaningful relationships and trying to manage our grief in a healthy way. All of these times offer up their own kind of stress.
Even though many of these times are happy and pleasant, they’re still stressful. They still require us to refigure out our role in relationships and the way that we’re living our lives. If you consider marriage as an example: This is considered a happy time in your life, but it’s a very stressful time in your life. There’s a lot of planning. There’s a lot of organization. There tends to be a lot of money being spent so it tends to have a lot of financial stress. It’s also in time that you are changing the way that you live your life. You’re going from being a single person who primarily thinks about their own needs to agreeing that you are going to live cooperatively as a pair, as a partner with this other person. You have to take time to reconfigure your role. You restructure your self identity in alignment with this new role. It is a natural part of making a major change in your life.
These life transitions are stressful because change is difficult. Ironically, we do it all the time. It’s inevitable. Everything changes. Yet we as humans are very resistant to change. The bigger and the more dramatic the change is, the more resistant we are. Whether it’s a good change or bad change irrelevant. We don’t like change. As humans, we love our sameness. Our brains like to be able to predict “safe” behaviors. We do this by reflecting on our past behaviors and how things went. We repeat the behaviors that were successful and lead to positive outcomes while we avoid behaviors that lead us to negative outcomes. Once we get into safe patterns of behaviors, we don’t want to shift out of them. That means moving into the unpredictable which is anxiety provoking. This is why we don’t like change, it’s because of the unknown factors that our brains struggle with when trying to decide how to safely engage with the world. There is definitely plenty of personal variation here. Everyone has a different level of tolerance for the novel. There are many factors that can effect how much a person wants sameness versus the novel, but that is a discussion for another post.
When you have chronic illness you already have a certain degree of stress as a baseline burden. So these transition times of our lives is added on top of that baseline stress burden that we already have. If you think of stress as filling a cup, it is easy to imagine what would happen when someone has too much stress poured into that cup. It over flows and life gets really messy. Right? So, it’s important to keep that cup as empty as possible all the time so that when things happen in your life, you have room in your cup. You do this with the use of coping skills to help manage the day to day stress in your life. You also need to look at the things that are in your life and consider if they are worth being there given the stress that they cause you. We can also try to anticipate these life transitions as much as possible. Sometimes these things happen without warning and we just have to take life as it comes. But there are many times that these events are things that can be foreseen and planned for. When we are planning for these events, part of it should be planning how to mitigate and manage the stress that will inevitably come with them.
There are conditions that can influence the outcome of our transitions; how well we move through these times in our lives and how stressed out we become. Considering and using these conditions is a way of coping with the situation when is arrives. These become coping skills for managing the stress related to life transitions.
Whenever we have a life transition, there will be an inevitable emotional response to that change. It is important to be mindful and respectful of those emotions. Give yourself time to feel what ever it is that you are feeling without judgement. Remind yourself that feelings are from the part of our brain that is chaos and they do not follow the rules of logic and order. Our feelings often don’t seem logical or makes sense. That’s ok. They don’t need to. Just let them be what they are. Allow yourself to feel what you are feeling even if it doesn’t make sense or follow the lines of logic. Sometimes we feel sad and we don’t know why. That’s ok. It’s part of being human. Remind yourself that feelings are neither good nor bad, they just are. Only our actions hold the values of good and bad.
When we go through transitions in our lives, we ascribe meaning to them. Whether we do so consciously or not, we always do this. We have the power to take active control over this process by analyzing the situation and choosing what meaning we will ascribe to these events rather then allowing our subconscious mind do that work for us. This takes work and often means confronting difficult ideas, but it can lead to better outcomes in our lives. This is an especially useful coping skill to use when the life transition is a difficult one such as the death of a loved one or the loss of your physical function.
When we look at a transition in our lives, whether we ascribe a positive meaning or a negative meaning to that event will greatly determine the way that we engage with the stress. If we ascribe positive meaning to an event, we are more likely to engage with that event in a more positive way then if we ascribe a negative meaning to an event. Ascribing meaning is the intellectual, logic driven process that our brains use to try to understand our world and the things that happen within our lives. It is a process completely separate from our emotional response. This is important, because emotions don’t have value. Emotions aren’t positive or negative. They just are what they are. However, logical meaning does carry this value of being positive or negative.
Let’s look at an example of how this works. An inherently emotionally difficult event is when a loved one dies. What meaning we ascribe to their death can change how well we cope with their death. We can ascribe a negative meaning: “They have been wrongfully taken.” Or we can ascribe a positive meaning: “It was their time.” If their lives ended after a long battle with a disease, we can choose to ascribe “they lost their fight” or “they are no longer suffering.” Note that none of these meanings negate the emotional suffering that this loss causes. However, the meanings you choose to ascribe to their death will become the frame work for the way that you approach your grief.
When transitions happen sometimes they’re super sudden and there aren’t really any expectations. So this one doesn’t always come into play. If you had a sudden accident that disabled you there won’t be time for you to anticipate and imagine what was coming. Thus, expectations isn’t gonna come into play. But then there are other times when we can see changes in our lives coming. Most life transitions are like this. When we move, get a new job, get a divorce, get married etc. there is time for us to imagine what our future will be like after that transition has taken place.
When we have time to imagine the outcome of a transition, we will begin to develop expectations regarding that outcome. We will base those expectations on our previous life experiences, on our anxiety levels and our general personality. Our expectations are going to influence our emotional response: whether we dread the upcoming transition or we look forward to it with excitement. Thus, how we imagine our future can have a huge impact on how well we move through the major transitions in our lives.
When we consider how our chronic illness will effect us over time, we begin to imagine our future. If we are told that are prognosis is that we will eventually become wheelchair bound due to joint degradation, we will begin to imagine what life in a wheel chair will be like. How we imagine that life will have a huge impact on our expectations for the future. Do we imagine ourselves as helpless and needing the constant assistance of others? Or do we imagine ourselves learning to use the wheel chair and a sliding board to be completely independent with our mobility? The difference between these projections are huge and will greatly effect the expectations that you have for the future. They will also change the way that you plan for that future.
Knowledge is power. Cliché, I know, but it really is true. The more we know about an upcoming transition in our lives, the more empowered we can be regarding it. Like expectations, knowledge requires having foresight of the transition and thus it will not always come into play. But when we can use knowledge, it is a power house.
When you look at an event that’s happening in your life and you know nothing about it, there will be more anxiety. The fear of the unknown will kick in. If we do research or we talk to people who have gone through similar things we can get a better idea of what to expect. This will shape the way that we imagine our future. When left with the unknown, we often imagine the worse possible outcomes in an effort to be prepared for future challenges. But the reality is rarely what we imagine it to be. Knowledge allows us to more clearly and realistically imagine the future. It also allows us to build a better, more complete plan for the possibilities we will face.
Planning for events can greatly help us cope with them. Planning gives us a sense of control over our lives. It helps us shape the outcome of the transition into the one we most desire. Planning is built on a foundation of knowledge and expectations. Once we have an understanding of the possible outcomes from others who have moved through the same transition, we can imagine which future we desire. We can then plan for how to best achieve that desired out come. Planning reinforces our sense of security because it requires knowledge and organization that help us better understand what is coming. It helps dispel the unknown and the anxiety that comes with it.
When you have chronic illness our emotional and physical reserves are definitely a factor. These are greatly affected by the status of our chronic illness. There’s always this chronic emotional and physical demand on our bodies and when you have a life transition there is a new demand on our emotional and physical reserves. Depending upon how much left over resources you have, will greatly affect how well you move through this transition. So it comes down to the idea of “how many spoons do you have?” If you’ve got 10 spoons, you’re gonna go through this transition much better than if you have 1 spoon. It is always important to do our best to maintain a good baseline management of our chronic illness to shore up and store up our spoons. That way, when things come at us in life, we have the most spoons possible.
That being said, there is always a limit to the number of spoons to be had, regardless of how well you are managing your chronic illness. Additionally, the life transition can be enough extra stress to through you into a flare which can steal away any extra spoons that you had. Being aware of your spoons is essential. Always consider what things in your life can be set aside or delegated to someone else. Being successful doesn’t mean doing everything yourself. No successful business has a CEO who doesn’t know how to set things aside or delegate tasks to others. Being successful means that you are making sure the important things are getting done. Who is doing them doesn’t matter. Well, as long as they are qualified for the task. Please, keep this in mind when the stress loads are high.
The last thing that can greatly affect the way that we transition through these life changes and these life events, is the amount of support we get from other people and I think that sometimes this one is undervalued. And don’t try to tell me that this isn’t a coping skill. Asking for help when you need it is absolutely a coping skill. There is no shame in getting assistance with tasks. Please, go back to the spoons section and reread the part about the CEO. No successful person does everything all by themselves. In fact, I’d argue that the more successful someone is, the more people they have supporting them.
But support isn’t always about completing a task. Just having other people there with us, giving us emotional support can make a huge difference. Just knowing that people care about you and want you to succeed, can go a long way in having a successful outcome. Don’t be afraid to call a friend to talk about the challenges that you are facing. Also keep in mind that there are many professional resources available to use as supports during difficult times. This isn’t limited to just those that work in health care. Having a house keeper come over for 1 day to clean your house can alleviate a lot of stress and burden.
The next time that you think about the changes in your life and the way that things are happening in your life, consider the things that will influence the way that you move through these transitions. How do you ascribe meaning to your transition? What are the expectations that you’re having in regards to that transition? What do you know about the upcoming transition? How much planning can you do for this upcoming transition? What are your emotional and physical reserves? What level of support can you get during this process of transition?
As always, thank you for coming and until next time, please take good care of yourselves.