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  • On Transitions: Navigating a Major Life Change

    Try as we might, nobody can avoid life changes. To some extent, the changes we go through define who we are as individuals. Adolescents eventually grow into adults. People move and undergo different experiences. While nobody can avoid transitions, nearly everyone experiences anxiety around major life shifts. Many feel unsupported and lost when undergoing transitions, and often transitions make us feel like we’ve lost control of our lives. But change doesn’t have to impair your mental health. Change is not necessarily a bad thing; it can lead to growth. Knowing the right tools facilitates the task of navigating the endless array of life changes you are bound to experience. 

    Transitions take many forms. They may be psychological or external. They may be intentional, or unintentional, or a mixture of both. They may affect your life in both positive and negative ways. External transitions include starting a college, changing jobs, moving, and having a child. These transitions inform the way we think about our lives. 

    For years, developmental psychologists held that the prominence of memories was most closely associated with age (e.g. people can recall memories from adolescence to early adulthood with more ease than other stages of life — a phenomenon labeled the  “reminiscence bump”). But new research suggests that an analysis that includes significant life transitions and brain development can predict the way people organize their memories more reliably than age alone. Changing residence during middle adulthood ( a period with few developmental changes) can significantly impact memory organization in ways similar to adolescence. This occurrence has been studied by Princeton Ph.D. candidate Karalyn Enz, who labels it the “relocation bump.” In other words, transitions have such an impact on your psychology that they are able to rearrange the way your brain stores memories. They alter the familiar landscapes of our lives, and people often feel lost and unsupported while experiencing them. 

    After leaving his career as a Literature professor at Mills College, William Bridges taught a seminar about transitions. What he learned from analyzing the transitions others had undergone inspired him to write a book exploring the anatomy and nature of transitions. The thesis of the book is that every major transition includes three stages: an old way of life ending, an awkward “neutral” period of adjustment, and a new way of life beginning. Bridges spends the most time discussing the ending stage, which tends to be the most complex and underappreciated part of a transition. 

    An ending is not just an event, but a psychological process. It does involve physically disengaging from an old way of life (a job, a location, etc.). But beyond the physical, you have to come to terms with the fact that the way you define yourself is also changing. We tend to form our identities based on our constants: jobs, the people we interact with, and the places we live. But a transition can change those things, and thus change your sense of your own identity, a process Bridges refers to as disidentification. Not only does the way you define yourself change, but the way you see the world and the trajectory of your life also become foggy. 

    This fogginess is the neutral zone between two ways of life. Your old view of the world and your place in it has come to an end, but you have yet to develop a new sense of identity. Bridges harkens to “other times and places” where people undergoing a transition would leave their familiar milieu and venture alone into the forest or desert so they can let their old identity die, and a new one take its place. Bridges views this period of solitude between lives as vital to one’s ability to navigate a transition. Awareness of the stages of transitions may not make the process less difficult or painful, but it may allow you to feel less lost. 

    This article will be posted at a time of transition for many people, especially many younger people who are entering college, or a new school year. Many studies have found an increase in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression during the post-secondary transition. This isn’t all too surprising. Starting college isn’t solely about embarking on an academic pursuit; it’s a pivotal personal journey. The change in routine, the exploration of uncharted social landscapes, and the forging of new relationships create a setting ripe for emotional upheaval. Because this transition is imminent, here are a few practical steps you can use to navigate this transition (or any transition, for that matter) and accompanying anxiety. 

    Firstly, you want to make sure you are prepared for the transition. Ensuring you have all your materials and schedule in place will ease the shift to your first semester. You should prepare yourself mentally for the transition, as well as physically. 

    While undergoing the transition to college, you may find it helpful to utilize your pre-existing social network to help deal with stress and anxiety. Talking to friends who are going through the same experience, or even engaging in an online community of people who are transitioning to college may prove valuable to your mental health.

    Remember to practice self-care during this process. Engaging in activities that bring you joy, such as regular exercise, journaling, or immersing yourself in hobbies you’re passionate about, acts as a reminder of your own worth and resilience. These activities aren’t mere luxuries; they are essential investments in your mental, emotional, and physical health. Remember that your journey involves not just adapting to external changes, but also shifting your self-perception and your perception of the world around you. Engaging in self-care can help you mentally adjust to your new way of life. 

    You will likely undergo a transition at some point in your life, and maybe you’re going through one right now. If you find that a transition is severely impacting your mental health, you should consider seeking out therapy to help navigate your change.