Psychologists Explain The 7-Step Process Of Handling Sudden Life Changes

by JR Thorpe
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Sometimes life is unpredictable — and if you're dealing with an unexpected life change, you may find it difficult to cope. "Sometimes tough times will be triggered by a singular event which comes on suddenly and acutely — like a diagnosis, a natural disaster, a national tragedy, a breakup with your partner, betrayal by your sister, or the death of your pet," Annie Wright, a marriage and family therapist at Evergreen Counseling in California, tells Bustle. Big events have a way of sweeping us off our feet, and it can be difficult to know how to deal with them in the moment, and as you move forward.

If you feel a sense of numbness or disconnection when the event happens, that's very natural, Heidi McBain, a professional counselor and marriage and family therapist in Texas, tells Bustle. "Unexpected major life changes often start with feelings of shock and disbelief," she says. "People often feel a sense of numbness." Even if the major change seems positive — perhaps you come into a big sum of money, or fall suddenly in love — you can still experience confusion and emotional disconnection. Here's how to cope with unexpected life events in ways that will keep you grounded.


Expect To Feel Disoriented

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It's to be expected that a big upheaval will leave you very confused, experts tell Bustle. "Whatever and however the tough time in your life is triggered and no matter how often they occur, it’s common for many of us to experience shock and disorientation in this stage — like we have no clue what’s up, what’s down, and what’s true for us anymore," Wright tells Bustle. "When the external or internal structures of our lives change — whether or not we wanted them or initiated them — it can be very unsettling and destabilizing on every level, especially emotionally." This confusion doesn't mean there's something wrong; it's your body's natural reaction to a large change that you didn't prepare to experience.


Avoid Putting Limits On Yourself

However you process what's happened, it's important to remember that your own reactions are very individual, particularly when it comes to hard events like grief or losing your job. "Some people are ready to talk about their pain much earlier than others," McBain tells Bustle. "The amount of time differs for everyone." There's no one way to feel or cope with an unexpected life change, because all life changes are different and so are all people, experts tell Bustle.

"The duration, frequency, acuity, and triggers of these tough times are going to be unique for each of us and there is no one prescriptive formula for what causes them, how they will feel, how long they will last, or what you will personally need to get through them," Wright tells Bustle. If you try a method recommended by somebody else who went through something similar and it doesn't make you feel better, that doesn't mean anything negative about your coping process, and nobody should judge you about it.


Ground Yourself

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If you've been caught in a figurative tornado, things may seem very disorganized and strange, Wright says — and one of the best ways to reorient yourself is to try and find some stability. "When destabilization and disorientation happens, it’s time to stabilize and ground in order to bring some solidity back to your emotional and mental worlds," she tells Bustle. Exercises like mindfulness meditation, or grounding techniques, can help you feel more in contact with the world around you and provide a more grounded feeling.


Look For Support

People often look for ways to help in times of great crisis or upheaval, McBain tells Bustle, with small gestures like bringing a meal or saying they're around to talk. Take them up on it, and let people know what's happened to you.

"When the crisis happens, we may not be able to think and plan and act effectively," Wright tells Bustle. "Because of this, it’s important that we let those who know and care about us, and/or those who may be better equipped and trained to support us, know what’s going on." Even if you don't feel up to telling others yourself, it's a good idea to deputize people to tell your nearest and dearest about what's happened, so you have a support network ready to give aid.


Take Life Five Minutes At A Time


Stress can seriously hamper our ability to think about or plan for the future. "Sometimes when tough times descend, our capacity to do and think into the future is compromised by the emotional turmoil swirling inside of us," Wright tells Bustle. One method of combatting this, she says, is to reduce your attention to the smallest chunk of time possible.

"If five minutes is all you can think about getting through — whether it’s just the actions you need to complete to change the cat’s litter box, or how to set your alarm for work tomorrow and program the coffee maker — then that’s good enough," Wright says. "Take it five minutes at a time." Short-term planning can help get you through the days while you recover enough to make bigger plans later.


Feel All Your Feelings

You may be experiencing a lot of stuff emotionally as a result of your unexpected experience: grief, anger, happiness, resentment, and the list goes on. Experts tell Bustle that it's important not to repress any of those feelings, even if you're not sure exactly why you're feeling them. "One of your tasks in this stage is to comfort yourself as much as you possibly can to help ease your own pain," Wright tells Bustle. "This includes allowing yourself permission to feel your feelings — all of them!" Without shame or self-censoring, look at your emotions right now, and consider journaling or writing them down if you don't want to talk about them.


Consider Seeing A Counselor


A counselor can be a really good move if you've experienced something sudden and it's causing a lot of emotional upheaval, particularly if your feelings involve grief. Grief counselors, McBain tells Bustle, can help people through the initial difficult time of a big change, and also help them move forward with future planning. However, you have to be ready to talk about what's happened, and it might be too fresh and raw for a while, so take it at your own pace.


Unexpected events are a part of life. "They’re baked into this human contract we signed up for," Wright tells Bustle. However, with a few tips and tricks you can get through the initial shock and disbelief without being completely disoriented — and hopefully build a good foundation to move forward eventually.