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The fact is, transitions can be our hardest moments in life and can also be our greatest growth periods. Here's how to use difficult times to build resilience and strength.

I once had a client, John, who told me he hates moving. He grew up in a military family and moved every couple of years. Just long enough to start getting settled and safe when stability was pulled out from under him like the rug from beneath his feet and off they went. The thought of moving now makes him shudder yet his wife desperately wants to change locations. This began causing all sorts of stress and conflict at home.

Another kind of story that is that of Andy, an 8 year old Oleh who was doing really well before Aliyah and is now finding it difficult to resettle and thrive after arrival. For example, from being highly positioned academically in the class Andy is now struggling to keep up with being taught in new language, is becoming highly frustrated and struggling socially and lacking self confidence.

Then there is Anna, a highly social girl who is newly married and feels highly dedicated to her new husband of whom she is proud and excited to be partnered to. She feels disappointed and deflated as she watches him going about his new life much like she imagines he did before they spiritually, physically and emotionally joined their lives together under the chuppah. She feels left out, not considered and lonely as she watches her joint plans and imagined activities together cruelly disintegrate as he goes out, yet again, without her.

Finally there is Sara who, feeling triumphant for finding her soulmate later in life has had her first baby at age 35 after worrying about the possibility of being single forever. She feels elated on the one hand but is struggling to settle her baby. She is sleep deprived, becomes easily distressed at the babies crying and is starting to feel helpless and as though she is failing at the very motherhood she was craving for. Her husband is her main support and while he works she finds herself crying and increasingly socially isolated.

These stories are all made up but come from real scenarios I have heard repeatedly in over 16 years of practice. People often seek therapy following a significant life transition. The fact is, transitions can be our hardest moments in life and can also be our greatest growth periods. How can we understand the sometimes hugely significant and sometimes shocking fluctuations in our state or mood that can accompany various life transitions, whether it be moving locations (country, school, workplace etc), moving from single to married life, to becoming a parent, ending school or retiring, etc. Also, is there a way we can navigate them to cope a little better? In order to answer these questions, we need to understand a few principles about how our psychology works which will shed light on why we can get so shaken up during transitions. This will also then guide us towards strategies to help us cope better.

First, we are wired as human beings to go through growth spurts and transitions all our lives. Each stage is accompanied by a natural amount of anxiety. Anxiety alerts us that our circumstances are changing and we need to be more alert and aware of safety. Anxiety comes with excess energy that can be channeled into all the extra tasks that are usually required to recreate familiarity, stability, structure and safety in new circumstances. Think about the soothing effect a good routine has on a baby; routine can also provide containment for adults. Therefore before and during transitions remember it’s normal to feel some anxiety; see if you can use that energy, rather than keep it locked up in the body, to create stability and structure for yourself.

For example, many new Olim enjoy the routine Ulpan gives them. Try writing a list of tasks or set goals you need to get done (writing it out can reduce the overwhelm), and at the same time, don’t forget to give yourself down time to soothe and take care of you. Also exercise and breathing helps release excess anxiety.

Second, research shows we are also wired in such a way that the interaction with our environment effects and impacts on our sense of self and our identity. That is, fairly regular and consistent empathetic and attuned recognitions from the outside environment are vital for a healthy sense of self to develop. An example of this is when an adult responds with conversation to a baby’s spontaneous proverbial cooing (eg. Oh hello there…I heard you trying to get my attention!!).

Although we are particularly vulnerable to our care environments as children for our self development, this environmental vulnerability never fully disappears even as adults and may become more prominent during transitions. For example, receiving positive feedback on a work task, on your physical appearance, on your character traits or talents may have an uplifting effect, particularly in a new environment. Moving to a new neighborhood or country and receiving social invitations or phone calls can also reaffirm a sense of self worth and value. The more resonant the environment, or the more you feel you ‘fit’ or ‘match’ in terms of feeling valued or recognized, the more content and settled you feel inside. An everyday example of resonance is when you feel really understood by another person who recognizes what you are going through and what it’s taken you to get there; it’s usually brings a sense of feeling uplifted and whole.

On the other hand, an exaggerated sense of isolation, disconnect and self doubt can also accompany transitions, which may lead to depression. It is common to feel mismatched in a new place or stage which may cause distress as finding or reestablishing resonance may take time. This resettlement process may involve a period of needing to put extra effort socially or at work, (having to navigate a new system) or the sense you need to prove yourself to reestablish your identity.

The transition process will vary in terms of how long it takes depending on a variety of factors including: developmental history, history of transitions, whether there was previous trauma, natural constitution in terms of resilience, current stressors, levels of support and history of mental health issues.

During these challenging times there are a few things you can do to ease the turmoil:

  • Recognize these feelings, understand they have a valid origin, and realize they will usually pass with time. You can expect and prepare for them to arise as standard symptoms during regular transitions.
  • Have compassion on yourself; Remember your whole framework work has changed and it doesn’t make sense to judge yourself on previous standards during this time when many of your resources are being used to navigate new system.
  • Share your feelings or vent to someone who you can trust or cares about you (eg spouse, friend, counselor, etc). If you are concerned you feel more shaken up than you can cope with, treat yourself to professional help. It may be a short term issue that can be helped easily. A close person can help you feel the resonance you need to regroup and feel contained.
  • Make sure you keep checking in with yourself. Take care of your physical, emotional and spiritual needs; remember you are using more energy than usual on re-adjustment which can be exhausting on all levels. So replenishment is vital (ex. read book, exercise, go for coffee, take a bath, go out for wholesome meal, find support groups etc) A time out for yourself can also help ex. Going on a trip or changing scenery to give you space from stressful setting.
  • Remember all transitions are opportunities for growth and resilience building! You are becoming stronger!!
  • Become a quasi-sociologist: when you experience an environmental mismatch which leaves you feeling jarred, try to understand what this behavior actually means in the new framework; maybe you got offended by very culturally appropriate behavior and therefore it wasn’t personal. These cultural bumps and bruises usually ease over time as you learn to distinguish between cultural and personal idiosyncrasies.
  • Have a sense of humor and don’t give up!
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