Coping with Change – How to Adapt and Avoid Getting Trapped

coping with change

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

— Socrates


Change can be scary. Being thrown out of our routine life and into something new can set our world spinning, and we may not know how to handle things right away. Unexpected and unplanned change can also cause a tremendous amount of anxiety. We all adapt and deal with changes in our lives in different ways, but we commonly fall into “traps” that make these big changes more difficult that they need to be. Below are some common traps we may fall into when coping with change in our lives, and ways to avoid them, escape them, and move on.

Coping with Change Trap – “Denial”

One common method of dealing with this change is to simply avoid dealing with it altogether. Refuse to acknowledge the change and deny its existence or effects on our lives. This might look like obstinacy or hard-headedness, but in truth, this is one way that we may try to protect ourselves from the change going on around us—clinging all the more rigidly to our old ways of being in the face of new circumstances. In some ways, this might prove an effective way of limiting our distress when changes arise, but it is not a sustainable approach to dealing with change (since it isn’t really dealing with the change at all).

Consider John, whose breakup two months ago has left him feeling overwhelmed, lost, and alone. John has a difficult time thinking or discussing this recent change in his life, and as such, has not returned the calls of his friends or family who have reached out to support him. Instead, he continues to reach out to his ex-partner, convinced that she will come back. “She loves me too much for this to really be over,” he explains, “I know she’ll come back.” When his friends and family suggest he stop calling or that he move on, John becomes angry and rejects this advice, saying that they “just don’t understand!”

This is a form of denial; instead of adjusting to his new life, John has chosen to cling more rigidly to his relationship—despite the fact that it ended two months ago. Choosing to deny or avoid accepting the changes in his life will hold him back from moving on and adapting to his new life, and if he continues to withdraw, his relationships with others may suffer as well.

How to Adapt

The first step in working through denial is to examine the facts no matter how painful they are to admit. Facts here are defined as things that are indisputably true in the present. In John’s case, the primary fact he is avoiding is that his partner broke up with him. This is an event that did happen. He has a memory of it. The second step in confronting denial is asking yourself, “What is now different in my life based on these facts?” This encourages us to accept that life does change based on events that happen both on a macro and micro level in our lives. The last step in confronting denial is asking yourself, “What are my choices now that life is different?” The perception of a lack of choices is what makes us fall into the next trap.

Coping with Change Trap – “Powerlessness”

Despite how it may feel, the change itself is not the frightening thing; the uncertainty and lack of control that change threatens us with is the truly scary part. This is one of the main reasons why we may wish to avoid dealing with change at all—the prospect of being out of control of our lives is one that is so threatening and so scary that facing it head on can feel impossible. In these situations, it can be easy to feel completely powerless in the face of the changes happening to us, but this is an exaggeration of the mind.

How To Adapt

In any situation, there are things we can control and things that we can’t. Accepting those things we can’t control is an important step when dealing with any change, but so is exercising the control that we do have. Acceptance of those things we cannot control is freeing, but exercising control where we can is empowering; adjusting to change effectively requires both. Part of our resistance to change is that it allows us a temporary escape from feelings of chaos, uncertainty and lack of control. Focusing on our own choices in the face of change creates a sense of control and empowers us to accept change in our lives. Making healthy choices leads us to our next trap.

Coping with Change Trap – “All Good” or “All Bad” Thinking

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

–Izumi Shikibu
Translated By Jane Hirshfield

All too often, we panic when faced with a big change. Strong reactions of fear or anxiety often lead us to think in the simplest ways, and we may not always think things through clearly (ever jumped to the wrong conclusion in a stressful situation?). This is a style of thinking that can be useful in split-second decision making, but simply doesn’t work well in the long term. Despite this, we often fall into this trap when faced with big changes in our lives—John, above, is guilty of this. His recent breakup feels to him as if it is 100% bad. But what if John takes time to explore why the relationship ended? What if he uses this opportunity to learn more about himself, or what he might want in a partner?

How To Adapt

Rarely is any change all bad or all good; life tends to exist in the in-between shades of grey. Taking time to note those things that are good, those that are bad, and those that are simply different can grant some perspective, but can also bring us some peace by reducing the degree to which the overall change feels like a catastrophe.

Try This! – One exercise that can be helpful in exploring the good and the bad of any change is through writing. Journaling or free writing in a notebook or on the computer can give you an opportunity to give some shape to the many thoughts that might otherwise seem overwhelming. So when you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to set aside five minutes and simply start writing.

Coping with Change Trap- “Failure”

Adjusting to change—especially a big change—is hard. Change does not happen in a vacuum, but often ripples out across many domains of our lives. Despite this, we often start to feel discouraged or begin to beat ourselves up when we can adapt to change quickly enough; John starts asking himself, “Why can’t I just move on?” and “What’s wrong with me?” When we have a more difficult time adjusting to change, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re weak, fragile, or a failure for struggling with the change. These thoughts add a layer of shame, guilt, and powerlessness that compounds the difficulty to adapt to new situations.

How To Adapt

The truth of it is that moving on is hard, and accepting change is much easier said than done. When our world is shaken up or thrown off balance, we feel such a mix of emotions that it takes time and patience to reach a new point of stability. Everyone responds to change at their own pace, and some changes are easier to adjust to than others. Remember that change is a process, and that it takes time. In the same way that you can’t learn to drive or play the guitar in one day, you can’t be expected to completely adjust to anything immediately. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, or years before things start to feel ok—and that’s ok.


So What’s Resilience?

Everyone handles big life changes in different ways, and may be more likely to fall into some of these “traps” at different times or for different reasons. The most resilient of us are not the ones who are unaffected by the changes going on around us all, but are the ones who can accept that they are struggling, remain patient with themselves, employ new strategies for moving forward, and can ultimately view changes as opportunities for growth.

So when your world feels like it’s being turned upside down, the ways you are used to maintaining stability in your life may need to change, too. During these times, reach out to those around you. Seek support. Connect with others who can support, guide, and encourage you in moving forward—whether this is family, friends, a therapist, or even others that may be struggling with the same change—and give yourself credit for the steps you are taking, no matter how small they may be.


About the Author: Daniel graduated from Roosevelt with his masters in clinical psychology in 2016 and has practiced as a therapist under supervision for over a year. He has been writing for Bergen Counseling Center since 2016, and his areas of special interest include intimate and familial relationships, trauma, shame, grief and loss, and issues related to individuation and identity development.

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