WHITNEY CAIN, PHD

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changes and transitions

“Change” and “transition” are often used interchangeably, but they differ in important ways.  Changes are based on situations and occur quickly.  Transitions, on the other hand, are gray areas.  They happen in our minds and psyches and they take their own sweet time. 

Transitions occur in cultures, organizations, and communities, but the ones I am most interested in are those occurring for us as individuals.  And these range the gambit –career changes, retirement, new relationships, negotiating chronic illness, the death of a loved one; there are countless others.

Regardless of how we categorize the transition – professional or personal, welcome or less so – significant transitions present a threat to our physiological equilibrium.  Restoring a sense of mental and physical balance, then, becomes critical to our health and wellbeing.  So, how do you do that?  New research backs up the power of some old strategies in helping us. 

One of the strongest, most effective ways is through connecting with supportive others.  Friends, family, religious teachers, therapists, co-workers – call on any and all supports you have.  Let them help you find comfort, understanding, strength, and balance as you negotiate transitions and the stress they bring. 

Exercise is another strategy.  I know, I know!  You’ve heard it before, but, alas, it’s true.  Like transitions, exercise causes stress on the brain and body, but the stress is initiated by you and so is predictable and controllable.  Consequently, exercise raises our stress reaction trigger point.  At the same time, exercise initiates the cellular recovery process, leaving cells hardier for future stressors.

Meditation is another strategy for working through transitions and preparing us for future ones.  A recent Harvard study found after an eight-week meditation course, people had thicker gray matter in brain areas associated with self-awareness and compassion, while areas associated with stress shrank.  Other studies find meditation decreases blood pressure, depression, asthma, pain perception, anxiety, sleep disorders, and the risk of cancer and heart disease.

There are many other strategies to help you through transitions and to strengthen you for future ones.  Luckily, these strategies are varied enough that there really is something for everyone.

While I wouldn’t wish for you to go through some of the transitions you have experienced or will experience, I know they can ultimately be opportunities.  When old patterns collapse, you are most malleable to change – and that can be for the better.  You can create new meaning and if you can co-create this meaning with supportive others around you, then that is all for the better.

References & Resources

Harris, D. (2014).  10% happier:  How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works – A true story.  New York, NY:  HarperCollins Publishers.  

Hotzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti S.M., Gard, T., et al. (2011).  Mindfulness practice leads to increase in regional brain gray matter density.  Psychiatry Research, 19(1), 36-43.

Ratey, J.J., & Hagerman, E. (2008).  Spark:  The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain.  New York, NY:  Little, Brown, and Company. 

Zeidan, F., Martucci, K.T., Kract, R.A., Gordon, N.S., McHaffie, JG., & Cogdill, R.C. (2011).  Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(14), 5540-5548.