How to deal with drastic change in life: experts say positive reframing and cutting out negative self-talk are key, and a mother adds exercise and breathwork
- Coco Chan went from busy professional to feeling helpless and lost as a mother hit by physical, emotional and mental changes all at the same time
- ‘Positive reframing’ can make a big difference, while replacing negative self-statements with ones that are positive and empowering can give a sense of hope
When Coco Chan became a mother in 2019, she felt like her life had been upended.
Almost overnight, she went from being a busy public relations professional and business owner to feeling helpless and lost as she struggled to deal with the changes that motherhood brought.
Not only did she have a new baby to look after, her body took months to heal from her emergency caesarean section, and she felt depressed and anxious.
The physical, emotional and mental changes hit her all at once. It took a while before she found stability again.
“I’ve dealt with many big changes in my life, but having my daughter, Harper, was one change that affected me the most,” says 37-year-old Chan, who lives in Hong Kong.
“Everything suddenly went topsy-turvy. My priorities shifted and I had to get used to a completely new schedule. I experienced major physical fatigue for the first time ever and felt disconnected from my body.
“I was depressed in my first month after giving birth, and my anxiety was at an all-time high because I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the perfect mother. I was also scared that I might never work full-time again.”
The coronavirus pandemic was declared not long after baby Harper was born, which only heightened Chan’s stress and anxiety.
Many times, she found herself crying behind locked doors or sitting frozen in front of her computer, feeling overwhelmed and unable to overcome the setbacks in a constantly unfolding situation.
Any major change – not just first-time parenthood – can cause significant stress in our lives, especially if it pushes us out of our comfort zone and requires us to do things differently.
In the last three years, the pandemic forced most of us to adjust to a host of sudden, drastic changes – from upheavals in our personal and family relationships, to illness, the loss of loved ones, unemployment, the shift to virtual work, and so on.
As we continue to deal with inevitable changes in this era of risk and instability, how can we make the process less painful?
“As human beings, we long for clarity and certainty,” says Lucy Liu, a life coach based in Taiwan and Los Angeles. “So when change comes along, we have trouble with it because it brings about feelings of uncertainty, triggering a fear of the unknown and making us feel anxious, or like we’ve lost control.”
While we can’t always control or predict change, Liu believes that we can determine how we interpret and respond to it.
“It’s important to embrace the uncertainty and to make the choice to be positive. When faced with a change that seems scary and overwhelming, shift your thinking from that of ‘I’m doomed not knowing what’s ahead’ to ‘This could be an opportunity for growth’.”
Consciously adjusting our focus to a more positive one, or “positive reframing”, can make a big difference to how we cope with change.
According to American psychologist Martin Seligman, who is widely credited for starting the positive psychology movement in the 1990s, positive reframing isn’t the same as being unrealistically or excessively optimistic.
Instead, it means rethinking your situation and considering other, new or different ways to deal with what you’re going through.
A 2014 study, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, found that optimists are more resilient and tend to bounce back from challenges more easily. When faced with a negative situation, they don’t feel discouraged and are more likely to look for solutions to improve their lives.
It’s not uncommon to feel helpless when something happens that’s beyond our control. Seligman says it’s possible to turn this “learned helplessness” – the belief that you don’t have the power to make positive changes – into “learned optimism”.
One way is to challenge negative self-talk and self-sabotaging, self-limiting beliefs, which only fuel pessimism.
Instead, be mindful of what you say to yourself (and how you say it) when you experience setbacks and take note of how these statements influence your emotional well-being and your life.
Replace these with statements that are positive, realistic, specific and empowering, and that give you a sense of hope and optimism.
“Our mindset can really make a difference in how we navigate change, so it’s up to us to turn the situation into a more positive experience, one that helps us grow and thrive and that delivers a desirable outcome for us,” Liu says.
As uncomfortable as change can make us feel sometimes, it’s important to be kind to ourselves while we’re dealing with it.
Chan soon realised that she needed to prioritise her mental health and find a healthy balance between all areas of her life as she transitioned into her new role as a mother.
“This helped me develop a more positive mindset, because constantly replaying memories of my own less-than-ideal childhood and obsessing over what kind of a mother I’d be when my daughter got older only made me feel worse,” she says.
Getting support can help you cope with the stress. Chan credits her husband, Dan Lun, for pulling her out of her “depressive hole”, giving her backrubs when she was exhausted, and taking over the childcare duties so that she could sleep in. Her friends and sister also helped her when they could.
When things got really tough, Chan quelled the negative self-talk, reminded herself of how far she’d come, and reassured herself of her resilience.
“Sometimes, as you grapple with change, it can seem like everything’s falling apart. The situation may feel threatening, and not knowing what’s waiting for you on the other side may feel scary, but you have to remind yourself that it’s an opportunity for improvement.
“As you make your way through the discomfort and navigate that which you find unsettling, you can’t help but grow a little and become a stronger person, and with this growth comes more confidence to face the pressures of life.”