Starting Anew: 5 Essential Ways to Handle Large Scale Change

Thoughts of a Child Psychiatrist

by Jessica Hairston, MD

Why now ? Why me?

Whether wanted or unwanted, change can be hard. Change can shake your sense of identity, your sense of security, and your sense of purpose. Confusion can swiftly move in where clarity once lived. Birth, death, marriage, divorce, unemployment, new employment, legal problems, debt, bankruptcy, incarceration, trauma, sickness, accidents, and moving location are sources of tremendous change and along with them tremendous stress. Sometimes something as small (or as large) as losing a cell phone or wallet can devastate us.

As a psychiatrist, I ask a lot of myself. I challenge myself daily to forge a path to health amidst uncertainty because in my opinion I must be willing to do that which I ask of my clients. During the last 4 months, I have taken a step back to reflect on the large scale changes in my life. Below, you will find the 5 ways of handling change that have brought me the greatest strength in times of celebration and sorrow. In the coming months I will be elaborating on each as I forge a new path of sharing emotional health education with you all. I hope that you will try out each of these ideas in your own life and personally experience the strength and peace that they give each day.

#1 Waking up with Gratitude

I used to scoff at the idea of being thankful for things that I once believed were “normal” and “expected” like running water, a sunny day, a cool breeze on a hot day, or a warm fire on a cold night. Life has taught me that none of these are promised to me. Now I wake up thanking God with a list of at least 5 things or opportunities that I have been gifted along with my first conscious breaths of the day. What I gain by being grateful and thankful everyday for the “little things” is a life full of “thank yous” for the blessings in my life instead of a list of complaints.

So why is this so beneficial?

Because, the more we notice and pay attention to the positive “feel good” things about life, the more we activate and reactivate the part of the brain that recognizes triggers for “feel good emotions”. We get a “natural high” a natural dopamine release from the “ordinary” experiences of our daily lives. By practicing this regularly, we create and repeatedly use these brain circuits that create happiness even in the midst of change. The hot cup of coffee each day brings renewed warmth again and again because we have it and we appreciate it and we repeat that appreciation pathway, thus in the midst of the storm we are finding small satisfying ways to keep the dopamine flowing.

#2 Living Life with Empathy

Learning to live life with empathy has been one of the greatest blessings that I have been given yet, therefore I am compelled to share it with you. I define empathy as recognizing one’s own needs, the needs of others and holding them both equal. Learning this one skill has brought tremendous joy to my life and can also bring relief and joy to you as well.

When I am in a “Big Change” or “Big C” situation I have realized that my first step of finding my way out is by accessing my situation. I ask myself “What just happened?!” “What is going on?’ I ask each of my senses “What did I just see, hear, touch, taste or smell?” thereby grounding myself in the “here and now” so that I may fully investigate my reality and if necessary, sound my internal “Mayday!” alarm.

Then I ask myself the all important question “WHAT DO I NEED?!!” “RIGHT NOW, WHAT DO I NEED?”. When I ask myself this I am not asking how much money do I need or what can someone else do for me. I am asking what essential parts of my life are missing that once I regain them will bring me back to equilibrium and personal satisfaction.

Needs may be intangibles such as love, security, support, friendship, beauty, or peace of mind, or may be tangible like food, water, cooler temperatures, and physical shelter. The sooner that I can identify my needs, then the sooner I can go about solving the problem of how do I meet these needs. Once I recognize my needs in a situation, then I can recognize the needs of others and can also approach my situation of how to meet my needs as well as the needs of the people whom I impact.

Case in point, let’s say I am on a diet and would like to celebrate my friend’s birthday. I need personal integrity to stay true to my dieting efforts so as not to be weighed down by guilt, regret and remorse later, both me and my friend would like to have a good time and have a need for some recreation and relaxation. Because I have figured out what my needs are I can brainstorm with my friend how to meet her need for fun and my need for personal integrity and now make a more satisfying choice because I am choosing with BOTH of our needs in mind.

By using empathy, I am maximizing my potential for choice and personal power at the same time. No regrets. In times of change, learning what your needs are can allow you to find the most satisfying solution to your problem.

#3 Focusing on my Self Care

Sometimes when I am dealing with change, the stress is swirling all about me like a tornado if you will. In these case, the best thing I can do is hunker down and take care of myself. Once I have taken inventory of my needs then I can get down to the business of caring for myself in the best way possible. I ask myself these questions: What food is it best that I eat right now? How much sleep do I need? Do I need more exercise, more fresh air, or more water? Which people would be the most supportive in my life for me right now? How can I use my money and time to best serve me and the people that depend upon me right now? If I am sick or ailing, what can I do to nurture myself back to health.

By focusing on one of my most basic needs : health, I can make the choices that facilitate my healthiest state of my mind. Because any plan that I execute will go better if I have a healthier me. So I ask these questions and then I implement their answers. I go to bed earlier, I sleep longer, I eat better, drink more water, move my body. Whatever, my body requires I give it because I am the caregiver for my body and I am solely responsible for its condition.

In the midst of sudden life changes taking care of our own body and our own health can be our best defense. When our bodies feel better so do our minds and vice versa. By taking the magnifying glass off the chaos around us and focusing it on our personal behavior we spend more time focusing on that which we can actually change and less time spent exerting energy pushing that proverbial wall that will not move. Once all is said and done our bodies will thank us later for all the extra kindness and comfort rather than being left in a state of disarray and neglect.

#4 Forgiving me and forgiving them

Okay, let’s face it. We don’t do all the things that we know that we should do. At any given moment, we are doing a percentage of what we truly can. So now what? Does this mean we should punish ourselves for our unlimited shortcomings? Absolutely not. Instead, we forgive ourselves for being imperfect instead and we strive for improvement.

At any given moment our only competitor in life is ourselves. If we want more or less or something in our lives, that is a personal choice, not a mandate determined by our income, our neighborhood, our gender, our marital status. The possessions that we have in our lives is not a measure of who we are. When we let go of external expectations, we can get down to the real business of developing our character.

Honestly admitting my faults and putting in the effort of correcting my own faults is the work of me. Once again, I am only responsible for my own house, not my neighbors. This being said if I am harshly critical and unforgiving of myself then, I will certainly be harshly critical and unforgiving to my acquaintances,supervisors. peers, friends, and family.

What I have learned through the years is that learning to forgive myself is another way of learning to love myself. The more I love (forgive) myself the more that I will be able to forgive (love) others.

#5 Recognizing what I do control, letting go of what I don’t

This last way of handling stress/life is actually a wonderful BOGO. You see if you have started implementing strategies 1-4 you have realized by now many ways in which you are in control of your life and many ways in which you are not. Life is strange like that. For some reason, I am not in total control of all that is (thank God again!) and yet I am not just along for the ride either, because I have personal choice and my choices matter.

For example, I do not set the gas prices yet whether I spend my money to fill my tank up or allow myself to run out of gas or buy and electric car is pretty much up to me. Also, where I drive is up to me, although if I choose to skip class/work and go to the beach or skip the beach and go to class/work the results of these decisions are mine to experience.

The more you exercise your decision making power, your personal power, the more experience and learning you receive in the area of personal power. Now you can take your personal power and focus it on other people (i.e. the storm) or you can take your personal power and safeguard your home and property (i.e. your body and mind). Given my experience with tornadoes, hurricanes, snow storms and the like I have much more success controlling my body and mind than I have with controlling such powerful storms in life.

It is very freeing to me to reflect and has brought me a lot of comfort to know that storm will pass and where it goes once it leaves me is really not my concern. I did not create the storm and will not control its path. Yet because I have survived the previous storms of my life I know that with patience, this storm will also pass, and the sky will clear again, and the winter will end and spring will come and before I know it it will be summer again if only I develop the patience.

What works for you? Please share your own experiences - connect with us on Facebook!


Jessica K. Hairston, MD

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