Why Transitions are Hard on Our Brains: Tips for Transitioning

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By Vera Wilhelm

November 6, 2020



Why Transitions are Hard on Our Brains

This morning, as I walk up the hill overlooking a pond at my friend’s cabin, I catch the first whiff of Autumn. There is a slight chill in the air, and I’m greeted by the smell of wet leaves and a few specks of yellow in all of the green. These are nature’s subtle signs, yet they mark the ending of Summer, with its warmth and abundance of light, and the beginning of something new.

Although I’ve lived this transition every year for decades, I feel regret for the inevitability of it, and I sense myself longing for things to stay just as they are. At the same time, there is comfort in the familiarity of it; at least I know what to expect.

I try to imagine what it would feel like if I had never experienced the transition of seasons, had no way of interpreting the subtle changes, sensing a shift that is beyond my control. This sense of confusion and uncertainty is what marks a major life transition, or as Bruce Feiler coins them in his new book Life is in the transitions: Lifequakes.”  


Lifequakes refer to the turmoil and anxiety that is caused by one or more simultaneous events that could be happy (new career, marriage, new baby), or worrisome (loss of a loved one, loss of livelihood, etc.).They touch us at the core of our being and are followed by a transition during which we look for a new way of making meaning of our lives.

What makes transitions so hard, even if they are for the better?

First, we are wired to resist change. One key function of the brain is to regulate the body for survival, which is best achieved in a state of homeostasis, when the nervous system is in balance. Because of this natural drive for an internal stability, the brain will react to uncertainty and change as a threat. The resulting stress response not only changes our hormonal balance but also affects the way we think and feel. As we transition to a new equilibrium, we need to accept loss and let go of old beliefs and assumptions, which up to now have shaped the way we make meaning.

Transitions are linear processes

Second, transitions are not linear processes with the ending of the previous stage, followed by a reorientation period (or neutral zone) and new beginning, although we often imagine them that way. Rather, these stages happen in parallel and we can experience them as iterative processes; for example in the case of a career shift to free time for a new member of the family, we may have accepted to live with a smaller pay check but continue to struggle with a loss of status, while at the same time beginning to find new meaning as a parent.  Living through a process of letting go, reorienting oneself and planning for a new beginning all at the same time will often activate the fear response in our brain (flight, fight, freeze) which will impact our cognitive thinking (knowing, judging, problem solving) and make us feel stuck.

The unknown

Third, when faced with the unknown we can get caught up in imagining worst-case scenarios, driven by our desire for stationarity.  Our minds seem wired to prefer negative interpretations and tend to look for clues that reinforce and confirm them. We get locked into a pessimistic mindset which pulls us down and zaps the energy and courage we need to cope with change.

How can we counter our fear around change?

As Marie Curie put it: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Understanding transition means creating awareness around our emotions (fear, sadness, shame) and normalizing the experience. Rather than rejecting the uncertainty, we can recognize it as a familiar emotional reaction to loss or sudden change. Past experience in dealing with transition can help us prepare for the hardest parts and remind ourselves of our coping strategies. This involves not only learning or relearning lessons from the past but also, and maybe more importantly, unlearning unhelpful ways of thinking and reacting.

Mindfulness techniques and positive thinking

Mindfulness techniques and positive thinking (looking for the opportunity in change; or the freedom in uncertainty) can help with strengthening awareness and reframing the experience. They allow us to practice selective attention (as opposed to distraction), which enhances our ability for creative thinking. Other techniques include anything that engages us, keeps our attention, gives us energy, and makes us feel alive, be it physical exercise, forest bathing, or playing with our children or grandchildren. These activities can help reduce stress hormone production and release dopamine and other feel-good hormones.

Ultimately, we need to accept that transitions take time, and overcoming them involves a real effort to regain the state of stability and balance that we are seeking. And if we feel we get stuck along the way because we settle on sinking ground, or we get overwhelmed by inertia and move backward, reaching out to friends or others who have coped with similar situations can help us understand ourselves better and feel emotionally held.

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