Why change can be stressful

The only thing constant in life is change. But the scale of how stressful those changes are can differ. Experiences like landing a job and losing a job, entering a relationship and a relationship breakdown, becoming a parent and losing a loved one can create waves of change that may trigger stress and affect mental health. Change can be especially difficult for those who have depression, anxiety or neurodivergency.  

So why are some life changes more stressful than others? It comes down to our perception towards the change and the resources we have to cope with stressful situations.  

Perception towards the change plays a major role on how negatively it affects mental health and stress. Our perception is molded by how much the change is desired, if it was expected or controllable, and our window of tolerance (our capacity to manage our emotions).  


Window of Tolerance (Image provided by the Imagine Institute for Learning)


Some life changes can improve a person’s mental health and lower stress, such as a job promotion into a role that is more fulfilling, while unexpectedly losing a job you enjoyed can lead to major stress and lower mental wellbeing. However, two people who go through the same loss of a fulfilling job might have different reactions based on how wide their window of tolerance is. A person who has a narrow window of tolerance might feel more threatened by the change and have more fear and stress towards it.  

Having the resources to manage stress lays the foundation to cope better when unexpected and undesired life changes happen. These resources can be coping skills you already practice, such as regular meditation, connecting with your social network, and services you have access to (therapy, coaching, etc.). Applying these resources also helps to widen your window of tolerance.  

And how to manage it

Here are some tangible ways you can cope with change that feels stressful:  

  1. Confiding with people close to you. Being able to connect and be vulnerable about your struggles with your social network is important for you to process your thoughts around the change and feel supported.  
  1. Prioritizing habits that are beneficial for you. The activities you do frequently for your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs are often pushed to the side when you feel stressed. However, they are critical to reducing the likelihood and impact of stress. By introducing and being consistent with wellness-promoting habits, they not only help to reduce stress but also provides a sense of structure in the midst of change. 
  1. Reframing your perception of the change. The mind can often ruminate on negative feelings and get stuck in thoughts that increase stress. Reframing your thoughts around the change that is causing stress can reduce the stress or even shift it into being motivating. Especially if you are able to feel more agency and understand the ways this change can help you learn and grow. Journaling can help you to increase your awareness of your current perceptions and reframe them. Another tool to reframe your perception is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which can help you to explore and change your thoughts and feelings towards stressful situations with a professional therapist. 
  1. Creating more change. This might seem counter-intuitive, but introducing a change you chose and wanted can lead you to feeling more in control of your situation and give you a sense of agency in your life. The change could be something as large as moving to a new city to as small as starting a new hobby. 

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