Rethinking Change

Prevention Magazine  July, 2004
A new approach to life’s toughest turning points


I was 43 years old when I found opportunity in what seemed like a disastrous turn of events. My grueling academic career as the director of mind-body clinical programs at Harvard Medical School ended after a serious car crash. I had been driving home after facilitating an AIDS group in the late 1980s. We’d been discussing death, and I’d made the offhand comment that none of us knows when her time is up. These nearly amounted to famous last words when, physically exhausted and emotionally drained, I fell asleep at the wheel a few hours later.

The result was an accident that landed me in the hospital for 5 days with bruised ribs, a traumatic head injury, and a disfigured face. Though it took a whole year of surgery and rehabilitation to return to health and a normal appearance, I can say nevertheless that the crash brought blessings.

My unexpected hospital stay and the emotional impact of being in a serious accident provided both time and motivation to think deeply about my life—and to take action. Within days of the accident, I resigned from academia and started a home business. I finally found time to go to my son’s track meets and soccer games, and I made time for myself as well. Long bike rides and runs along the seashore filled the well inside me that had been going dry after 3 or 4 years of intense work combined with mothering teenage boys. With fully charged batteries, I had the clarity and will to start a new solo career that’s been exciting, creative, and constantly evolving.

Change is stressful, whether it’s positive or not. But even when its dangers threaten to overwhelm us, we must look for the opportunity change brings with it. Bad changes, such as an accident, divorce, or the loss of a job, can improve your life as much as good ones—marrying your soul mate, having a much-wanted child, or winning the lottery. It all depends on how you respond. People considered good “copers” in psychological parlance are stress-hardy and think of change as a creative challenge. Poor copers see change as a threat and are more prone to illness, depression, and substance abuse.

These dual responses were first noted in a study of AT&T executives who had lost their jobs in a corporate reorganization. During a 5-year period, psychologists documented two different patterns of response: People in one group suffered an increase in medical and psychological symptoms, and those in the other remained as healthy and happy during the change as they’d been before. By studying the personalities of the second group—the good copers—psychologists identified three learnable characteristics that make some people especially resilient.

The Keys to Coping

The research showed that when change is on the horizon, good copers see it as a challenge to grow rather than a threat to their security. For the stress-hardy, problems are puzzles to be solved instead of stumbling blocks that stop their progress. Rising to the challenge makes life a creative and spontaneous adventure.

Stress-hardy people also feel a sense of control over their choices, their destiny, and their capacity to grow personally and professionally. And though they know that they can’t control life, they know that they do have control over their responses to positive and negative events. With this attitude, everything—including the bad stuff—becomes an opportunity and grist for the mill of growth.

Finally, stress-hardy people feel committed to a strong set of values. Their dedication to family, community, or work gives them a sturdy framework of meaning that helps them weather change. Without meaning, life becomes hollow, and depression is more apt to set in. For instance, if you think of your job just as a way to pay the bills, your lack of commitment can contribute to your stress. But if you think of your work as a chance to connect deeply to the people you serve, that higher meaning can help buffer stress.

Of course, these somewhat abstract principles may seem irrelevant to anyone thrashing in the vortex of change, such as a woman who has just lost her husband, or a man diagnosed with terminal cancer. But these principles are relevant. Once you’ve jumped, or been pushed, into the river, you still have to swim to the other side—even if the current is strong and you aren’t much of a swimmer. Seeking growth, letting go of what you can’t control, and staying committed to your values are the forces that will lead you to solid ground again.

5 Tips for Surviving—Even Thriving—During Change:

1. Connect Positively

Social support is crucial for your health, but when you reach out, make sure that you’re not looking for co-celebrants at a pity party. The misery-loves-company tactic can keep you stuck.

2. Nurture Your Creativity

Immersing yourself in a creative pursuit—painting, woodworking, gardening, cooking—will free your mind from useless obsessing.

3. Take Care of Yourself

Personal disaster doesn’t give you license to become a couch potato or drown in Pinot Noir.

4. Consider Working with a Coach or Therapist

Sort out your priorities. Therapists can help you understand and heal the past; coaches focus on action-oriented approaches to creating a new future.

5. Seek Spiritual Advice

Many churches and temples maintain lists of spiritual directors who are trained to help you process change.

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