As the year 2020 comes to a close, the word “unprecedented” cannot begin to encompass the challenges, questions, and adaptations the world has faced. Amid potential job insecurity, worry for loved ones, and feelings of isolation, personal health may fall under the radar. Although change often represents a positive and eye-opening life element, change in excess, or of too great a magnitude, presents a stressor. Without the awareness and tools to readily address and cope with change, one’s mental health, vitality, and overall well-being are negatively impacted.
The Current American Climate
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 25% of young adults (18-24 years) say they have considered suicide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The CDC also states that the percent of adults reporting anxiety symptoms is now 25.5%, triple last year’s level.
- The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that 75% of adults disclosed experiencing at least one stress symptom in the last month.
- An APA sponsored countrywide Harris poll found that 68% of adults consider the 2020 election to be a significant stressor in their lives.
The list could go on, but these statistics’ power lies in the chance to take action to discover ways to maintain one’s best self amid tumultuous times.
Change, Stress, and Health
Research demonstrates that formidable life changes correlate with severely elevated stress responses. The election and COVID-19 certainly embody high-stakes changes. According to a recent study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, mental health consequences are more likely to linger longer and peak later than the actual pandemic, and that the same is true regarding other life stressors, making it more essential to recognize the way that change-related stress can negatively affect well-being.
Stress assuredly damages mental health, but the truth is that stress can affect nearly every bodily system. In addition to mental health afflictions, stress is linked to the following conditions and others:
- Sleep Troubles
- Decreased immune function
- Psoriasis and other skin conditions
- Increased risk factors for heart disease
The human response to change
Based on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Stages of Change Model, there are seven distinct elements in the human response to change, divided into three stages. Understanding this process assists in identifying potential hurdles and setbacks.
- Stage 1: Shock and Denial
- Major changes often elicit shock. Frequently, insufficient information and fear of appearing incapable and/or making a mistake fuel this shock.
- Next, people exert the effort to maintain the status quo as though a change never occurred. This encompasses denial.
- Action Steps at Stage 1: One must communicate. Connecting with a support system helps one accept the change and avoid burying negative emotions.
- Stage 2: Frustration and Depression
- Attempting to continue life as it was before the change creates frustration. One may become suspicious of those around them, initiating further negative emotion, apathy, and/or sadness.
- Action Steps at Stage 2: Willingly acknowledge frustration and accept all emotions that emerge.
- Stage 3: Experiment, Decision, and Integration
- Faced with the new reality the change poses, individuals consider embracing it, often in parts. After some time, they accept the change and mold their life as needed.
- Action Steps at Stage 3: Change acceptance may trigger new changes. Utilizing a support system and remaining open-minded is vital.
How to Maintain Health in the Face of Change
Whether election results prove disappointing, quarantine guidelines feel cumbersome, or other unexpected challenges emerge, tested strategies exist for decreasing stress and augmenting change integration. They are often free—financially and pharmaceutically—simple, and social distancing-friendly.
- Gratitude Practice
- What is it? Gratitude practice entails setting aside time—from only 5-10 minutes—each day to consciously acknowledge life’s benefits and potential.
- Why do it? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) asserts that gratitude practice can help foster positive emotions and life acceptance, even when changes are unagreeable. The advantages may extend beyond a renewed mindset though, with a daily gratitude practice even being linked to improved biomarkers for heart health, such as reduced inflammation, according to a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine. Gratitude may even help to reduce loneliness.
- How to do it? Establish a designated gratitude time and distraction-free location. If in the morning, reflect on the previous day, noting all the day’s elements that merit thanks—no matter how small. If in the evening, follow the same process for the current day. Using a journal and setting specific objectives for the practice are useful starting points.
- What is it? At its core, self-reflection involves consciously considering thoughts, needs, and beliefs that may be subconsciously buried or unacknowledged, all in the name of deeper learning. Self-reflection allows one to mentally pause and search for meaning and opportunities to learn and grow amid a sea of competing needs and stimuli.
- Why do it? Self-reflection provides an occasion to finally note suppressed emotions and create increased self-understanding. When faced with unexpected and uncomfortable life changes, self-reflection creates a space to recognize and validate these feelings. Practicing self-reflection can also help mitigate anxiety. Moreover, research in the journal Social Behavior and Personality studying competitive athletes reveals a positive correlation between self-reflection and resilience.
- How to do it? Set aside at least 10 distraction-free minutes. Identify a specific issue and list two-three major questions to answer. Examples include “Am I getting stressed over things I can’t control?” and “What is helping or hindering this process?”. Then, answer these questions as thoroughly as possible while accepting all thoughts and ideas—even those that were previously not evident or are uncomfortable.
- What is it? Meditation is defined by the NIH as “a mind and body practice for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.” Four elements characterize meditation: a distraction-free environment, a comfortable posture, a focus of attention, and open-mindedness (allowing new or unexpected thoughts and ideas to be examined).
- Why do it? Meditation has been shown to positively affect mental and physical health, contributing to its use tripling among adults in the United States between 2012 and 2017. A systematic review including 36 randomized controlled trials, published in Depression and Anxiety, finds meditation efficacious in reducing anxiety symptoms without any negative side effects. Still, other studies suggest links between meditation and improved heart, gastrointestinal, sleep, pain, and particularly vital today—immune health.
- How to do it? Each person can incorporate the four elements listed above to create a tailored a process. Set an intention and duration (some advocate only 5 minutes, but this study, from Psychoneuroendocrinology, evinces positive benefits from 25-30 minutes per day) for the meditation session. Employ a positive mantra or mindful breathing. During meditation, accept all feelings and ideas that emerge.
- Helping Others
- What is it? Traditionally, people formally volunteer to help others; however, it can also be as simple as calling friends and family to offer a helping hand.
- Why do it? Research published in the American Journal of Public Health supports that helping others can reduce stress, decreasing stress-related mortality. In addition, helping others enables one to better manage stress and hardship, which often result from unfavorable life changes, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
- How to do it? Signing up to volunteer with a local organization that champions a meaningful cause, such as animal safety or food security, represents a great way to begin. On a smaller scale, simple texts or phone calls to old friends go a long way, especially in today’s reality of isolation and quarantine.
Things to Remember
Experiencing challenges when faced with change is unavoidable, but the key lies in understanding that changes—from last minute meeting cancellations to worldwide pandemics—are stressors. The way that one recognizes, processes, and responds to such volatility makes all the difference.
Pandemics and elections are only two examples demonstrating how imperative the capability to acknowledge, accept, and effectively manage change is. Do not be afraid to request help. Most likely, someone else has experienced something similar, and there is strength in numbers. Productively handling change facilitates well-being, and the aforementioned tools readily support one’s journey toward his/her best self.