Life Transitions: Working with Depression and Anxiety

Everybody experiences eventful changes in their life—you might end a relationship, move to a new city, or have to adjust how you take care of your health with medication or a new routine. Significant changes can leave a big impact; in fact, your brain likely organizes memories around changes in your life. Most prominent memories after the age of 65 come from turning points—such as moving—occurring between the ages of 40 and 60. Even though change is a natural part of life, it can be uncomfortable or even frightening. When your relationships or your circumstances change, it can lead to anxiety and resistance, a longing to keep things just as they were before. When you resist change, you can feel more helpless than if you accept it: focusing on your relationship before a breakup keeps you from building healthy, strong relationships in the present. If moving to a new city feels lonely, then ruminating on where you used to live will only keep you from building a home and living a fulfilling life in the present. When you understand your feelings during times of change, you can learn to accept that change in a healthy, transformative way. A great place to start is by understanding the differences between changes and transitions.

The Three Stages of Transition

The difference between change and transition is the difference between what happens to you and how you react. Change can feel good or bad, but you don’t decide how or when change happens. Transition is your mental response to change: it is how you process what has occurred. While you cannot control change, you can try to understand it better to go through a healthy process of transition. Transition consultant and author William Bridges created his Bridges Transition Model to help guide people through the different steps of transition when encountering change. Bridges’ model identifies three different stages that people experience when dealing with change:

  1. Endings

  2. The Neutral Zone

  3. The New Beginning

Everyone experiences these three stages when they encounter change, but not everyone processes each step the same way or at the same speed. Sudden changes—especially traumatic changes dealing with loss—may require working through many negative feelings, including anxiety and depression. While changes are often sudden and unexpected, transition usually takes time and patience. You might be more comfortable staying in one stage for a long time, or you might move through another stage very quickly. However, every step is important, with its own guidance to help you accept and adapt to change.

Stage One: Endings

Change begins with an ending: something that you are accustomed to is no longer there. This stage is the recognition of loss—this might be losing a friendship or partner, a home, a job, or it might be losing a sense of confidence. At this stage, you recognize what has gone away and what you still have. Endings can be very emotional, and you may experience:

  • Anger.

  • Grief.

  • Anxiety.

  • Disappointment.

  • Frustration.

  • Fear.

  • Feelings of emptiness.

Endings can even produce negative physical effects. For example, 43% of people who feel a deep loss after a breakup experience difficulty sleeping; breakups can also release stress hormones that impair the immune system if they remain in the body for a long time.

To move past this first stage, you need to accept that something is coming to an end. Be honest about the way you feel, even if your feelings are negative. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge what you are leaving behind, to say, “this was important to me and I am sad to see it go.” It is good to admit that you are scared or frustrated about change; you cannot work through feelings you refuse to recognize. Among those who experience insomnia after a breakup, attempts to suppress thoughts and memories about the previous relationship usually lead to worse sleep and even create disruptive dreams. By accepting negative feelings of discomfort or sadness, it becomes easier to look ahead and consider the future.

You should be ready to engage in conversation with others, and listen when they offer guidance and encouragement. When you haven’t had the opportunity to understand your new situation, it will appear more frightening. Listening to advice, thinking about the skills you have—or that you can learn—that will help you adjust to new circumstances, will help you keep an open view of the future and take active steps towards the second stage of transition.

Stage Two: The Neutral Zone

At this stage, you’ve come to understand what you’ve lost; you’ve let go, but you haven’t moved on to anything new. You may accept that your old relationship is over, that you can’t go back to your old job, that your old lifestyle is gone, but you haven’t yet begun to build new relationships, adjust to your new workload, or create new daily routines. The neutral zone is a period of adaptation and flux, it is the heart of transition, but it can also feel confusing. In this second stage, you may experience:

  • A lack of motivation.

  • Pessimism about positive outcomes resulting from the change.

  • Doubts about your capabilities or sense of self.

At the same time, the neutral zone is a stage where you can begin to try new things and innovate. You can set yourself short-term goals: talk with a new coworker, journal every day, walk around town or go to a local event such as a concert. When you follow through with simple goals, you will build a sense of accomplishment and greater confidence. Instead of feeling adrift, you can begin to find exciting opportunities and positive feelings through the changes you have experienced: building new relationships, being confident in your work, feeling healthy and active in your daily life.

Stage Three: The New Beginning

New beginnings are energetic and exciting. When you reach stage three, you are committing to change, embracing new skills, and working towards positive outcomes. You are excited about going out and meeting new people; you are pursuing your career and learning from your work experience; you feel comfortable talking about what you need and actively look for solutions to problems. Stage three has the most positive emotional experiences, including:

  • Curiosity and open-mindedness.

  • Excitement and enthusiasm.

  • Dedication to personal goals.

  • Camaraderie when working with others.

It is important to keep setting goals and moving forward in stage three, but it’s also worth taking time to celebrate and acknowledge your hard work. Even now, you can encounter roadblocks or find yourself feeling stuck. That is okay—this is a stage where you can experiment, learn new skills, and set new goals. It is not a failure to keep adjusting your aspirations and finding new objectives: that is what new beginnings are all about.

Engaging positively with change can be messy. It is alright to move through these stages at your own pace. When you use these stages of transition to understand what has ended, acknowledge negative feelings, set new goals, and build skills for the future, you can transition beyond an ending towards your new beginning.

If you are struggling with a breakup, divorce, or if a change has strained your relationship with your partner(s), sex therapy can help you acknowledge negative feelings, set goals, and work through the three stages of transition at your own pace. If you think that sex therapy is the right choice for you, reach out and schedule a session today. I look forward to working with you.