Adjustment Isn’t Always Easy

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Image courtesy of adamr @ Freedigitalphotos.net 

We will all have to make many adjustments in life- to new things (schools, houses, jobs, towns); to situations we didn’t expect (losing a loved one or them becoming sick, a divorce, loss of a job); or to common life transitions (marriage, becoming a parent, children leaving the house, retirement). Some of these are very positive, while others can be difficult and may have significant impact on our lives or those we’re close to.

I wanted to write this post for two reasons: 1) because it dawned on me just how many clients I have seen who are going through these periods; and 2) because this is just a very normal human experience and has little to do with mental illness or a person being “crazy”. As a psychologist I’m impressed with how many people are reaching out for support during trying times or when they recognize that professional help could be useful. And I want to make the point that we don’t have to have a full-fledged disorder for life to be hard.

As an analogy, I have been a homeowner for a number of years, and I love doing home improvements like painting, small landscaping projects, or occasionally building something. But when it comes to plumbing or electricity, I know my limits, so I hire a professional. I could do what I think is correct, or I could find some Youtube videos to help, but this kind of work just isn’t something I have training in or experience with. Chances are I would struggle, and an hour job could take me eight; or I could make the situation worse. So, particularly if you have never lost a loved one, had your kids go off to college, or suddenly become unemployed, I don’t think anyone would expect you to have all of the answers or to navigate these situations perfectly. You may very well work through these situations just fine, but then again you may not. Many people wrestle with anxiety during these times, or grief, sadness, loneliness, feelings of inadequacy, and so on. But if there are professionals who have helped countless others with just these types of issues, why wouldn’t you reach out?

Life transitions happen, and when they do, we really have no choice but to adjust. I want to be clear, though, that not everyone who struggles with one issue or another has a “disorder” or an “illness”. I struggled with math in school, and I could have worked harder or benefitted from a tutor, but I probably didn’t meet criteria for a math disorder. And some people have difficulty with reading, or shyness, or hyperactivity, and so on. In psychological terms, for something to be considered a disorder, it has to bother you or interfere with your life in some significant way. There are criteria that need to be met for any disorder, but that doesn’t mean that an issue shy of that threshold is always easy to deal with.

There is an issue called an adjustment disorder, which as you may have guessed, occurs during a period of adjustment. However, a person’s reaction to the issue is said to be “abnormal” or “excessive”; more severe than would be expected from the stressor; and can result in impairment in social, occupational, or academic functioning. These reactions can manifest as anxiety, depression, or issues of behavior. In addition, the symptoms would be expected to subside within 6 months of the stressor occurring.

Many times people do successfully adjust, but if symptoms persist or worsen, the issue could become something more, like as a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So inside of those 6 months, what you would want to look for is the severity of the reaction- does it seem typical for what you are going through, or does it seem out of proportion?

I also want to clarify that a person need not wait until he or she has a crisis or full-blown disorder to seek consultation, but knowing what is typical or not can help a person decide when help might become necessary. When people I know approach me, or when I speak with a potential client for the first time, they often want to know if something is “normal” or not. What they mean is, is this issue serious enough that I should look for professional help? There are criteria for disorders, again, whether or not it is bothering you or interfering with your life in some way. And with regard to whether it is time to seek help, the deciding factor is ultimately how you feel- whether you think it will help or you can handle it on your own. If you’re not sure, you probably should talk to a friend or family member, or you could arrange a consultation with a therapist. This may give you some answers, or at least reassurance that you are doing ok.

Let me give a few examples just to wrap this up:

Losing someone close you to. Many of us will lose someone in our lifetimes, and sometimes this hurts more than others. Grief or bereavement is typical and expected, but this usually subsides in time and we are able to go about our lives without any great difficulty. But a significant reaction, particularly one lasting beyond 6 months, suggests that a person could use more support in dealing with the problem.

Having your first child. Not much changes a situation more than adding a child to the mix. This changes your whole routine and outlook, so there are bound to be bumps in the road. These can be big (postpartum depression, sleep difficulties) or small (negotiating who is in charge of what when it comes to parenting or household duties), and anyone may benefit from professional advice during this time.

Moving to a new place, starting at a new job or school. This isn’t always easy, but usually we adjust ok in time. But a prolonged period of difficulty could be atypical, and support could be helpful in facilitating one’s adjustment.

Empty nest or retirement. Both of these are inevitable situations, but ones people don’t always plan for. Either one leaves people with more time on their hands and possibly fewer people around. In order to avoid potential problems, it requires finding more things to do or getting out and making connections with people. Support here could also be helpful toward finding a new routine and being able to not just cope with, but embrace a new situation.

Divorce or break-up of a long-term relationship. Many of us struggle with ending relationships as it can bring drastic changes to our lives. And as an adult, this often affects people close to us as well, such as our children. The changes here can be many, so having support as we navigate these can be invaluable.

In conclusion, if you or someone you know is dealing with a life change, don’t hesitate to reach out for support from friends or family, or even a professional if you think it might help. If you are interested in finding a professional in your area, you can search for a referral here.

And here are a few resources:

10 Ways to Cope with Big Changes (Psychology Today)

7 Things You Need to Know to Deal with Major Life Changes (Huffpost) 

How to Cope with Transition and Change (healthpsychology.org)

Take care,
Dr. Matthews

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About Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a private practice psychologist in Chester Springs, PA. I provide counseling and coaching services to people ages 12 and up. Specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's.
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