9 MIN READ

Coping With Change

Making the Best of a Stressful Situation

Change is inevitable. Sometimes it can be positive – business growth or a pay raise. At other times it can be painful – losing your job or a personal loss.

Often the hardest changes to understand and adjust to are the ones that are unexpected and out of our control – a recession, a global pandemic, or a major disaster, for example. Changes of this magnitude can be difficult to come to terms with, but you'll often find that your experience of them can be made better or worse depending on your reaction and your attitude.

So, in this article, we'll explore the different ways in which people tend to approach change, the reactions that you might have, and how to best cope with it.

Change can be difficult to deal with, even when it's for the better.

How People Cope With Change

People tend to cope with change in one of two ways:

  1. Escape coping.
  2. Control coping.

Escape coping is based on avoidance. You take deliberate actions to avoid the difficulties of the change. For instance, you might deliberately miss training for a new working process, or show up too late to attend a meeting about an upcoming restructure.

Maybe you'll trash letters from your HR department about layoffs, or ignore calls from a co-worker who's just got the promotion that you wanted. Some people even take refuge in alcohol or drugs.

Control coping, on the other hand, is positive and proactive. You refuse to behave like a "victim" of change. Instead, you manage your feelings, get support, and do whatever you can to be part of the change.

In reality, most of us respond to major change with a mixture of escape and control coping. But control coping is generally the better option, as it is impossible to avoid the reality of change for long without becoming exhausted or damaging your reputation.

Stages of Reacting to Change

Change can be difficult because it can challenge how we think, how we work, the quality of our relationships, and even our physical security or sense of identity. We usually react to change in four stages:

  1. Shock and disorientation.
  2. Anger and other emotional responses.
  3. Coming to terms with the "new normal."
  4. Acceptance and moving forward.

But our progression through these stages is rarely simple or linear. We might get stuck in one stage, or advance quickly but then regress. And there is often no clear-cut, decisive move from one stage to another. Shock can change to anger, for example, with no obvious break between the two.

Now, let's take a look at the four stages in more detail:

Stage 1: Shock and Disorientation

Experiencing a sudden, big change can feel like a physical blow. For example, a global financial crisis may result in significant losses and redundancies. This may sweep away roles and relationships that you've cultivated for years, leading to instability. Or, a sudden bereavement or health issue may change your fundamental outlook on life.

In the initial stage of coping, you'll likely feel confused and uncertain. Your first priority should be to seek reliable information and to make sense of the situation.

Ask for updates from your manager and HR department, research other people's similar experiences, and talk through your concerns with family and friends. If available, contact your union, an ERG, or another relevant support group. Be sure to distance yourself from gossip and rumors – they are often baseless and negative, and will likely cause you more pain and anxiety, not less.

Carrying out a SWOT analysis could help you to objectively examine the level of threat that you're facing. Are there potential benefits that you've overlooked? Might an enforced change in your job role allow you to learn a valuable new skill, or to work with new people, for example?

You'll likely not reach any firm conclusions at this stage, but try to remain as positive as you can.

Stage 2: Anger and Other Emotional Responses

Initial disorientation at the prospect of change usually gives way to a wave of strong emotions. You might be angry about a downgrade of your role, or fearful about the impact that a layoff will have on your family.

Even if the change in your circumstances is something that you've instigated yourself, you may find yourself swinging between optimism and pessimism. This is quite natural, and it's a normal step on the way to resolving your situation.

It's important to avoid suppressing your emotions, but it's equally key to manage them. So, acknowledge the way you feel, but be sure to assess what you can express openly (such as general comments about a project's progress) and what you should probably keep to yourself (opinions about a colleague's performance, for example).

In time, Lazarus and Folkman's Transactional Model could help you to build a dispassionate picture of your situation and how to proceed. Meanwhile, don't be too surprised or embarrassed if you find yourself in tears at work. This is a natural reaction to the uncertainty and confusion that often follows a sudden change.

Tip:

One way of coping with change is to build up your resilience skills. Read our article on How to Stay Calm in a Crisis, and follow the advice in our self-assessment quiz How Resilient Are You? for more on this.

Stage 3: Coming to Terms With the "New Normal"

During this stage, your focus will likely start to shift away from what you've lost and toward what's new. This process may be slow, and you might be reluctant to acknowledge it, but it's an essential part of coping with change. The key here is to make a commitment to move on.

Start to explore more deeply what the change means. Your instinct may be to behave resentfully and to be unwilling to cooperate, but this may cause yourself and others harm. So, search for and emphasize the positive aspects of your developing situation. At the same time, be patient. Remember, coming to terms with change is a gradual process.

Warning:

It's vital that you avoid pretending that everything's OK if it's not. So, if you find yourself regressing to Stage 2, give yourself time to recover. Use affirmations to improve your self-confidence, and ask for help from friends or a mentor.

Stage 4: Acceptance and Moving Forward

This is the stage when you come to fully accept your changed circumstances.

Acceptance doesn't mean giving up entirely on your former situation. You'll have valuable memories, skills and relationships to carry forward, but the point is that you are moving on, whether in your career or in your wider life.

Draw up a personal mission statement and a legacy statement to stay on track. Then set yourself goals and create an action plan to make the most of your new situation.

Tip:

If you're a manager and are struggling to cope with changes impacting your team, our article on The Change Curve can help you to implement change successfully by supporting your people appropriately through these four stages.

Key Points

Change comes in many forms, but leaving behind what we know and are used to is almost always stressful, even if we've made the change ourselves.

Coping strategies generally fall into two categories: "escape" and "control." Most people use a mixture of both to cope with change, but control strategies are generally a healthier way to work through change and offer the greatest long-term benefits.

We tend to react to change in four main stages:

  1. Shock and disorientation.
  2. Anger and other emotional responses.
  3. Coming to terms with the "new normal."
  4. Acceptance and moving forward.

People are more likely to progress through these stages successfully if they acknowledge their feelings, explore the facts, stay positive, draw on their support networks, and give themselves time to adapt.

Infographic

We've produced a handy infographic that provides a clear visual explanation of the four stages of coping with change. Click on the image below:

How to Cope With Change Infographic

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