“The problem is, or rather one of the problems, for there are many, a sizeable proportion of which are continually clogging up the civil, commercial, and criminal courts in all areas of the Galaxy, and especially, where possible, the more corrupt ones, this.
The previous sentence makes sense. That is not the problem.
This is: Change. Read it through again and you’ll get it.” Douglas Adams.

Sometimes we underestimate the impact of change in our lives. A little over four years ago, when I took a “voluntary separation package” (code for “please, pay me to quit my job”), the organisation I was working for arranged counselling. As part of this process, I was introduced to life change units, which are a useful, if somewhat arbitrary measure of the level of stress in our lives.

To calculate your life change units you work your way down a checklist, ticking events that have happened to you in the last year (everything from death of a family member to a change in social activities). Each event has a score, and when you add them all up you get a sort of snapshot of how much stress you have been under. For example, death of a family member scores 63, a change to a different line of work is 36, and trouble with the boss is 23.

What I find particularly fascinating about the list is that many of the events on it are positive – or at least could be positive – such as “outstanding personal achievement,” “change in recreation,” or “gain a new family member.” We tend to think of stress as an overwhelmingly negative thing – stressful events are bad. Yet positive events can have their own associated stress, in the sense of change that we need to cope with. Even if it is positive change, there are cognitive and emotional costs incurred as we adjust to it.

“Change was right. Change was necessary. Masklin was all in favour of change. What he was dead against was things not staying the same.” Terry Pratchett.

I have recently started a new job. It is the job of my dreams, doing something I love and am good at. I have a fantastic and appreciative boss. I have a fabulous and thrilling workplace. I have ludicrously wonderful colleagues, and a spectacularly amazing mentor. It is difficult to discuss my new job without running out of superlatives. I could not be happier.

At the same time, though, it has finally dawned on me that this is a fundamentally stressful process. I have been on an emotional roller coaster. I have been, I must confess, quite cranky with my children, and it has taken me an absurdly long time to acknowledge that this most wonderful change in my life is actually stressful as well.

I have a new career, a new workplace, a big increase in working hours, and a whole host of challenges. That is good news. But it might not remain good news unless I recognise the stress that it places on me, and hence on the people around me.

“Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! Turn and face the strain.” David Bowie.

I am a big fan of self-awareness. Having come to it rather late in life, I am obsessed as only a convert can be. Being self aware is crucial, because it means I can stop reacting blindly and start tackling my problems – sometimes pulling them up by the roots. In this case, becoming aware of the source of my stress has made it possible for me to reduce it to manageable size, by seeking extra support – mostly in the form of hugs.

Keeping track of the stressors in your life, both positive and negative, can be a two edged sword. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in how incredibly difficult life is right now, and to wallow in self pity. But if you can use it to cut yourself a little slack, and to know when to seek a few extra hugs, a bit of encouragement, or an extra yoga class to boost your coping capacity, it can make the difference between living on the edge and crashing down the cliff face.

You can argue endlessly about the accuracy of the scores for each life change on the list, but the central point is difficult to argue with. Change, whether good or bad, is a challenge.

4 thoughts on “Ch-ch-ch-changes

  1. Completely agree with you. Our brains like to use patterns, which are already in place – it’s easier. That;s why habits are so difficult to break. Any change is a strain for the brain…the preparation…the execution…the learning everything new – even where the loo is. The other thing that causes stress is having too much choice – a source of Power Tantrums in children, though most people don’t realise that either.

    1. lindamciver

      You’re right, Karyn. The too many choices tantrum is a little counter intuitive to grown ups, but it all comes down to overload, one way or another, doesn’t it? We all need time and space to process things to a level where we can cope.

  2. Joe

    Too *little* stress is also unhealthy. “Stress”, in the strictest sense, is a key motivator. In a sense even a reward motivator is a “stress”… either way your system says “it’s not right that {I don’t have the reward yet / that bad thing is going on}” and your system physiologically prepares and maintains you for taking action.

    Adopting and internalising stress over things we can’t influence is a problem for most of us, to a lesser or greater degree.

    With amusement I note things on that list like “a change in financial state” and “a change in the number of arguments”. Not “a reduction in financial wellbeing” or “an increase in the number of arguments”. Indeed.

    A while back a (brilliant) statistician friend of mine was working in medical research. A common measure is “four year survival rate”… what fraction of people diagnosed with a condition are still alive four years later. (And you try to improve that with treatment.) He pointed out the four year survival rate for *winning* lotto was lower than the four year survival rate for being diagnosed with cancer.

    Also. I read a rather good book with the unimaginative title of “Why Marriages Succeed of Fail” in which the author’s extensive research says the number or intensity of arguments is not a significant predictor of marital success or failure, but the level of compatibility in the way you argue / style of conflict resolution is.

    1. lindamciver

      That’s a really good point, Joe. Stress is really a kind of pressure, and pressure can be a very positive thing.

      I think I could devise a treatment for the lotto winners. It would be very expensive. ;)

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