Turning Over a New Leaf: Handling Transitions

“The salted caramel is good, but you have to try the fig ricotta gelato; it’s why everyone comes to this place,” a young woman at the table behind me exclaimed to her friend. She’s probably right. I was back at this gelato shop in Italy for the second time in a week for this very reason.

The women behind me, it became clear, were American university students at the start of their respective semester abroad adventures. As I eavesdropped (psychologist occupational hazard!), they talked about trying different foods, exploring the city, and forging new relationships. There was excitement, but also trepidation about learning new customs, getting lost in unfamiliar environs, and missing friends at home.

A semester abroad is only one type of transition – there are also new schools, jobs, neighborhoods, relationships, and roles that we experience as we move through life (Read here for more on navigating transitions after a college athletics career.). Exciting though they may be, I couldn’t help but reflect on another reality: transitions can be seriously stressful.

For example, for people with eating disorders, a semester abroad might include challenges like tasting new foods or adapting to a culture’s eating patterns (such as a big lunch followed by siesta); spending hours on end walking around a new place can contribute to accidental weight loss. Changing schools, jobs, or cities involves making new friends, a sometimes-daunting prospect. And the distance from familiar people and routines, no matter the circumstance, can give rise to feelings of loneliness, sadness, or nervousness.

If you are going through or anticipating a transition, consider these suggestions to ease the way:

  • Identify the ‘why.’ Whether the change you are experiencing is one you sought out or not, identify reasons that make it worthwhile to hang in there with the transitional challenges. If you value knowledge and adventure, and you’ve moved to a new place to learn a new language, observe the changes in your fluency and comfort from one week to the next. If you are starting college or returning after treatment, it might help to remember tackling the college campus dining hall buffet will bring opportunities to connect with friends.
  • Notice stuck-spirals. Thoughts, feelings and behaviors are interconnected. By paying attention to the interplay between the three, you can evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. Responding to loneliness by withdrawing from others probably won’t help you feel more connected in the long-term. Avoiding new or scary foods may ultimately increase your anxiety, and pull you away from the flexibility with eating and freedom from thoughts about food that you desire. Remember, these spirals usually get started with some short-term reward, like relief from an unpleasant emotion or situation; rather than judging yourself for becoming stuck, notice it and see if you can find the room to make a different choice.
  • Line up your cheer squad. Who are the people whose feedback you trust? Whose encouragement do you value? Who effectively helps you keep calm, or listens when you need to vent frustrations? As you approach a transition, put these folks on notice that they will be hearing from you or that you’d like them to stay in touch. If there is a specific risk that you are anticipating could impact your wellbeing – such as a change in physical activity, more contact with a difficult family member, or long periods of alone time – flag it for the team of family, friends, and clinicians (if applicable) who will be rooting you on.

There really is no way around transitions. Instead, we must find a path through and the way we go about doing so can make all the difference.

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