Major life changes can often bring about a range of emotions, both positive and negative. While these changes can be exciting, they can also be stressful. This is because major life changes require people to adapt to new circumstances, adjust their lifestyles, and manage new challenges.
Stress can become overwhelming during a major life change. When you move to a new town, you have to leave your family behind and learn to live on your own. Even moving in with someone and starting a family involves significant changes in personal relationships, lifestyle, and financial responsibilities.
In this article, we will discuss the scientific, psychological, and sociological perspectives on why major life changes are stressful.
Life Change and Stress: The Science
Significant life changes can affect our physical and mental health through our hormones.
Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which are responsible for our stress response and are intended to help us deal with a threat or danger, are released by our brains as a result of these changes. Even positive events can be stressful. For instance, marriage and having a child are both happy life events, but they're followed by a drastic adjustment period.
Read on as we go over what the human body does when significant events occur.
When people experience major changes in their lives, their brain's hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones set off the "fight or flight" response, preparing the body to respond to the stressor.
Physically, the heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar all increase. And if this goes on, or if these hormones are continually released for a prolonged period, it leads to chronic stress, which can overwhelm a person’s body and result in a number of physical and mental health problems.
Chronic stress weakens the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight off infections. The risk of getting sick increases. It can contribute to inflammation, which is linked to various health issues such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. Stress has also been linked to anxiety.
Finding healthy coping mechanisms is essential to reducing the negative effects of stress on the body and advancing general physical and mental health. This can include exercise, mindfulness, social support, and adequate sleep.
Changes in the brain
Most of us think of love, hate, happiness, or fear when we think of emotions since these intense feelings are what we experience most throughout life. Both positive and negative emotions are the driving forces behind many of our behaviors. But where do our emotions come from?
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the temporal lobe of our brains. It is responsible for processing emotional responses, especially those related to fear and anxiety.
Our brain is wired to look for threats or rewards. If one is detected, the feeling region of the brain alerts us through the release of chemical messages. Emotions are the effect of these chemical messages traveling from our brains through our bodies. When the brain detects something rewarding, it releases chemical hormones called dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin that make people feel good.
For example, some positive life events, such as achieving a personal goal or buying a new house, can cause brain changes associated with increased positive effects, emotional regulation, and overall well-being.
On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex, which is situated in the front part of the brain, is liable for making choices, solving problems, and restraining impulses. Stress reduces the activity in the prefrontal cortex, making it more challenging to concentrate and make logical decisions. You will find it difficult to solve problems, which only contributes to overwhelming and anxious feelings.
Let's say you recently received a promotion or changed your career. The opportunities are endless, but you may still stress over how to adjust to your new lifestyle, how to fit your old hobbies into a new schedule, and how to face new situations or challenges.
The good news is you can control your stress response better by being aware of how the amygdala and prefrontal cortex react to stress. Deep breathing and mindfulness meditation can help control the amygdala and prefrontal cortex activity, promoting calm and lowering stress levels. Making better decisions and managing stress can also be aided by practicing problem-solving skills and seeking social support.
Why Are Major Life Changes Stressful
For a variety of psychological and sociological reasons, major life changes can be stressful.
Psychological effects of major life changes
When faced with a significant life change, people may psychologically experience fear or panic about the uncertainty ahead.
Anyone who is raising a baby as a single parent battle all kinds of stressors like loneliness, lack of emotional and financial support from a partner, handling all the responsibilities of parenting alone, and health issues. Spending day in and day out taking care of a newborn baby, combined with all these stressors, may trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Raising a child alone can also be physically demanding. You need to do all the tasks related to childcare such as bathing, changing diapers, feeding, and getting up in the middle of the night to attend to your baby’s needs. Lack of sleep and sheer physical exhaustion will eventually take a toll on the parent’s health.
Sociological effects of major life changes
Sociologically speaking, significant life changes have been known to upend social support networks and cause a loss of identity or isolation from others. Even entering into a new relationship and choosing to spend more time with your girlfriend can lead to you losing friends.
For instance, retirement from work is a significant life change that can have an impact on an individual’s identity, social roles, and relationships with family and friends. It can also impact social norms and expectations related to age, retirement benefits, and social participation.
Suddenly, you no longer have to get up early in the morning to go to work, and no real reason to really leave the house unless you want to. You might retire earlier or later than your peers, which will affect how often you see them.
According to a study written up in the Best Day Psychiatry and Counselling, people who went through significant life changes, like getting divorced or moving to a new city, often felt lonely and disconnected from their social networks. The study also discovered that people with strong support networks could handle the stress of these changes better.
Another study found that people were more likely to exhibit signs of depression and anxiety after going through significant life changes, such as losing their job or a loved one. The same study discovered that a crucial element in minimizing the detrimental effects of these changes on mental health was a conscious effort to adjust to them.
Change is the only constant in this world. Major changes in life can cause stress, which is a natural reaction to the unknowable and uncertainty from a psychological standpoint.
Whether they be major or minor, we should embrace change as inevitable. What's more important is coming up with ways to cope with these changes. A great way to do that is to understand the science behind stress and develop strategies to manage these feelings so they don't take over.