by Alice Goff, MS, LPC
To say that we’ve all had to make significant changes to our ways of life would be an understatement in light of the last seven months of COVID-19. Some of us embrace change and the possibilities to come. Some of us, however, struggle with change and the unknown. Most of us are comfortable with predictability within situations, people, places, and routines. During this pandemic, we’ve all been called to throw out our normal routines in order to keep our families and ourselves safe and well. We’ve been faced with uncertainty after uncertainty, with very little time for a heads up or mental preparedness. As most of us have noticed, our emotions or patience levels have been put to the test. Our ability to filter our words and responses has been compromised. Whether it’s something totally unexpected- like this pandemic- or a very predictable case of empty nest syndrome, adjusting to something new is sometimes easier said than done!
Clinically speaking, many of us are experiencing a disruption called Adjustment Disorder (AD)- defined in the literature as “the development of emotional or behavioral symptoms in response to an identifiable stressor(s) occurring within three months of the onset of the stressor(s).” There is typically a significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. AD existed way before COVID-19, and the good news is that it typically resolves after the stressor resolves, or as we learn to handle the “new normal.” In the meantime, therapy, and sometimes medication, has been shown to be effective in dealing with AD.
As with most issues therapists address, there are varying degrees of severity and different types of adjustment. Sometimes it’s accompanied by depression, anxiety, conduct issues, or general emotional instability. Have you suffered from an inability to concentrate? Yep- that’s a symptom too! With the depressive type, thoughts of suicide are possible- so if you’ve had these thoughts as a result of a recent change, please seek help immediately!!! AD can be caused by many stressors: a job transfer; geographical move; graduation; divorce; an empty nest; illness; death; and yes, even pandemic! Everyone reacts differently- there’s no “normal” reaction to events which have impacted YOUR life! So it’s important to recognize these signs and symptoms, don’t panic, and seek help from a trusted professional. A general understanding and identifying that this is what you are going through can bring relief and healing. Talk therapy is the main treatment for adjustment disorders, offering emotional support and understanding of why the events are so significant to emotional and mental health. It also offers help with coping skills and establishing new routines.
Whatever you may be adjusting to at the moment, be encouraged that we all face changes- some expected and others unforeseen- and we may not respond well. We can try to handle it on our own, grit our teeth, fake it, and we may land on our feet. We may be irritable, unable to focus, and risk losing important relationships or even a job. The best and final option is to ask for help, to wave the white flag, and seek healthy resolutions for any out of character behavior. Change is inevitable. But with a little time and encouragement from a counselor, we can begin to grieve the worst of change, and celebrate the growth that it often brings into our lives.