The experience of anxiety, grief, and fear are each uncomfortable and unpleasant, so it may seem strange that they’d be associated with welcome and happy events. But according to Lia Love Avellino, LCSW, therapist and co-founder and CEO of therapy group Spoke, we experience these emotions in response to any type of change because our nervous system primes us to deal with the familiar; it needs time to adjust when we experience something new, and that adjustment process involves distressing emotions, including like anxiety, grief, and fear.
“Even if it’s a good change, we’re in new territory, so we respond to that with some negative emotions,” she says. “[They’re] indications that we’re in new territory, and there are parts of us that are worried about not being able to be successful in the unfamiliar.”
There’s no set sequence in which these feelings occur when a change happens, and they will manifest differently in each person. Which emotion is toughest to deal with also depends on your own past experiences, and you may find yourself wading through a stew of seemingly conflicting emotions at the same time. When starting a new job you’re excited about, for example, you might miss your routine and your coworkers or feel afraid to mess up. “It’s important to remember that those things we care about the most are often the things we are worried about because they mean something to us," Avellino says. "And that makes it a mixed emotional experience.”
The key to dealing with these feelings in a healthy way, Avellino says, is to acknowledge and work through them. “The moments you want to tune out are really the moments to which you should be tuning in. The more you tune in, the less difficult it will be to be with those negative emotions,” she says. “Not avoiding, but actually facing and going toward those feelings is what help us move through.”
"The more you tune in, the less difficult it will be to be with those negative emotions." — Lia Love Avellino, LCSW
But living a busy, full life means that you might not always have the time or bandwidth to do this emotional work as it arises. There are obviously some circumstances when it’s not possible to allow yourself to feel everything in the moment. For example, you have to be present at work and can't necessarily be fully present in your own feelings if doing so will stop you from satisfying your responsibilities.
In this case, be sure to set some time aside to process how you’re feeling so the anxiety, grief, and fear don’t accumulate. Avellino suggests noticing how you feel and writing a note to yourself reminding you to unpack it over the weekend or whenever your next unaccounted for swath of time may be.
But there is a difference between compartmentalizing (which Avellino says is healthy) and avoidance (which she says isn’t). Not dealing with these feelings that accompany change can lead to feeling stuck and overwhelmed, which Avellino says can lead to "basically creating a stockpile of pain.”
Furthermore, the existence of the emotions isn’t the problem or what causes us harm; in a recent episode of The Well+Good Podcast, Avellino reminded that being alive means “feeling the spectrum” of emotions—and emotions connected to unpleasantness are part of our life's tapestry, too. But when we allow emotions like anxiety, fear, and grief to collect without addressing or working through them, health and well-being stand to suffer: “It’s that avoidance that ends up making us feel stressed, or get sick, or be so in our head that we don’t sleep at night and get the rest we need.”
Below, get more intel about each of the tougher feelings that accompany all change.
3 tough feelings that accompany all changes in life, whether good or bad
Experiencing symptoms of anxiety is a "survival response" and can serve as an invitation for further introspection, says Avellino: “It’s the frenetic energy that sits on top of grief and fear. Once we’re in that place, that’s an indicator that we might want to 'lift up the hood'” she says, referencing a need to check out what's happening below the surface. “It’s really more of the beginning of the story, and [signals that] I might have unmet or changing needs, so let me pause and figure out what might be underneath that.”
Grief can feel particularly out of place, especially in the midst of a change that you’re happy and excited about. But, even if your change is happy, you might well still be leaving something equally happy behind. For example, if you just left a job because you got an offer for an exciting new role, you might feel grief about components of your past position that you're leaving behind.
In this case, Avellino suggests processing the grief by working toward your feelings directly. Using the example above, you might reflect on how it felt to work in the office, or the relationships you built with coworkers. Working through these thoughts can help you decide how to move forward. Maybe you realize that though you won't see your coworkers on a daily basis anymore, you can make a standing date to catch up over coffee so you can stay in touch.
Going back to the nervous system, we experience fear because we don’t know how something new will go, and we worry about the potential for danger. The key to handling fear is engaging with it; when we work through fear, it becomes more familiar. “You can take away the element of surprise," Avellino says. "Fear might still be hard or painful, but it won’t feel as new or uncharted."
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