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Common Responses to Major Life Transitions

The Stethoscope

There are many transitions that we go through in the course of our lives.  Some are good, like going off to college and gaining independence, getting married, getting a new job or having children.  Others are harder to deal with, like becoming ill, dealing with chronic pain or having a disability.

The following are “common” responses to major LIFE TRANSITIONS, but they can vary by person.  You may not necessarily experience these responses in this order and some may be omitted altogether.
1- IMMOBILIZATION- the initial inability to fully comprehend the implication of the situation.  This is an example of “it hasn’t hit me yet” and is akin to “denial” during the grieving process.

After my first surgery, after a week of sitting home, I told my husband that I was bored and wanted to go to Wal-Mart.  He questioned if I was okay, and I told him, “I can handle it.”  I was under the mindset that I could still function the way I used to, that spinal surgery simply hadn’t affected me.

2- REACTION- The initial emotional experience when the reality of the change sets it.  This reaction can be varied and can include anger, sadness, guilt, shock.  The reaction can be an uncomfortable, it can come in waves, and it can come out of nowhere, especially if you are not expecting it.

I made it through 20 minutes of my first shopping trip when I found myself sitting on a bench, pale-faced and sweating. A woman, who appeared to be in her 80s, actually came up to me and asked me if she could help me. That was when the first wave hit me…I can’t do things the way I used to. I was ANGRY and SAD. I was bowled over.

3- SELF-DOUBT- A change in mood associated with realizing the reality of the change. The full-effect of the reality of this life transition can take place over days, weeks or even months and can include depression, anxiety or other serious changes in mood.

It took months for the full effect of my injury to hit me. I actually tried to keep a brave face and downplay the seriousness of what was happening. But, as the pain continued and the frustration of not being able to do things for myself increased, I became depressed and anxious as I sat in a recliner and worried about my future.  Among other things, I doubted my capabilities and my strength.

4- LETTING GO- Detaching from that which prevents you from coping, developing and growing. This stage is ongoing and can take a long time to pass because it involves recognizing and mourning a loss in order to move on.

After both surgeries I mourned the need to change. In some respects I am still dealing with the emotional aspect of this life change and therefore have not truly let go yet as I am still trying to figure out how to cope.

5- TESTING- exploring new options/behaviors and relationship patterns. This is learning how to live the “new normal.” It takes time, patience and trial and error.

During a follow-up my surgeon advised me that I should “start getting used to my ‘new normal.'” How do I get used to being like this? How do I explore a life that includes chronic pain or being exhausted after simple chores? How do I get used to the change in my relationships?  When it seems that everything has changed, testing the “new normal” can be a test, for sure.

6- SEARCH FOR MEANING- a conscious effort to find meaning/make sense of what happened.

Writing was my first step at searching for meaning. I have to believe that everything happens for a reason, but the “reason” is not always clear.  Sometimes it is hard to see the forest through the trees, but seeking meaning can hopefully bring peace of mind and a modicum of closure.

7- INTEGRATION- Feeling at home in the “new normal.” This step involves creating new behaviors, self-concepts and understanding.

Even after two years, I would not say I feel at home in my post-transition because every day I am figuring out my “new normal.”

The truth is, when it comes to a major life transition like illness/pain, everything you do to understand and cope is a step in the right direction. There are no huge leaps, literally and metaphorically-speaking, but like the first time having to walk after surgery, you take one step at a time. Put one foot in front of the other until you get to the finish line.

Where are you in the responses to your life transition?


Photo Creative Commons License Alex Proimos via Compfight



Common Responses to Major Life Transitions

Tracy Rydzy MSW, LSW

My name is Tracy and I am a licensed social worker. I was working as a Social Worker, when an emergency spinal surgery 2 years ago changed my life and my career. I live with chronic pain and, as a result, I have taken my social work and writing skills, and made them into this blog. This blog is a humorous, informative, no-holds barred honest look at life with chronic pain, depression and disability.”

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APA Reference
Rydzy MSW, T. (2013). Common Responses to Major Life Transitions. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Mar 2013
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