Taking Care of Yourself During Challenging Transitions

By Caitlin Williams, Ph.D.

Welcome back to Library Worklife. We’re glad you’re here. Our theme over the past months’ issues has been on how you can develop professionally across your career. Given what’s happening around the world right now, let’s spend this month looking at one of the most important ways you can focus on your growth and well-being – taking care of yourself during this time of transition and uncertainty.

Whether you’re working remotely right now, going through a furlough, searching for a job, or if you’ve just recently graduated – you (and just about everyone else) are going through a massive transition. The pandemic has likely upended your workplace, your career and your personal and family life. And while the “old” rules, expectations and assumptions aren’t necessarily applicable, it’s difficult to know exactly when we’ll get some certainty back. That’s definitely a sign of being in the midst of a transition! 

But while we wonder when things will shift, we can – right now – act in ways that can help us cope with the challenges we’re facing. 

Consider these ideas for taking extra-good care of yourself till things get back on more solid ground.

Consider how you’re viewing this transition. It’s true; you don’t have much control over workplace closings, furloughs or the challenge of a job search right now. But you DO have control over your perspective. If your thoughts keep circling back to all the things you can’t control, you’re likely to talk yourself into a depression, or a feeling of total helplessness. 

Instead, try shifting your thinking by asking yourself this question: What is one thing I can do today that can help me look forward to possibilities tomorrow? Perhaps it’s reading something inspiring. Or copying a quote that has helped you in difficult times and emailing it to a friend. Or meditating. Or taking the dog for a walk (if that’s possible) and enjoying some Spring weather. Or looking at a newsletter for ideas on new books to check out online from your local library. You get the idea.

Acknowledge the grief you’re feeling. We’re all going through multiple challenges and changes. Worries about health and jobs, anxiety about the economic toll, and the feelings of loss for “the ways things used to be” are all reasons for us to experience a sense of grief. That doesn’t mean the grief has to overwhelm us; it simply means we’re recognizing that so much is changing from what we counted on not that long ago. But once we recognize it, there are things we can do to manage this grief. In a recent Harvard Business Review article (March 2020), Dr. David Kessler, an expert in the area of grieving, explains that we can:

Find balance in the things we’re thinking. If you seem to frequently think of the worst-case scenarios, make a conscious decision to think of good images, possibilities, alternate scenarios, as well.

Come back into the present. Rather than looking into the future and worrying about what might happen, bring yourself back to the present. Use mindfulness or meditation to center yourself and focus on what is right in front of you.

Let go of what you can’t control. Instead, focus on what you can control – safe social distancing, washing your hands, staying connected to others through technology. Because we’ve heard these suggestions so often lately, we may discount them or dismiss their power – but remember – these are things we can control.

Stock up on compassion – remember that each of us has our challenges to deal with during this time. Understanding what others may be coping with keeps our hearts open to them.

Lower your anxiety level. I know – this one is easier said than done. But here’s the thing – you have dealt with anxiety in the past. Of course, it’s not the same anxiety you’re facing now, but you do have some experience to draw on. Sometimes it’s a matter of looking backward to help us look forward. Consider a time in your past when you experienced some anxiety – maybe it was a new job, a new relationship, or a change in location that you hadn’t anticipated. Whatever it was, you faced it, and – through some strategies you developed – you made it through your anxiety to get to a more secure footing on the other side. 

We tend to forget what we’ve accomplished in the past. But now, it’s important to recall those times. Think about what you did to quiet your anxiety in the past. Was it talking with friends? Coming up with alternate strategies? Praying? Meditating? Taking tiny steps forward? Whatever helped then may present ideas for you now.

Create personally meaningful rituals: Michael Norton, a professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, has studied rituals and their effect on people who use them. According to Dr. Norton, rituals can help us deal with emotions and stress during difficult times. Consider for a moment how you – and maybe your family – have certain rituals that have become important to you. Perhaps it’s a picnic to celebrate Spring, or gathering to mark a religious celebration, or meeting at a relative’s home regularly, or visiting a different park each month. Whatever it might be, our current travel restrictions and social distancing may make those rituals impossible at the moment. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t create a new ritual that works right now. Call a friend or colleague each Monday morning. Share a virtual dinner with friends. Read a story to a niece or nephew once a week remotely. Tap dance in your living room once a day.

The value of having a personally meaningful, relevant and enriching ritual that you create and then carry out consistently can be comforting. It can strengthen bonds. It can bring us a sense of calm and control when done alone, as well. What is one ritual that would add meaning and a sense of calm to your life?

Connect and reconnect with others. There’s a lot more to connecting and reconnecting that goes beyond networking (though that’s important, too). Our social support system (according to Dr. Nancy Schlossberg, an expert in the field of transitions) can be a tremendous source of comfort and connection and can help us cope with transitions. Our support system offers ways to keep from feeling isolated in tough times. You may not be able to share a cup of tea at the same table right now, but you can share some meaningful time with others through connecting via one of the many online platforms. Look through your list of contacts and pick one or two to reach out to every couple of days through an email, phone call or text.

And, if you’re one of the many professionals who hasn’t kept in touch with others because of busy times at work over the last year, now is the perfect time to re-establish those contacts. We’re all hungry for connection right now, so don’t be shy or hesitant. Also consider reaching out to those you’ve meant to introduce yourself to – someone from a past conference or get-together. Or someone in your neighborhood (virtually, of course). There are so many ways we can connect and find new commonalities and interests with others. What’s stopping you?

Try something new. And yes, you can do this without leaving home. (There’s an article online about a man in France who ran a marathon on his balcony!) Interested in learning a new language? Trying a new recipe? Researching the background of a leader you admire? Trying your hand at crafts? Consider a passion/area of interest that you’ve had on the back burner forever but haven’t had the time to weave into your life till now. If it’s something that holds your interest, it’s likely to expand your world and open up new ways of seeing, thinking or doing – especially when you may find it challenging to do much of anything at the moment.

If you’re working remotely – watch out for burnout. You may have noticed articles lately using the acronym WFH. And you likely know what the acronym stands for: Working From Home. While some of us warm to this new reality, others dearly miss the collegiality of the workplace. Either way, it pays to monitor how we’re going about our workday in this new (temporary) normal. Pay attention to how you’re structuring your day. Do you take needed breaks? Do you eat when you need to? (All-day grazing in front of the refrigerator doesn’t count!) How do you set boundaries between work and non-work time? 

Don’t forget self-compassion. We may need to take care of others, organize and meet the needs of family, and still feel a need to do even more. Now is precisely the time when we need to show kindness to ourselves. The gentleness and compassion that we offer ourselves help us remain mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy. Ask yourself how you can show more understanding and less judgment toward yourself today. Remember, when you model self-compassion, it reminds others to do the same.

Practice gratitude. Visionaries like Oprah Winfrey, Robin Sharma and others have noted that what we focus on expands. That sentiment is particularly helpful to remember right now, especially when it comes to gratitude. Though you might wonder what there is to be grateful for in the midst of this challenging time, I bet you can think of at least a dozen things if you stop and reflect for a moment. The healthcare workers showing up every day, the stories of heroes that are going the extra mile for their neighborhood, the warmer breezes and flowering trees that Spring is offering us, the volunteers taking care of those most vulnerable in our communities, our neighbor who calls to see how we’re doing – the list goes on. Practicing gratitude shifts our mindset and can calm us. Can you focus on one thing you can be grateful for today?

Some Resources for You