So You've Taken the Plunge---Now What?! By Brett Ford, MFT Intern
Two years (and a few odd days) ago, I took the plunge—I moved to California. In making the decision to attend school in San Diego, I’d finally fulfilled a lifelong dream to move across the country. I grew up in a tiny, suburban town outside of Philadelphia and had never moved more than 10 miles away, even for college or graduate school. For 27 years, I’d dreamed of living near the beach, in a place where the weather was always beautiful and the people seemed so lively and friendly (a stark contrast to the east coast). I arrived here with a smile on my face and expectations through the roof. Until…the stress set in.
I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t know what highway went where, and California driving absolutely terrified me. I missed my family, I missed my friends, and school was much harder than I’d expected. Little things added up, too. I needed a hair salon, a veterinarian, and a place to get my oil changed. I needed toothpaste. Q-Tips. Toilet paper! I had no idea where anything was, and it was exhausting trying to figure out a hundred new things every day…everything felt so strange and uncomfortable. I stopped eating well and was unable to sleep for more than 4 hours a night.
Have you experienced this? Your life changes in a big way, and stress management becomes overwhelming—even seeming impossible at times?
You’re not alone. Whether it’s a new job, new city, or new relationship dynamic, change is stressful. Our anxiety sends us into fight-or-flight mode—the human stress response. It is normal to experience this feeling sometimes—the fight-or-flight response helps alert our bodies to danger, and that’s OK! The problems occur, however, when we experience prolonged exposure to this state. Chronic stress leads to adverse effects on our health and mental states.
Our bodies burn so much energy preparing for danger, that we crave foods high in carbs and fats. Ever hear the term, “stress eating”? It’s a real thing! The body, depleted of energy, sends a message to the part of our brain that controls appetite and tells us to fill up quickly on dense and fatty foods. Restoring our bodies with foods that are less than nutritious creates other issues for us—including increased anxiety, creating a cycle.
Aside from influencing our eating habits, chronic states of stress affect our sleeping as well. Our bodies run on a 24-hour cycle—the “circadian rhythm”. Each day, our hormones help us wake up and stay energized throughout the day, and then relax and prepare for sleep at night. Once we are in a state of rest, we can achieve the really good quality of sleep that helps our body restore itself and keep the immune system strong. If we are experiencing the stress response day in and day out, however, our natural rhythm is interrupted and getting to that state of deep sleep is nearly impossible. This creates a bad cycle as well.
So what do we do? Never take risks? Maintain the same routines forever? Of course not. Finding the courage to change our lives and turn pursue happiness is what life is all about. But finding ways to manage the stress that goes along with new situations is crucial.
1.) Eat at least nutritious 1 meal per day. I’m not saying you need to turn into the world’s healthiest person overnight. Healthy eating can be tough, especially when you are adjusting to a new schedule and find yourself on-the-go during mealtimes. Keep it simple! Incorporate fruits and veggies into your dinner, or maybe opt for a lean cut of meat instead of a burger for lunch. Keeping your body going with the right nutrients will help reduce stress and give you more energy.
2.) Make sleep a priority. This one is tough. Insomnia (difficulty falling or staying sleep) is a classic sign of anxiety, and overcoming it can feel impossible sometimes. But do what you can! Does your bedroom face east? Buy blackout curtains so the sun doesn’t wake you up early in the morning. Are you staying up too late doing work? Set a bedtime for yourself, and stick to it. Try to avoid electronics (TV, computer) one hour before bed. Magnesium—a natural supplement—has been known to help insomnia, as well. Prioritize getting at least 6 hours of sleep per night, and your body will thank you.
3.) Exercise. Not your thing? That’s ok! The good news is, you don’t need to spend 90 minutes in the gym or run 10 miles each day to keep your body healthy. But committing to some sort of exercise routine is important to combat stress. The good news is, it can be anything you want! Take a long walk during your lunch break. Swim in the pool at your local YCMA. Play tennis. Go on a hike during the weekends. Even vacuuming increases the heart rate and burns calories! Experts recommend at least 20 minutes of exercise, 3 times per week. You can do it!
4.) Stay connected. It can be overwhelming to talk about stress. When I moved, I felt like if I confided in anybody about how upset I was, I would be a failure and disappoint the people who had supported me. Sometimes it’s hard to even acknowledge to ourselves that we are stressed. It’s like, if we say it out loud, it feels even more real. But staying connected to a support system will help us heal; it reminds us that we have loving, helpful people in our lives who truly care about us. Set up weekly coffee dates with a friend, even if you can only spare 20 minutes. Maybe you moved far away—schedule regular phone calls with friends and family. Feeling grounded in familiar support systems will help your new situation seem less scary, and being open about the good and the bad of your new situation will help alleviate stress.
5.) Trust the process. Let this be your mantra. It may sound cheesy, but it’s true. Changing your life is a process, and this uncomfortable, scary, exhausting initial stage is just part of it. You’ll have days where everything seems so overwhelming that you want to quit, or at least make arrangements so you can go back to the way life was before. Keep your goals in mind; there is a reason you made the change that you did, and you deserve the happiness that you envisioned for yourself. Keep that dream alive, and trust the process. It will happen.
Brett Ford is a registered marriage and family therapy intern and is currently accepting new clients. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (619) 272-6858 x711.