Every week, Toronto-based psychotherapist Susan Valentine helps clients navigate troubling and traumatic change in their lives, often related to the loss of a loved one through the breakdown of a relationship or death. This work, she says, usually involves helping people recognize—and release—mechanisms that keep them from accepting their new reality. “It’s normal to go through denial,” she says. “It’s a necessary state of protection.” But, she adds, if we stay in that state, we don’t move toward healing.
One recent client used what Valentine describes as a common procrastination technique around acceptance: obsessive information gathering. The woman and her husband had been having difficulties, but when he asked for a divorce, she was caught off guard. And after their school-aged son said he wanted to live with his father, she started consulting the Internet rather than facing her sadness and anger. “She’d arrive at sessions with articles on divorce and co-parenting and notes from her lawyer that she wanted to discuss,” Valentine says. While the logistics around the separation were important, spending valuable therapy time on those discussions was also a way for her client to keep her emotions bottled up.
As Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it: “There is nothing permanent except change.” But that doesn’t mean acceptance is easy when our set path suddenly veers off course. Even 2,500 years later, we could all still use some tips.
1. Drop Your Defences
After sharing the anecdote, Valentine described common strategies that help us avoid coming to terms with loss. At first glance, some might not seem so bad, such as minimizing (“it’s not such a big deal that I’m getting a divorce”), the aforementioned information gathering and keeping busy with lots of appointments. Others are obviously negative: substance abuse; blaming others; obsessive thinking; denial.
In her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion described her need to let go of the belief that her late husband might miraculously return. “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us,” she writes. “I also know that if we are to live ourselves, there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”
Didion’s “magical thinking” is referenced by Dr. M. Katherine Shear in a 2013 Current Psychiatry Reports article. It is cited as an example of “complicated grief”—prolonged distress that interferes with daily functioning and relationships. In her paper, Shear notes that the condition affects seven per cent of people over 60 who experience loss.
According to Valentine, the desire to function normally again is what usually motivates clients to lay down their guard. In the case of the woman facing divorce, once she stopped researching, she began processing her anger and sadness. “By getting in touch with that, she also started accepting that the marriage was really over,” she says.
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2. Prepare for Change, If Possible
For many, dramatic emotional and psychological upheaval can be caused by something they have been looking forward to for years: retirement. Janet Christensen, a professional career and retirement coach based in London, Ont., says being unprepared for this stage of life can be disastrous. It’s something she saw first-hand in 1978 when her own father left his job as a head caretaker with the Etobicoke Board of Education.
“He was mandated to retire when he was 65, and it was devastating for him,” she says. “We bought him a puppy to get him out walking, but there were days when he would call my mother in tears because he didn’t know what to do.”
According to a 2013 report from the United Kingdom’s Institute of Economic Affairs, this response is common. Data collected from more than 7,000 Europeans in the second half of their lives showed that they were, on average, 41 per cent more likely to develop clinical depression after retirement than when they were still working.
When Christensen coaches retired or soon-to-be retired individuals, she encourages them to think about their sense of purpose. Instead of looking back, she explains, they should be asking themselves what would bring them joy in the next phase. “Or I ask them, ‘If you could make a difference in the world, where would you put your energy?’” Similar to saving money for your post-work life, Christensen says it’s never too early to start asking these questions and nurturing passion projects for when the time comes.
3. Keep Challenging Your Brain
Most of us have internalized the old saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. According to University of British Columbia neuroscientist Dr. Lara Boyd, the problem with this so-called truism is that it’s simply not true. “The adult brain continues to have a tremendous capacity for plasticity into old age,” she says, referring to the brain’s ability to change shape in response to shifts in our environment or new requirements in our daily lives.
To master a new skill, explains Boyd, a short-term memory—which is marked by a chemical shift in a neurotransmitter—has to be converted into a physical change in the brain. But this takes time and practice. “We don’t want to be uncomfortable, so we don’t push ourselves to that edge of failure,” she says, noting that persevering through difficulty is key to brain change.
Exercise is also crucial. At UBC’s Brain Behaviour Laboratory, Boyd is examining how high-intensity workouts can facilitate the formation of long-term memories in individuals who have suffered from strokes. Her past studies have shown this to be the case with healthy individuals. According to a 2013 review out of the University of Pittsburgh, taking a short walk three times a week increased the size of brain regions devoted to memory. This is important, the study stated, because those same neural areas shrink one to two per cent every year after the age of 55.
Changes, especially big ones, bring with them inherent uncertainty that can cause us deep anxiety. Perhaps the best piece of advice can be found in something Christensen tells people who get laid off from their jobs. Her aim is to help them realize that the change might open up new opportunities or bring them closer to the people who support them through tough times. “I say, ‘I know you can’t see it now, but there are gifts in this. You do have a right to be angry, but be open to the gifts.’”