ERIC Identifier: ED350527
Publication Date: 1992-04-15
Author: Brammer, Lawrence M.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Coping with Life Transitions. ERIC Digest.
This digest covers representative models of life transitions with their
counseling implications. It also presents selected coping skills and attitudes
with which to manage such changes effectively. A transition is a short-term life
change characterized by a sharp discontinuity with the past. Thus, transitions
have identifiable beginnings and usually definite endings. Examples are job
changes, disabling accidents, marriage, birth, divorce, victimization, death,
moving and travel. These transitions can be positive experiences, such as a
vacation, or painful and tragic such as losing a relationship. Such changes
usually are experienced as losses; hence, transitions thrust the person into
mourning. A transition can be voluntary or involuntary, and it can be on-time
(as in retirement), or off-time (as in the fatal illness of a child). Excluded
from this definition of transition are developmental changes--growing from
childhood to adolescence, for example--and broad social or political changes.
THREE WAYS TO VIEW LIFE TRANSITIONS
METAPHORS FROM CLASSICAL LITERATURE
Bridges (1980) uses metaphors, mainly
from classical literature, to describe transitions over a lifetime. The journey,
for example, is a common image. Homer, the classical Greek poet, describes in
vivid images Ulysses' decade of travel changes. A counseling implication of this
type of image is to encourage clients to see their individual and serial
transitions in terms of personally meaningful metaphors, and as significant
learning events on their lifelines.
SOCIAL INTERACTION MODEL
A second way of characterizing a
life transition is Schlossberg's (1984) social interaction model. She
characterizes a transition in terms of its type, context, and impact. She states
that a transition must be examined in regard to:
*The way a person appraises the transition event;
nature of the transition itself;
coping resources present at the time of the transition;
personal characteristics of the person and the environment (social supports, for
These interacting variables then are studied to ascertain the balance of
current and possible assets and liabilities. They also are linked to
developmental characteristics of the person, such as identity, age and maturity.
A counseling implication of this model is that the counselor must do a thorough
assessment of these variables to determine where the person is now in relation
to the transition, the balance of coping assets and liabilities, and what
resources can be marshaled to help that person cope satisfactorily.
PREDICTABLE OVERLAPPING STAGES
A third model construes the
transition as a process consisting of fairly predictable stages that overlap one
another and that often recycle through earlier stages (Brammer, 1991). These
stages are adaptations of the literature on death as described by Kubler-Ross
(1969) and Parkes (1972). Hopson (1981) has adapted this model of the grieving
process to transitions in general.
The stages begin with the entry experience of confusion and emotional
discomfort, along with shock if the loss is unexpected and severe. Following
this initial reaction is a brief period of sadness or despair, often alternating
with relief and positive feelings. In a divorce, for example, the person
experiences alternating feelings of sadness over the dissolution of the
relationship, but also some relief that conflict and ambiguity are lessened.
Unless the loss is severe, a period of stabilized moods is experienced.
Defense mechanisms such as rationalization, denial and fantasy, for example, are
mobilized. Previously learned coping skills and resources such as one's support
network are tapped. But this stabilization is usually short-lived as awareness
of fears for the future and anger at the transition emerges. Self-esteem usually
plummets and feelings of sadness, dread, or depression take over.
The length of this feeling of depression depends on the person's perception
of the severity of the loss, availability of coping resources, and cultural
attitudes about the appropriate length of grieving. The person is encouraged to
perceive this time as a healing period and relief from pressures of work and
responsibility. Self-nurturing and frequent interaction with the support
networks are important, but each person must discover his or her own method of
getting through this painful period.
One goal is to let go of the past person, thing, job or value and take hold
of a new object or relationship. These attitudes and resources, combined with
the passage of time, enable the person to regain self-confidence and
self-esteem. The person begins to look to the future with optimism and hope. If
this process of healing and taking hold is successful, this stage emerges in a
renewal phase characterized by setting new goals, making plans, and initiating
actions. Thus, growth is enhanced through continual renewal efforts.
One counseling implication of this model is the importance of determining
where people are in this process model after the transition has begun. In the
first stage, much support is needed to help people get through their initial
shock and the disruption of their lives. People need to understand the confusing
feelings of despair and hope following initial reactions to the transition
event. When the subsequent short stabilization period is experienced, methods of
sustaining hope and self-esteem, as well as inoculation from depression, are
needed. Since change frequently is injurious to physical health also, people
need to be cautioned to maintain optimal health. Counselors need to be alert for
indications that the person is letting go of the past and is taking hold of the
new, so that reinforcement of these efforts at healing and renewal can be given.
Thus, the renewal process and the trend toward growth and recovery can be
accelerated and maintained.
This process often does not proceed in nicely calibrated phases, and people
often recycle through the process. The sequences of these phases are not always
predictable. For example, some people might spend years grieving the losses from
their life transitions. A key criticism of this process model is that it is
often oversimplified and the orderly progression of the stages for all people in
transition is taken for granted.
COPING ATTITUDES AND SKILLS
Coping is viewed in the
psychological literature as a form of self-initiated problem solving. Thus, it
is clearly distinguished from adjustment and psychological defense, which are
fairly automatic responses to change and threat. Similarly, transformational
forms of personal change often come about through intense life experiences over
which people have little control. Skillful "copers" are effective in appraising
the possible threats and dangers in the change event, and can choose among
alternative courses of appropriate action (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
Attitudes contribute to a satisfactory coping response. A key attitude is to
view change as a normal part of living, as opposed to a view that the transition
is some kind of terrible curse, unlucky event, or unnecessarily difficult
problem to solve. The effectiveness of viewing the transition as a challenging
event, even welcoming it as an opportunity for creative growth, has much support
in research (Kobassa, 1979). A man, for example, who sees his company about to
reorganize and consolidate decides that he will use this transition event to
move toward the career he always wanted--a business of his own. Thus, he viewed
this move as a challenging opportunity.
People who perceive themselves as being in control of their lives, and to a
large extent over the events in their lives, are among what Kobassa (1979) calls
"hardy copers." A related attitude in the hardy copers' repertoire is
commitment--knowing their values and goals, as well as having the intention of
pursuing them diligently. In other words, they know who they are and what they
want. The transition is perceived as just another hurdle to jump along life's
raceway. They are willing to take responsibility for their actions and do not
blame others for the transitions that inevitably come into their lives. When
becoming ill, for example, they are willing to look for flaws in their own
lifestyles as well as to look for external physical causes.
The length of time required for satisfactory resolution of a transition
depends on a number of mediating factors. Some key ones are:
meaning that the transition has for the person;
extent to which the person is aware of and expresses feelings about the
experiences with transitions and learning from them;
availability of support systems;
Coping skills can be classified in various ways, but a simple list that
incorporates several subcategories follows:
and utilizing support networks;
restructuring, or reframing;
problems in the rational, intuitive, discovery, and systems modes;
stress responses and stress-inducing events.
All of these skill clusters are teachable (Brammer & Abrego, 1981). The
key goal for counselors who are helping people cope with threatening personal
change is to teach them the skills they can use to conceptualize the nature of
their transitions (e.g., as a fairly predictable and understandable process) and
the skills to cope with various stages in the process. The principal goal would
be self-management of their transitions since they are such a common part of
human existence. A second goal would be to help people inoculate themselves
against the unwanted consequences of their transitions, such as depression,
hopelessness, chronic grief, and self pity, or awareness of being in crisis and
out of control.
The goals cited above can be reached not only
through learning specific coping skills and attitudes, but also by acquiring
knowledge about the nature of the transition process through engaging in a
self-inquiry when the transition ends. This inquiry includes questions such as,
What did I learn about myself, others and the nature of transitions as a result
of working through this transition? The anticipated outcome is that people would
be able to manage their own transitions effectively without outside help.
Brammer, L., & Abrego, P. (1981).
Intervention strategies for coping with transitions. The Counseling
Psychologist, 9, 19-36.
Brammer, L. (1991). How to cope with life transitions: The challenge of
personal change. New York: Hemisphere Publishing Corp.
Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions: Making sense out of life changes. Reading,
Hopson, B. (1981). Response to papers by Schlossberg, Brammer and Abrego. The
Counseling Psychologist, 9, 36-40.
Kobassa, S. (1979). Stressful events, personality and health: An inquiry into
hardiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1-11.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan. Lazarus, R.,
& Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal and coping. New York: Springer.
Parkes, C. (1972). Bereavement: Studies of grief in adult life. New York:
International Universities Press.
Schlossberg, N. (1984). Counseling adults in transition. New York: Springer.