Experiencing Difficult Emotions During Life Transitions: Is This Normal?
Last updated: March 2022
For about a month now, I have wanted to write about some overlapping things I often see in my work that relate to life transitions and diabetes, and feelings of grief that often accompany these. But, full disclosure, I’ve had writer’s block and difficulty pulling the themes together in the way I see it in practice.
Experiencing difficult emotions with type 2 diabetes
Then I read an article by Bruce Feiler in Psychology Today that gave me some research and terms that just made things click.
The research presented in this article backs up what I had suspected, showing that life transitions are now more plentiful than ever before. And, we may not always be prepared or equipped with the best tools to deal with them.1
According to Feiler, “disruptors” - those events whether good or bad that affect everyday life - occur every one to two years. And, an average adult life will see three to five “lifequakes” - disruptors that trigger major life transitions.1
I don’t know about for you, but for me, when I read this, that term “lifequake” struck a serious chord. I find it to be such a great description of those defining moments, where the earth continues to spin but you can clearly see that life as you know it will never be the same.
Diabetes as a lifequake
So many of the folks I have worked with over the years have described the moment they heard the phrase “you have diabetes,” as one of these defining and life-changing moments. We tend to think of grief as only applying to situations when a loved one dies, but it can take place when experiencing any loss. And for individuals with diabetes, this diagnosis can feel like a loss of health.
That’s why many individuals experience the 5 stages of grief following the diabetes diagnosis.2 Those stages being denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.3 And these don’t always occur in a linear fashion. Feelings of grief are normal, but frequently many individuals find it helpful to gain professional support in dealing with their loss, especially if they find they are “stuck” in one phase for a period of time.
Grief during transitions
I frequently see these feelings of grief accompany other life transitions, such as retirement, loss of a job, promotions, divorce, children moving out of the home, etc. To me, it makes sense that people will experience grief at these times, since grief itself is the experience of a loss. When we experience a transition of life, we experience a loss of the previous way of life, and perhaps the people, environments, routines, security, or financial stability that came along with it.
Add it up
“Pileups” is a term Feiler uses to describe when many disruptors occur at once or during a short period of time. You have heard this before and maybe found yourself saying “it’s been a tough year for me.” In my work with patients, I have seen many individuals whose diabetes diagnosis occurred during one of these pileups. Or it was a disruption in usual diabetes management, such as a change in medication or onset of a complication.1
Examples of pileups include an individual who had a heart attack and was diagnosed with diabetes while in the hospital. Or someone else who switched jobs, moving to a new area, and the new employers’ insurance covers their medication (only partial), but the new medication gave her serious side-effects, which then kept her from engaging in the exercise she enjoys.1
What are normal emotions?
Many people ask me if what they are experience is normal or if they should be concerned.
I’m here to tell you that IT IS NORMAL to experience difficult emotions when going through a life transition, whether it is a lifequake, pileup, or a moderate disruption.
And, when it comes to dealing with a chronic disease like diabetes, it is not only normal, it is expected. In fact, as a mental health provider, I would actually be concerned if you weren’t having at least some or any difficult emotions (stress, anger, frustration, confusion, guilt, sadness, etc.) during these times.
When you consider the fact that it takes a while to recover from these frequent life disruptors and establish a sense of normalcy, this information shows us that we spend a great deal of time in this state of flux. So learning how to deal with times of instability is critical.
How to deal with emotions
The key to dealing with these transitions and emotions is to establish some skills and work on moving through these difficult emotions, towards a place of satisfaction and to some stability in life.
- Simply recognizing that life is going to throw you curveballs can help you better manage feelings of denial and shock.
- Focus on the things that are within your control.
- Practice healthy coping skills.
- View transitions as an opportunity to create a fresh start, as new beginnings.
- Don’t get down on yourself for feeling down or having a hard time now and then.
- Gain the support of others. After all, many have been through the same struggles you are currently facing and can relate or offer advice.
- If your symptoms are significant or you have difficulty shaking them off on your own after a period of time, consider reaching out for professional support in the form of counseling.
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