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Navigating life transitions

With Dr Michelle Lim

Season 3 - Episode 7

9 Nov 2021
Podcast 23:35

We all have times in our lives where we find ourselves going through major life transitions, now more than ever with the impacts of COVID.

In this episode, we welcome back Dr Michelle Lim and discuss how we can move through life transitions more successfully, in ways that help us thrive.

  • Transcript

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    Interview snippet

    Dr Michelle: You know, when you’ve   been through something and therefore, changes the person and you actually grow as a person, and have this new wisdom to navigate the rest of your life. And I think that with life transitions, that's something that we can use to actually learn something new about ourselves.

    Dr Sandro: Hello, and a big welcome to In Good Health, I'm your host, Dr. Sandro. I'm a medical doctor, public health expert and foodie. Today, it's my real pleasure to welcome back our special guest, Dr Michelle Lim.

    Dr Sandro: Dr. Lim is a senior lecturer in Clinical Psychology and leads the Social Health and Wellbeing Laboratory at Swinburne University of Technology. She's also the chief scientific adviser for Ending Loneliness Together, a national Australian network made up of universities and industry partners. In this episode we’ll be chatting to Michelle about life transitions and how we can learn to react to these changes in ways that help us thrive.

    Dr Sandro: When we talk about life, major life transitions, what are we generally talking about?

    Dr Michelle: So, we're talking about a phase in someone's life where they might be going through a critical change. So, things like finding new work, leaving a school, perhaps being a new parent or perhaps even losing a loved one.

    Dr Michelle: You know, that could even be a negative life transition for someone or moving away from the community. That's again, a very typical one that most of us would have actually experienced.

    Dr Sandro: And how do these major life transitions impact on our mental or physical health?

    Dr Michelle: I think for most people, even when those positive, even if it's a positive life transition, like being a new parent, it can actually put us in a, I guess, a period where we're testing our ability to handle these changes and that could actually be really stressful.

    Dr Michelle: So, life events itself, even if it's moving to a new country and starting an awesome job, that in itself is a stressful event, a positive event, but very stressful. So, it really kind of gives people an opportunity to kind of adjust and actually to learn something about themselves that they may not otherwise, may not have learnt without that transition.

    Dr Michelle: Often many people who experienced that spike of stress but then actually learn to actually navigate and manage their new emotions. And, you know, with, you know, this familiarity that starts to set in, you know, that distress level may actually go down, which is a really a positive thing for them as they're making that transition.

    Dr Sandro: In what ways might these life transitions affect our health? Like what do you see as a clinician or what might you expect to feel as an individual?

    Dr Michelle: So, for many people, when they're going through this life transition it’s the uncertainty. There’s actually a concept that we call, it’s called intolerance for uncertainty, and it actually drives anxiety. And it's where when we need to know, you know, and often, you know, we were very poor at actually, what we call delayed gratification. We need to know for certainty, you know, we need to know that these things are going to happen. And what we don't know it, it actually drives anxiety and with new life transitions it’s really that period of not knowing.

    Dr Sandro: Uncertainty.

    Dr Michelle: Exactly. And that can really increase our stress, which, as you would know, you know, that can have, kind of you know, poorer physical and mental health outcomes like poorer sleep, not taking care of oneself.

    Dr Sandro: Change in appetite.

    Dr Michelle: Exactly. And poorer mental health. And an inability to manage one's emotions as well. So, you might not be able to regulate your emotions as well because of these stress levels.

    Dr Sandro: And so, what you might, you might find yourself being less patient, more short with those around you, affecting your sleep, affecting what you like, maybe your relationships?

    Dr Michelle: Yeah, that's right. And so, when for some people, it's learning to actually manage multiple emotions at the same time. And sometimes these emotions can be both positive and negative, so you can feel really excited, but really anxious at the same time, you know, so just because you're feeling good doesn't mean you can't have those negative feelings as well.

    Dr Sandro: Yeah, I think that's important to understand. So, if you're, if you're becoming a new parent or you're moving to, or into a new house or starting a new relationship. Just because you feel anxious or worried, that's not necessarily a sign that something's wrong or that it's not the right decision.

    Dr Michelle: Yeah, that's right. And I think often these changes poses a challenge, especially if you haven't been through it before. It poses a new challenge because you don't actually, you haven't actually seen yourself or experienced how you to navigate that.

    Dr Michelle: So, you're really just trying to pivot and navigate that kind of, you know, uncharted territory if you want to kind of put it that way. And the more we do these things, the better. And I'll give you an example.

    Dr Michelle: You know, I have a young person that I see that, you know, she's a fantastic fur parent, as we call it. She has 2 beautiful dogs, and she just recently got the second puppy, and she was, you know, she's like, ‘Oh, you know what? I know how to do this. I've done it before. It's all good.’

    Dr Michelle: But she also happens to be an upcoming new parent and that completely terrifies her.

    Dr Sandro: Of a non-fur baby?

    Dr Michelle: Of a non-fur baby. And that was, you know, that was, that's huge for her because she has not been in that phase, and you know, it's a typical example of just the fact that she hasn't because, only because she hasn't been through it, that anxiety goes up. And while she knows that she will enjoy new parenthood, it was a comes of a lot of anxiety.

    Dr Michelle: So, you have this positive event that causes a lot of stress and anxiety because she just has never been through this major life event, as we will admit, but also just not seeing herself navigate this before. And that's why, you know, a lot of young parents might kind of feel a little bit anxious or depressed or, you know, uncertain, you know, in the first few years of parenting. Because it's something they haven’t done before.

    Dr Sandro: And I imagine these periods of change must be incredible kind of growth or, you know, they’re periods where we're learning so much about ourselves. So, are there some silver linings, some positives to enduring or...

    Dr Michelle: Yeah.

    Dr Sandro: You know, these change periods?

    Dr Michelle: You know, I'm a really strong believer in, in how stress and sometimes trauma can actually lead to development. You know, that's a term that, you know, psychologists often use as post-traumatic growth.

    Dr Michelle: And I'll give you a little example of my life transition, where I, when I moved to the U.S. It was a very challenging experience for me because I moved not knowing anyone, and kind of plopped myself in the Midwest of the U.S. and having to make new friends from the start and was, I missed Melbourne so terribly.

    Dr Michelle: I was so homesick. I was thinking about my friendships in Melbourne and how much I missed home. And it was six months before I could feel like I was part in, part of the St Louis community.

    Dr Michelle: And very recently I was speaking to a fellow American and I said to her, ‘Well, we have the Cardinals, and we have Budweiser.’ And she's just like, why are you using the word we? I was like, oh, that's really odd that I'm using the word we.

    Dr Michelle: Because it's, you know, before when I moved there it was, I felt like I missed Melbourne. It was really stressful, and I left all my friends and my friendship groups. And then I had to navigate to make new ones and new friendships over there, which I did. But then my identity changed, and now I'm using the collective word we interestingly, ten years down the line.

    Dr Sandro: To talk about St Louis.

    Dr Michelle: Yes, exactly. But you know that stressful life event, even though it's positive, you know, moving for a new job and a really exciting college, challenged me. It was a very stressful period for six months, I would say I was very, very lonely and learning to navigate a whole new way of working in America and new work culture and navigating friendships. But then, you know, at the end, realising I've learned something about myself. I learned something of how much I can actually cope, but also navigate and also recover, and also then identify with a particular, you know, place.

    Dr Sandro: That's interesting. It really resonates with me as well of moving overseas and moving country four or five times in ten years and moving to new cities. And that feeling of trying to get through at the time, it seems really difficult and they're really lonely periods.

    Dr Sandro: And you kind of think, God, what have I done? But there are definitely times now in my life, you know, professional life or personal life where I can see that those experiences have made it easier. They kind of give you a bit of a thicker skin.

    Dr Sandro: Or, I mean, it sounds cliche, but kind of, you know, to a degree, I suppose, whatever you know, whatever is tough makes you that little bit stronger. But how do you, what advice have you got? Because, you know, it's often a fine line between making you stronger and maybe breaking you or having a really, you know, serious impact on your psychological health.

    Dr Sandro: I mean what, what advice have you got for people going through major transitions, maybe even multiple transitions in terms of taking care of themselves, you know, seeing the, seeing the silver linings but protecting themselves from those harder elements?

    Dr Michelle: It's a very good question. And I think the biggest thing that we know that can buffer the stresses is actually good social support, you know, and I think that while, for example, I was living really far away from my friendship group, you know, it was so critical for me to still get that social support in, but also then build new support. So having kind of systems where I could talk to people about different things and, you know, feeling meaningfully connected.

    Dr Michelle: And I have to say that I did put in a lot of effort, and it was it was well worth it, but it was for me feeling that stress and that, you know, that shakiness was again, it was almost a signal that I was learning something. But I was able to cope, and I think that most people are often afraid of asking for help. This is one of the things that we, you know, as psychologists, you know, often advocate, is that we often ask for help too late.

    Dr Michelle: You know, perhaps let's ask for help before we start feeling really shaky, perhaps when we just kind of feel a little bit like things are not right, or maybe should I kind of pre-emptively kind of ensure that I have the support I need?

    Dr Michelle: We don't do things in a preventative way. We often kind of deal with it only when we're feeling really acutely distressed. And I think we really need to learn better to take care of our health, but pre-emptively do these things to actually support ourselves if we know we're going through those critical life transitions at some point.

    Dr Sandro: We all have times in our lives where we find ourselves going through major life transitions. Whether it's moving house, getting married or maybe starting a job, regardless of the type of transition you're facing, you're likely to experience a wide range of emotions such as anxiety, fear and perhaps excitement and joy.

    Dr Sandro: For many people going through tough life transitions, they can tend to feel overwhelmed, not knowing where to turn to for help. So how can we move through these life transitions more successfully? Dr Lim is here to help us answer these very questions.

    Dr Sandro: Yeah, I think there is still such a sense of shame with asking for help, and particularly when I think combined with going through a period of transition that is meant to be, or that you know that you could think, well, this is meant to be an exciting thing.

    Dr Sandro: This is, you know, this is meant to be a good thing. You know, if I, if I go and ask for help, it's going to seem somehow ungrateful or as though I'm complaining about the situation. But, you know, being comfortable and confident to reach out, and that can come in lots of different forms.

    Dr Sandro: When you say reach out for help, it's not necessarily to a professional like yourself. I mean, it could be to a friend or to a family member. Tell me more about, you know, practical ways that people can reach out early on?

    Dr Michelle: Yeah. Look, I think  that's a really good point is that you don't always have to reach out to professionals. Some people generally prefer that because they like that. The fact that, you know, no one knows that they need help.

    Dr Michelle: But for most people, I would say the majority of us will always reach out to a confidant. And you can have multiple confidants for different things, to actually even just kind of, you know, snowball ideas. What if I don't cope very well with this? Like, what's a Plan B, you know, kind of talking about those things ahead of time or being able to be comfortable to say I need help without feeling judged.

    Dr Michelle: You know, it's really important. So, it’s selecting the right confidant, understanding what they can...

    Dr Sandro: Confidant, just to be clear, is a fancy word for a friend, is it? Sounds very, sounds very sort of saucy, almost.

    Dr Michelle: Yeah, I know. It could be a friend; it could be a family member; it could be a partner...

    Dr Sandro: Someone you trust.

    Dr Michelle: Someone you trust. Exactly. And we know that having multiple people you trust will kind of put us in a better protective and preventative space, you know, to prevent stressors.

    Dr Sandro: And is it worth reaching out in advance sort of letting people know that a difficult life transition is coming up so they are aware and may be better able to support you?

    Dr Michelle: Yeah, look, I always advocate that, but people do have some worries about doing that ahead of time because they don't want to seem like they are burdened, you know, and often I think that, you know, this perception that someone might view you differently and more negatively is the stuff that actually stops people from asking them for help.

    Dr Michelle: So, a lot of this education around seeking help early, it's not even just for the person seeking help, but the people around the person, you know, and how do we react and what can we do to help? And us and those just supporting the person by not judging them and telling people, you know, if someone comes to you for help, you know, the best kind of response is, you know, I'm here for you.

    Dr Sandro: I'm listening.

    Dr Michelle: Yeah, exactly. I'm listening. They don't want you to solve their problems it’s just, you know, being there and just being a listening ear. What can I do to help, you know, if me just sitting here and just listening to you is helpful, I'm here for you.

    Dr Sandro: And I suppose also, if you’re a friend and you see someone who or a loved one or a family member who is coming up to a major life transition, you know, maybe also reaching out and saying, hey, I've been through that or, you know, I see you, and this is a tough time. Don't feel worried about having a catch up or a chat.

    Dr Sandro: When I was, when I moved to Norway and it was cold and dark, I definitely resonate of staying connected. I used to have a call actually with my family every morning on my way to work because it was pretty much the only interaction with people I didn't work with. But I also found having routine and then also having things that were connections back, like visiting friends regularly in other countries, making sure that I had things in the diary that I could kind of look forward to, that I knew were going to be a source of connection and recharging.

    Dr Sandro: Those were really helpful for me and a sense of routine. I mean, what other things can people do if they do have a major transition period moving from school to work? Or I mean, parenting is a pretty complicated one. But what are some, what are some things that we can do in preparation leading up to major life transitions, maybe to, you know prepare ourselves?

    Dr Michelle: I like that you have a fantastic coping list, coping strategies list here, and I would say to the person is what worked before, would more likely work, you know, at your next challenge. So, if it's reaching out to a particular group of people that really works for you, or even for some people would be like, you know what, just exercising and being out with other people works for me.

    Dr Sandro: Or certain hobbies, things that bring your pleasure.

    Dr Michelle: Yes exactly. Things that, you know, would have worked in a past to try to continue those again. And if things do need to tweak and change, anticipate that they are going to tweak and change.

    Dr Michelle: And sometimes, you know, expressing your concerns beforehand to, you know, say, a friend and say, oh, you know I'm worried I might not be able to cope. What should I do? Having someone kind of snowball a couple of ideas with you and kind of, you know, assist you. And if you are kind of in trouble down the line, to be able to activate that coping skill or that person that you trust, to actually go to them and have a chat.

    Dr Michelle: So that it’s kind of not new when it's something that you can just activate. So, I often say to people, okay what worked in the past, let's put a list of strategies down. You know, let's do a list of twelve or ten, you know, and if sometimes this doesn't work, that's fine. Move on to the next one, you know. And obviously, as you would know, it’s quite nuanced and individual.

    Dr Sandro: What might some of those look like, though, for people?

    Dr Michelle: So, for some people, what would be very common would be speaking to mum and dad. But there are young people who don't have that source of support. But lots of young people, for example, will be very close to their parents, and that would be their first port of call.

    Dr Michelle: And there are people who might go with a trusted friend. You know, so those kinds of supports to ensure that those relationships are stable but having more than one. It's really important, don't just have one person that you rely on for everything. It's really important that we diversify our social supports, but also other things are not related to social support would be exercising. That really relieves a lot of stress for some people. A lot of people are very reliant on kind of more cardiovascular exercise. Meditation is the other thing that people are quite reliant on. You know, learning some of these skills is almost what I call tools in your toolbox.

    Dr Michelle: You know, it's like, let's have a variety, because not all of them are going to work for that circumstance. So, what is it that's going to be most helpful for you? 

    Dr Sandro: And I think, you know, one of the things I always recommended to people as well, particularly in times of uncertainty, whether it's life transition or otherwise, and over COVID, we've seen a lot of uncertainty. Is, you know, try and control what you can and then, you know, the things you can't like a changing city or changing job, you know, have the things in your life that you, and that's what you're saying, is kind of the parts that you can control.

    Dr Sandro: Your favourite hobbies, your favourite people, you know, your favourite foods, the things that are familiar, take those with you, enjoy those have them around you through that transition. And that may help to kind of buffer some of the uncertainty and change that is occurring.

    Dr Michelle: Yeah, I think that's a term that psychologists often use is there’s productive worry and unproductive worry. And sometimes we get hung up on things that we cannot change, and that actually makes us more anxious and more depressed.

    Dr Michelle: And you know, it actually lowers our coping skills. So, I think it's really important for us to try to focus only on the things that we can change and that we feel like little steps actually do make a difference.

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    Dr Sandro: I've got some questions from our listeners. Question from Danielle. I feel like I'm going through many life transitions at this time, at the same time, something I think we can all sympathise with. And I don't know how to deal with them, with all of them. What's one thing that I should, you know, start with?

    Dr Michelle: So, there’s many things, there are many things that Danielle can do. So, I think one thing is to just revisit what has worked in the past for her to buffer some of the stresses that she's experienced before. Multiple life transitions can be very difficult to battle.

    Dr Michelle: So, it might be that she actually has to revise the list of things that worked before, and they may not work again, but it's really important for us to kind of think about what would now work. So, you know, if it's something that she needs someone else to assist her with, so someone that she trusts, it might be someone in her network that she really knows, or perhaps even a professional to actually help so that she can reset herself, and actually think about and reflect what would work in this particular situation? Because it sounds really challenging when you have kind of multiple life transitions going on.

    Dr Michelle: There are things that would have worked in the past for her like coping strategies, like seeking social support or exercise or meditation, or even distracting kind of activities that may have worked for her. Are those things actually going to work this time and sometimes it’s about trialling it and actually seeing whether it does actually relieve stress levels and her ability to actually cope with the ongoing transitions that she has.

    Dr Sandro: This question is from Kristine, my best friend's parents are currently in the middle of a divorce, and she's finding it really upsetting. Is there anything in particular that I can do to support her through this time?

    Dr Michelle: Yep. So, with Kristine and I think it's really important for you to just be there for your friend, you don't necessarily have to offer any kind of advice because it's very hard as a third-party kind of watching and looking in. And your friend might be feeling rejected and overlooked in this whole process of a very critical and stressful life transition for her family. Just being there and being open and not judging her and just, you know, letting her know that you're here just to listen to is really critical. And that's something that I'm sure she would appreciate.

    Dr Sandro: Thanks for listening to the In Good Health podcast. To find out more about the work that we do, head over to our website Oh, and make sure you check us out on social media under @VicHealth.

Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.