Have you ever read the statistic that says that moving is the third most stressful event you can endure, following death and divorce? Let’s take a moment to digest this: Death, divorce, moving — Wow. Clearly, for it to rank so high the stress cannot possibly be solely due to the practical aspects; it doesn’t equate that packing up one house and moving to another location would trigger this level of emotional response. But in the worldview of approaching transitions consciously, it makes perfect sense.
Transitions, by definition, are times of change, and nobody likes change. Human beings are creatures of habit, comfort, and familiarity. We like our routines and most people gravitate to a life of predictable structure. We take emotional refuge in keeping physical order in our homes and mental refuge in knowing that everything has its place. So what happens when you move? In a word: chaos. With your physical world turned upside down, your inner world tends to follow suit.
True to the common prescription that our culture doles out for the emotional turbulence activated by every life transition, if you do a quick Google search for “move + stress”, you’ll quickly be directed to websites that offer checklists to help organize the practical aspects of moving. The mainstream message is that if you manage the practical tasks, the emotional turbulence will settle down. It’s like the common prescription for the anxious bride to focus on planning her wedding or the impending mother to buy all the right baby stuff. The covert (and sometimes overt) message is: Stay organized and you’ll manage your stress.
While it’s obviously important to attend to the practical elements of a move –- after all, the boxes have to get packed, the moving company arranged, the utilities switched on -– when you only focus on these matters you may distract from the emotional stress for a while, but eventually it will come crashing over you. We talk about postpartum depression and postbridal depression, but there is also a common phenomenon called post-moving depression. It’s what happens when the grief and normal anxiety about moving are packed away inside the boxes and sealed up with layers of masking tape.
How do you avoid falling into the pit of malaise after your move? Here are three tips to help you stay grounded when you feel like your security blanket is being ripped away:
1. Validate that the stress is real
The most damaging statement we repeat to ourselves during times of transition is, “Oh, it’s not that bad. And I have so much to look forward to!” Everyone around you will reinforce this statement with comments like, “Aren’t you excited for your move? What a great city you’ll be living in!” These comments reflect our cultural ignorance around transitions where we fail to acknowledge that, while there is a great excitement around the corner, the grief and fear that accompany the first stage of a move are real and need attention.
2. Educate yourself about the three stages of transitions
Moving, like all transitions, can be divided into three stages: Letting go, in which you’re packing up, saying goodbye, and grieving the end of the old life; in-between in which the boxes are packed, the old house is empty, but you haven’t moved into the new house yet; and new beginning, where you unpack and begin to send down roots in the new setting. The more you understand and assimilate this blueprint, the more easily you’ll be able to manage the emotional stress of each stage.
3. Follow the emotional roadmap of these three stages
Each of the above stages carries an emotional component that, when focused on consciously and responsibly, will keep you grounded throughout this transition. During the first stage of letting go, while you’re attending to the practical task of packing up and cleaning out, pay attention to the grief that arises. During the in-between, or liminal, stage, notice the sense of unreality and disorientation that ensue as you’re standing in an empty house, and instead of trying to fill the emptiness with noise, notice what lives in that rare, empty space. And during the third stage of the new beginning, as you unpack and reorient physically, you have the opportunity to unpack and reorient emotionally as well.
Popular and habitual thought tell you that the more quickly you zip through your checklists, the happier you’ll be. Actually, the opposite is true. Let’s imagine you’re cleaning out a box of old papers and you find some journals from high school where you wrote about your parents’ divorce or breaking up with your first boyfriend. A wave of grief swells up inside of you. You can either ignore the grief and keep going, as advised by our culture, or you can take a few extra minutes to pause, let the grief swell to full release, and cry.
Like all transitions, moving provides a powerful opportunity to heal layers of ourselves that often don’t emerge unless we’re in the midst of a transition. When you release the grief, you release pressure inside of you, which will give you more internal space and energy with which to continue the external tasks. On the other hand, when you bottle it up, the pressure builds until you end up snapping at your partner or yelling at the moving company. And when you attend to the emotional de-cluttering that occurred in stage one, you will have more internal space during the following two stages, which will allow for new qualities and resources to emerge.