compass to navigate change

When her youngest son chose to enlist in the U.S. Marines, Washington-based massage therapist and life coach Pixie Stevenson found herself facing a challenging change—and it showed up in her body.

“My right shoulder felt like someone was stabbing it with a knife,” Stevenson said. “After suffering for a couple of days, I had a vision of myself holding on to the bumper of a semi truck as it was trying to pull away from the loading dock.

“I saw my arm being stretched and the ligaments in my shoulder starting to tear,” she continued. “Mentally and emotionally, I had to let my son go to resolve the shoulder pain.”

Stevenson’s story is a vivid example of change in one’s family life, and the pain that showed up in her shoulder is a strong reminder that resistance to change can cause undue suffering.


Opportunities for Transformation

Finding healthy ways to handle change can help transform even the most frightening events into avenues for expansion—honing our patience, building our tolerance and allowing us to know ourselves more fully.

“Navigating change gracefully involves letting go of control and surrendering to the currents of change, while also staying connected to your heart and values,” said Naraya Stein, a massage therapist and life coach in Berkeley, California. “One of the key benefits is that you learn to take a proactive role in how your life unfolds.”


Currents of Change

Changes come in all shapes and sizes, from taking on more clients or using a new massage technique to starting a family or going through a divorce. It seems life consists of a constant series of changes, big and small.

“In my world, change is a shift of energy—it’s that shift that allows us to expand and evolve,” Stevenson said. “It could be something as simple as moving your desk at the office to something as difficult as the death of a loved one.”

In the realm of massage therapy, specifically, changes can span the spectrum—from financial ups and downs and physical issues to switching the structure of your practice and seeking more purpose in your work.

“A minor change to which I had to adjust was switching from massage lotion to oil,” Stevenson said. “Even something that small can cause stress if we resist it.”


changes ahead sign

Types of Change

In an effort to better understand the nature of change, Oregon-based massage therapist and life coach Amy Stark groups changes into one of two main categories: transitional or circumstantial.

“Transitional changes happen throughout life and are usually marked by a stage in development, such as a teenager coming of age, an adult deciding on partnering, having children or reclaiming one’s identity after child-rearing,” Stark said. “Circumstantial changes tend to be viewed as a loss of control—a debilitating car accident, the death of a loved one, a job loss or divorce, to name a few.”

Whether a change is transitional or circumstantial, it has the power to evoke strong emotions and varying levels of stress. According to Stark, circumstantial changes tend to be more challenging, because they involve such an obvious loss of control.

“While we may not have as much control over these types of changes,we can practice ways to greet them with the power they bring to our lives,” Stark said. “Circumstantial changes bring deeper learning about our ability to persevere.”


Resisting the Shift

It’s hard to deny change is a fact of life, much like the ebb and flow of the oceans, the turning of the seasons and all the ways in which we age and evolve. Despite the facts, however, our first instinct frequently is to resist any kind of change.

“Humans tend to fear the unknown, and change naturally brings uncertainty,” said Savannah Mayfield, a life coach and massage therapist in Portland, Oregon. “Humans are also loss-avoidant—it’s wired into our brains to do anything we can to not let go of the familiar.”

According to Mayfield, progressing beyond this hardwired response is vital to both mental and physical well-being, and it can lead to a better quality of life overall.

“Stress is one of the leading causes of disease, and resistance to change is a big stressor,” she said. “Because change is a natural part of life, the more ease we can have when we are experiencing change, the healthier we will be over our lifetimes.”

Signs that a person may be resisting change in his or her life can include physical issues, such as pain or tension in the body, a nervous stomach and anxiety. Mental issues around resistance might involve self-critical thoughts, insomnia and emotional outbursts of anger or frustration.

Self-sabotaging behaviors and addiction patterns, such as overeating, smoking, drinking too much or binge shopping, can also show up as side effects when one continues to resist the reality of change.

“Many of us know that change is inevitable; the challenge is finding the path of least resistance and having the courage to take the first step forward,” Stark said. “Opening ourselves to the support of others, and to the possibilities that lie ahead, even when it doesn’t feel easy, is an incredible act of courage.”


acceptance sign

Working with Change

For quite a few people, the first step toward handling change in a positive way is to practice acceptance. This means attempting to see the change clearly and accept that it’s happening. It also means working to observe and accept, without judgment, every thought and feeling that comes up in the face of this change.

“I think navigating change gracefully is about not resisting our own lives,” said Jackie McKay,who provides business coaching to complementary health care practitioners through her company, Healers Who Prosper.

“It’s about being with all of it—being with your external circumstances and being with yourself.

“Be with the fear, be with the envy, be with the loss, and really allow yourself to welcome all those feelings in full-heartedly,” she continued. “Just really say ‘come on in,’ and welcome in all those gunky emotions, and just witness them.”

According to McKay, by observing your thoughts and feelings from a more detached perspective, you may be able to figure out what seems scary about this change. In some cases, taking a more objective view of thoughts and feelings can also help determine whether you may be mentally magnifying the situation.

“Ask yourself whether this is a neurotic spot or is this real,”McKay said. “Is it just that two clients canceled, or are you really going into bankruptcy?”


Don’t Dwell

Even if the change is a reality, there are ways to work on disciplining your thoughts in order to make the most of the transformation and better protect your peace of mind. Stark suggests consciously shifting gears when you find yourself dwelling on and possibly exaggerating the negatives.

“We have a tendency to tell ourselves the negative story, the one where we lose, where we’ve been hurt, where we fail,” she said. “Tell yourself the good story instead—the one where you stand victorious on the precipice of change, arms held high in the air, cape waving in the wind.”

Besides working with your thoughts and feelings to successfully handle change, Stein advocates listening to and working with your body as well. This is another method for gathering information about the change itself, as well as the ways in which it’s calling you to grow.

“Massage therapists are at an advantage because they know the language of the body,” Stein said. “Every ache and pain and emotional holding has a message in it.

“The more you’re able to attune to the guiding signals of your somatic intelligence,” she added, “the more proactive you can be in the dance of change.”


balance sign

Safeguard via Self-Care

An appreciation of the value of self-care is another advantage massage therapists may have when it comes to weathering change in the best possible way. Making a habit of self-care can help one prepare for change and stay grounded when it happens.

“Holistic self-care is key, as change is exhausting,” Stein said, “It’s hard to make good choices when you’re not balanced and centered.”

Attaining that balance may mean receiving massage, making time for exercise, sticking to a healthy sleep schedule, reaching out for support, taking a few minutes to meditate or simply taking  some deep, conscious breaths.

“Most of my clients are holding their breath,” Stevenson said. “The first thing I teach them is how to breathe again.”

Other ways to build self-care into daily life include working to keep your sense of humor intact and your expectations nonexistent. By weaving these healthy habits into daily life, you may be more inclined and equipped to call on them when a situation begins to shift.

Stevenson suggests practicing on the small changes that crop up in everyday living. “Have you ever been driving to work, tried to get off at your usual exit and found it closed?” she asked. “At that moment, you have the choice of reacting with outrage, as if it’s a personal affront, or remaining calm and going to the next exit.”

One final and powerful tool for coping with change is compassion. As a massage therapist, you may be skilled at showing compassion for your clients. Turning that same sense of compassion inward is an important element of self-care, especially when a change appears overwhelming.

“If you’re not coping with change well, it is not helpful to beat yourself up about it,” Mayfield said. “Just acknowledge to yourself that you’re having a hard time—that it’s human to struggle when going through a transition—and find some way to be more kind and gentle with yourself.”


Brandi SchlossbergAbout the Author

Brandi Schlossberg is an avid bodywork client and full-time journalist based in Reno, Nevada. She has written for MASSAGE Magazine on many topics.