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No matter how thoroughly you plan your life, there are some things that are impossible to predict. We chat to psychologist Anelle Naude-Lester about how to handle life’s unpredictable upheavals.

Reaction to trauma
When we experience a major shock or life change, emotional trauma usually follows. Naude-Lester distinguishes between two types of trauma: process trauma and critical accident trauma. “Process trauma involves a process or a journey, such as divorce or abuse,” she says. “Critical accident trauma (such as a hijacking) would typically be a once-off incident causing shock or horror.” While we experience similar emotional responses regardless of the type of trauma, the severity differs according to the type of trauma, explains Naude-Lester.

If you’re experiencing depression, anger or any range of emotions, realise that moving on and adjusting will take time. “Only when we have moved backwards and forwards between shock and emotion several times, do we start to accept what has happened,” she says.

Regain optimism
When we face challenges and emotional upheavals, it’s easy to become bitter and expect the worst. But happiness will return if we remain motivated to regain our positivity. “Healing is always a journey,” says Naude-Lester. “The challenge is to avoid getting stuck in the version of your life story that only speaks of sadness and pain. Although we can never deny or change the events that occurred, we can actively start looking for those small moments that might help us to change our life stories from utterly hopeless to a little bit more tolerable.”

Move forward
Naude-Lester offers three practical steps to adjust to and move on from a life-changing event:
– Find some form of routine as quickly as possible – even if it means making just one commitment for the day, like seeing a friend or buying groceries. If everything in your life seems upside down, you need something to keep you going and feel grounded.
– Access and make use of your support systems – but remember to teach the people around you what you need from them. It is important that you still feel some form of control and ownership of your life.
– Rest! Physically and emotionally: take good care of yourself, eat regularly and healthily so that you have sustained energy to cope.

“Unfortunately we are never quite prepared for change. The most important thing to remember is to never make important decisions when you are emotionally vulnerable,” she concludes. In time you will reach a better emotional space.