What Is a Life Transition?

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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2019
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Life transition is a general psychological term that is an expansion on the original idea of the mid-life crisis or transition that many people undergo in their early 40s. It is an attempt to chart the major changes in a person's life as they grow, such as from childhood to adulthood, from school to work, and from single life to married life. The process of life transition theory also includes points of crisis in the lives of individuals due to divorce, the death of someone close, loss of a career due to retirement or other reasons, among others. Each set of major life transitions offers unique opportunities and challenges for the individual to adapt and to see himself or herself and his or her place in society in a new light.

Every life transition involves an element of increased stress, whether it fosters positive or negative change. This is often due to the fact that the individual is facing a set of circumstances that is largely unknown to him or her on a deeply personal level, regardless of the fact that many others have gone through the same life transition before him or her. Major adjustments of this type are a key area of research in occupational psychology and psychiatric practice to determine the best methods of coping and recovery.


Some of the key findings of the research in life transition states are non-intuitive. Researchers, for instance, have found that the level of stress reaches a crisis point around six months after a transition has occurred, and can often cause similar transitions in close family members or friends who witness the change but are not directly affected by it. Transitions also extend beyond the effects of the core event and change an individual's life in other profound ways. As individuals have various levels of coping skills, a life transition can be unexpectedly easy or difficult. Key factors that lead to a successful life transition include economic and emotional security, good health, and a supportive environment for the change, as well as someone utilizing prior transition skills from past crises in order to manage the current one.

The research in life transition theory is so important that the European Bank conducted an extensive Life in Transition Survey (LiTS) in 2006 that involved collecting data on 29,000 individuals in 28 countries, going back over a period of 15 years. Its purpose was to inform policy makers in government about the psychological effects on societies transitioning from authoritarian-based to democratically-based governments. This involved people who live in some European, Mongolian, and former Soviet Union nations that are now part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The research found optimism and adaptability to unstable economic conditions most present in the young, yet enduring, levels of distrust of government and the benefits of such change pervaded societies overall. Collective resistance to adopting more western styles of thinking that are necessary for success in competitive, market-based cultures has kept many nations in a state of transitional limbo.

While the nature of a person's outlook on life has been extensively studied and life transition coaching exists for a wide array of crises, there is still considerable mystery as to how the process of transition evolves. One of the major areas where a lack of understanding about how perceptual changes take place exists is in how the mind adapts to the new state of being. Extensive cognitive restructuring, or the ordering of thinking processes in the brain, is often necessary for major life transitions. This appears to be a naturally adaptive condition of human beings, yet the trigger that takes an individual from a current view of reality to a new one successfully is something that has not been clearly established.

Much of the ambiguity of a life transition involves the fact that the circumstances that trigger it can be unpredictable. When an event without clear cause occurs, such as in the death of a child, a sudden increase in wealth through an inheritance, or an unexpected need to relocate far away from home, there is often no history in a person's experience for how to cope with the event. In such instances, the advice and guidance of professionals or family may most often ring hollow, and individuals are forced to fall back on his or her own unique mental approach to life to effectively resolve the crisis in a way that he or she feels is best for his or her future.


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Post 3

@Fa5t3r - It's actually quite an interesting topic and I'm glad it is being researched. We just don't know enough about the human mind and how it ages and reacts to the same circumstances over time. We don't know which reactions are cultural and which ones are biological or individual.

Life transition coaching doesn't get a lot of respect, but it's going to become more and more important in the future as people realize how much of an impact a transition can have on a life.

Post 2

@croydon - I'm pretty distrustful of those "average age" projections though, since they really are an average and don't necessarily show the age most people reached. I'd imagine that when the average age was around 40, that was brought down by a lot of deaths in childhood and adolescence. If someone actually reached the age of 35 they weren't going to automatically die. If anything they probably had enough skill to keep themselves alive for longer.

I suspect that we do have outside triggers for the mid-life crisis. It usually happens around the age that people start developing white hair and bald spots and maybe aren't where they thought they'd be at work or in life. It's about the time

that children get minds of their own and aren't adoring, affirming little carbon copies of their parents any more. And it's about the age that you start to realize your own parents are mortal and won't be around forever.

That seems like a fairly relevant time to have a life transition.

Post 1

I've always wondered whether the mid-life crisis is somehow related to our life expectancy back in the day. It seems to happen a lot in the late 30's and early 40's and most people don't specifically have a transition in life that specifically happens at that point. Divorce can happen, but it also might not and children might be at any age by then, from infants to college age.

But that is around the time that our ancestors would have been entering their old age. From what I've read, not many people would have lived past the age of 40-50 in hunter-gatherer societies. So maybe it's a biological thing, where we manufacture emotional stress even if our lives don't necessarily reflect any displacement.

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