Change often freaks us out. When a relationship starts or ends, you have to move house, you start a new job, or you lose someone you love, change causes stress. Here's how it works and how to handle it without losing your mind.
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"Change" is a broad term, and it can apply to many things. Perhaps you're just moving to a new home or starting a new job, or something awful happens like a death in the family. These events may seem black and white, and not necessarily similar, but they all require adjustment in the way you conduct your day-to-day life. These adjustments cause stress, even when they're positive. Conversely, negative changes can yield positive results. You never know exactly what you're going to get, which often frightens us.
Coping with change (rather than losing your mind) requires an adjustment to your outlook. In this post, we'll take a look at why your brain resists change and how you can actually change that.
What Is Change, Exactly?
To help define the issue of change, and find out the best methods of coping, I consulted relationship and family therapist Roger S Gil:
For our purposes, let's define change as "a modification to a person's environment, situation or physical/mental condition that results in circumstances that challenge their existing paradigms". What our definition implies is that humans have a tendency to define how their world is supposed to work. Whenever something happens in our personal world or to our own being that is inconsistent with the way we feel the world should be, we encounter change.
Change comes in many forms in our daily lives. Everyone experiences the pains of puberty and immaturity; old age almost always brings medical issues. We get married, graduate from school, switch careers, move across the country or across the world, experience accidents, lose our parents, discover new hobbies, and sometimes even achieve our dreams. Even though we can attribute a default emotion (such as happy or sad) to many of these broad examples, Roger notes that the event isn't the only thing that affects how we handle both "good" and "bad" change:
The important thing to keep in mind is that there is a continuum between "positive" and "negative" so not all changes are easily codified as good or bad. In fact, other psychological factors (such as one's temperament, mood and global IQ) can affect how a person codifies a change along the positive-negative continuum.
On top of that, the event itself often doesn't affect whether or not we feel stress. If anything changes, for good or for bad, stress will probably result:
Any time we are confronted by an event that is inconsistent with our core beliefs, we will likely feel some level of stress. In fact, a long-used psychometric for measuring stress is the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. Most of the items on this scale represent a change in a person's life that is known to lead to some amount of stress. The interesting thing is that many of the items also represent "good" things like dating, marriage or holidays. In other words, even good change is stressful.
When trying to understand how change affects us, we need to look at three key elements: 1) the situation itself, 2) our mood/temperament, and 3) how others may affect us. Keep these key factors in mind as we discuss how our brains deal with change and, later, what we can do to override the problems.
Why Change Is So Difficult
Our Brains Expect Consistency
In theory, change should be simple. When walking down the street, say you come to a construction site and need to change your path. By scanning around the area you should be able to find a detour and follow it to get where you want to go. Inherently, this situation shouldn't cause any stress but our brains have a number of special quirks that can alter our perspective. Because we've taken the normal path before, we don't worry that it will take us where we want to go. When we run into a roadblock, suddenly information we trusted has broken down. Where does the other road lead? How long will it take? Is it dangerous?
What we don't know tends to scare us, and change creates a lot of things we don't know. As a result, we often act irrationally and unconsciously to try and prevent change, and make our lives unnecessarily problematic in the process.
We often fear change when pre-existing information fails us, but the amount of stress created can vary greatly. Roger explains:
Both nature and nurture will influence how we form our core beliefs about how the world works and our roles in our respective worlds. When we experience the world or ourselves in a certain way for an extended period of time, we develop core beliefs that make up our paradigm for how life is supposed to be. The experiences we have as children tend to be the most long-lasting and influential because they represent prototypical experiences that future experiences will be compared to and will likely play a key role in the development of our worldview/paradigm for life. Since our brains are still developing, childhood experiences have a greater chance of influencing how future neural connections will develop. Whether good or bad, children tend to adjust better to change since they don't have as much "legacy material" to overcome when encountering change (that is, their worldviews/life paradigms are still developing). As we age and our brains become less plastic, we encounter more difficulties processing changes because our paradigms are more ingrained.
The earlier you learned something, the harder it is to change.
We Seek Out People Like Us
Because new information bothers our brains, we tend to find friends and form groups that reinforce our beliefs, whether they're correct or not. When many people agree, it's easy to discount the opinions of others in the face of undeniable logic. This occurs because of a phenomenon known as the illusion of asymmetric insight. David McRaney, writer of the blog and book about self-delusion You Are Not So Smart, explains:
The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves. You believe the same thing about groups of which you are a member. As a whole, your group understands outsiders better than outsiders understand your group, and you understand the group better than its members know the group to which they belong.
This phenomenon leads you to discount conflicting information as bias and stick with what you know. Essentially, you attack the possibility of change because you think you know better than everyone else and have the friends to back you up.
We Hate Wasting Time
Sometimes change involves a significant loss, and our brains hate loss. When we invest ourselves emotionally in anything, it becomes harder to change because we don't want to lose all the time and effort we already exerted. As a result, we have a hard time letting go of a project we know deep down will fail. We also struggle to end doomed relationships because we're terrible at accepting the whole thing was for naught.
In reality, time isn't wasted but our brains perceive the entire time as a loss rather than just a part of the inevitable conclusion. If you've ever played a game of Farmville and struggled to stop, you know exactly how this feels.
A study (PDF) by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found that our brain's desire for loss aversion almost always altered our choices even when our other choice was essentially identical. David McRaney explains the study:
Imagine the apocalypse is upon you. Some terrible disease was unleashed in an attempt to cure male pattern baldness. The human population has been reduced to 600 people. Everyone is likely to die without help. As one of the last survivors you meet a scientist who believes he has found a cure, but he isn't sure. He has two versions and can't bear to choose between them. His scientific estimates are exact, but he leaves the choice up to you. Cure A is guaranteed to save exactly 200 people. Cure B has a 1/3 probability of saving 600, but a 2/3 probability of saving no one. The fate of hairlines and future generations is in your hands. Which do you pick? Ok, mark your answer and let's reimagine the scenario. Same setup, everyone is going to die without a cure, but this time if you use Cure C it is certain exactly 400 people will die. Cure D has a 1/3 probability of killing no one, but a 2/3 probability of killing 600. Which one?
Most people chose Cure A in the first scenario and Cure D in the second, but both situations presented were actually the same with different framing. The results showed how quickly we flock to the option that minimises loss — the one with the least perceived change. Because we're so opposed to inciting change, logic can go right out the window.
How To Cope Better With Change
Coping with change isn't actually that hard. You can't change how your brain works, but you can use its quirks to your advantage. Basically, your brain likes information it knows and understands and doesn't like what it doesn't know. If your brain experiences enough change in a variety of ways, it will allow you to operate with the understanding that change is something you can survive and even benefit from. You won't fear it so much because the information stored in your head provides evidence that fear is unnecessary. Of course, getting to this point is easier said than done.
Accept The Inevitability of Change
Roger suggests a few methods when learning to cope with and better-handle changing circumstances. To start, you have to accept that stress is an inevitable part of the process:
Rewriting your own "source code" is supposed to be hard. It will get harder to rewrite over time but if you don't do it, you'll eventually be left with a bunch of useless code that can't run on current platforms. Give yourself permission to feel the change-related distress and all of the associated emotions that come along with it. It sucks but not allowing yourself to process those emotions will prevent you from moving forward. If you don't process them you'll have to isolate yourself from all things that represent the "distressing" change just to be able to function.
Change Is Like A Software Upgrade
Roger suggests looking at our lives as an operating system with software titles. As the world changes and our operating system evolves, applications that used to work may not work anymore. As a result, they need to be updated with new code in order to function in a changed environment. The events in our lives may not seem as straightforward as a few new features in Photoshop, but the principles stay the same. Handling a change to the information we use everyday requires work. We're wired to resist it, but are better off in the long run if we don't.
Always Consider the Upside
Give yourself permission to freak out on your own time and then find ways to move forward positively:
This is the most difficult thing to keep in mind and to put into practice because the psychological distress caused by some changes can make having an optimistic outlook feel like an impossible task. That's OK. Do all the crying, kicking, and screaming you need to do; then start to seek out ways to make your new situation more livable and enjoyable. Fixating on what was lost as a result of the change will prevent us from experiencing the good things that our new circumstances can bring us. In the case of the loss of a loved one, making the best of the present would mean processing our emotional pain and working on developing an outlook that allows for renewed hope in the future and the possibility of happiness.
After enough regular practice, managing change won't feel like such a fearful burden. Shifting gears is rarely easy, but it isn't supposed to be. With practice you'll get better and it won't feel like you're hit with a stress bomb every time your life takes a different turn. The only way the fear and stress will disappear is if you calm down an embrace the unknown.