The Psychological Experience of Adapting to Change
Dr Natalie Flatt Ph.D
Co-Founder of Connect Psych Services
Change, in general, can be challenging; especially in times when it comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Yes, we have experienced so many spectrums of emotions during this pandemic however, let’s not forget the usual lifespan events we all go through and can never avoid; both positive and negative.
Our challenge with change is not because we’re obstinate; rather because we’re human and we need to adapt to change, even the changes we’re making within ourselves. Even when we complain about not being happy with our current position, it doesn’t mean we’re ready to launch into something different.
We can try to use denial to soften the ‘shock’ blow. If a change is big and unexpected our first reaction is shock, then denial. We can try to live that normal ‘pre-change’ existences before our brain can decipher the feelings of fear and discomfort and learn to adjust to the different news/environment /situation.
Change brings a spectrum of emotions and some emotions are uncomfortable. We like to feel safe and happy. This is our comfort zone. We like to follow a routine and you can predict the consequences. Outside of your comfort zone, your assumptions can be challenged. As James Lee Allen once said – Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it. How will we react when we open a crack in that door of change only to close it when the feelings of fear, anger, sadness or other unhelpful emotions arise.
It can take away the control from us. Control about what will happen next keeps our stress response at bay we want to calculate what the next day will bring. We don’t then see moving forward through each day and week with trepidation. Our stress response is only supposed to be used in short sharp bursts; not a long term existence that causes both mental and physiological responses in the body that can have a direct impact on immunity, hormone imbalance, decision making, organisation and rational thinking to name a few.
Because of these common cognitive pitfalls, many individuals find themselves spending a great deal of time and energy trying to avoid change; creating stress through that constant feeling of being stressed and overwhelmed by the status quo. Learning cognitive and behavioural skills to manage the transition of change will lower the risk of anxiety and depression, your personal and working relationships and goals will hold greater value and your body will feel overall healthier.
So what are some positive steps we can take NOW to prepare ourselves to cope on that pathway toward change?
Firstly, get investigative. Ask yourself,
- What am I thinking right now?
- How am I feeling?
- How am I behaving?
- Am I prepared energy-wise?
- What emotions continually rear their head?
- What have I done in the past to create change and did I succeed?
- Where am I sitting on the road to change?
Answering these questions allows for an understanding of your internal dialogue to discover solutions and narrow down the scope of your blockers.
Acknowledge current emotions to highlight problem-solving
Acknowledging intense ‘unhelpful’ emotions such as anxiety or anger at the outset of change allows you to become aware of how it might distort your thinking or disrupt your personal and working relationships. Tell yourself you are forgiven and allow yourself to move on. Your greatest power is your perspective. Then aim to look for practical solutions about what to do next. By doing so, you’ll zero in on the problems you can solve, instead of lamenting the ones you can’t.
Reflect on Past Experiences
Take some time to examine your thought patterns and assess how rational they are. When you have these thoughts, how do they make you feel and behave?
You can also generate more positive thoughts if you take the time to remind yourself about transitions and challenges you successfully navigated in the past. Make a list of ways you’ve been resilient in your life when a change needed to occur and consider what thoughts and behaviours might be able to see you through the current challenge.
Adopting a Positive Mindset
Use positive language and self-talk which will elicit positive emotions; in turn, creating positive behaviour.
Research supports the notion that positive self-talk leads to success, reduction in stress, higher confidence and overall happier life. Start taking note of your self-talk. Is it more self-deprecating? If you constantly say, “I cannot”, you can easily convince yourself that this is true. Challenge each thought pattern and replace it with a positive statement. By focusing on your strengths instead of your weaknesses, you will feel more empowered to meet what lies ahead.
Write down those statements and stick them in conspicuous places to help maintain that mindset.
Evaluate Your Level of Control
Sometimes it’s all too easy to become fixated on events over which we have no power or people who might never change their actions or attitude. But rather than focus on blaming others or moving the unmovable, individuals who show more resilience set their sights on what they can control. Creating a list of what is in my control and what is out of my control makes it easier to accept the current situation. Further, it’s a great step to identify where your energy is currently placed and how it makes you feel; visually allowing you to place those positive statements or saying out loud “I’m not going to spend so much energy on what I can’t control.
If we feel we are overwhelmed by the change presented, it can create a stress response in the body. As stated above, prolonged stress can lead to many unhelpful mental and physiological states. Implementing self-care strategies will relax the ‘lizard brain’. Calm body; calm mind!
- Adopting nutrition of foods high in protein, vitamin B, C and E will help with concentration, productivity and mood.
- Exercise is a must to release those feel-good chemicals in the brain and increase problem-solving. Not only does exercise keep blood, glucose and oxygen levels high, feeding the brain, but it also releases endorphins into the body giving your mood a boost and increasing your motivation and self-confidence.
- Adequate water intake will assist with a 14% increase in productivity through the expansion of grey matter.
- Develop a consistent sleep schedule by reducing screen time 1 hour before bed and aiming for at least 7 hours.
- Bring yourself back to the present; while it’s important to look to the past to find your strengths, sometimes you can feel too pulled into the future in times of change. When you worry about what the future will bring or what mistakes you might make, you tend to forget the small and patient steps it takes to reach that end change, get in tune with your body. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation. Headspace or Smiling Mind are great tools to investigate for ‘taking time out and being present’ moments.
Find the humour in the situation.
Laughter, however hollow, is one of the main coping mechanisms during periods of sickness, death and anxiety. So don’t feel guilty.
Support from others
Humans are social creatures by nature, so you weren’t built to withstand every sudden event in life without the support of others. Talk to family and friends who are experiencing similar changes or who you know will support you in a non-judgemental manner. Ask your doctor about how to prioritise your health during change, and don’t be afraid to talk to a mental health professional If you are finding you need extra professional support for changes.
Change is an emotional road we must travel in order to get from where we are now to where we want to be. The more we acknowledge that it might be a winding road and welcome that with a level of resilience, the more profoundly positive its impact on us can be through opportunity, growth and knowledge.