Coping with change is hard. Facing the unfamiliar is one of the most challenging tasks in life. Understandably so: we are not fully in control and have no idea what is around the corner. If however, we allow our brain to become overly anxious in these situations, we prevent ourselves from reaching our true potential. Understanding how our brain reacts to change will allow us to transform it and improve our lives.
How your brain reacts to change
When we find ourselves in an unfamiliar situation or in a new place, we may feel apprehensive. For some people, an experience like this can feel terrifying. We perceive the threat, the dedicated part of the brain (amygdala) turns on our stress response. We start feeling anxious. The physical symptoms of stress, the fight-flight-freeze response are becoming stronger. We are now feeling even more threatened, and whatever provoked us we hate it.
If we understood how the workings of our brain cause us to avoid anything new and unfamiliar, then we are better placed to control our reactions towards change.
Our incredible brain is made up of more than 200 billion neurons. It is not this vast number of neurons though that makes the brain’s capacity larger than all the computers in the world combined, but the hundreds of trillions of connections among the neurons. It is like hundreds of trillions of pathways among all the stars of all the galaxies.
Our brain has been learning since we were born: it has been creating new connections between its neurons. Once the connection is created, the brain refers back to it, “walks” the pathway again. This is how we learn. The more repetitions, the more engraved the object of the learning gets. It is easy to see how tying your shoelaces becomes an automatic behaviour. This clever feature saves the brain energy so that it can focus on the next challenge.
The circumstances that accompany the creation of a new pathway will colour the memory of the experience with bright or dark colours, i.e. positive or negative emotions. If the emotions that accompanied the learning were negative, our brain will try to safeguard us from entering a similar situation again.
Coping with the change of environment
Say you have just moved to somewhere new and it seems all too hard to find your way around, establish routines, to socialise and to make new friends. You may vaguely remember similar situations in the past when you might have felt lost and fearful. Your brain re-lives this memory, and you start becoming stressed about the thought of the same uncomfortable feelings. So you come up with a solution: you stay in your apartment so you won’t get lost, you won’t have to deal with people you don’t know, you won’t be full of fear and self-doubt as a result. You have spared yourself the possible embarrassment, stress, or making a fool of yourself.
At what price, though?
What has just happened? You have learnt that by avoiding the situation, you have remained calm. Sadly, by dealing with the situation in this way, you have denied yourself the opportunity to explore your new environment, engage with new possibilities, connect with people and grow. In other words, you have sacrificed long term personal growth for short term emotional comfort. Should this become habitual, it will lead to social isolation and unhappiness.
Will you ever move on and grow?
You can learn to override your brain and unlearn old, self-limiting habits. The key is to avoid making decisions that were taken in the past but are no longer applicable to the present. Remember, you and the world around you are changing all the time. Simply by understanding that past avoidant behaviour was unproductive, you will improve the likelihood of making a conscious, supportive transformation in your attitude towards change.
How to help your brain unlearn old habits that don’t support you any longer?
By giving new a chance, by saying yes instead of no.
We can develop a beneficial skill of checking in with our own brain. This ability enables us to tap into the brain’s workings and realise how we overreact to a situation when our brain works unnecessarily hard to protect us from perceived dangers. By doing so, it prevents us from exploring the opportunities that lie in each and every new encounter and new experience in life.
5 tips that will make you cope better with change:
- Set up little routines that will enhance trust in yourself and in your new environment:
Do something, regularly, at the same place, at the same time. (e.g. go to the gym, library, supermarket or a cafe.) Staff and patrons will start to recognise you and greet you with a smile. Trust is the antidote of threat. When you trust, you cannot feel threatened. Routines and structure by themselves are excellent to counterbalance stress, that arises from the lack of order when settling into something new.
- Breathe deeply.
When you feel that stress is building up, take three deep breaths, slowly through your nose into your abdomen. Then exhale through your nose just as slowly. By doing so, your body will automatically downregulate the physical symptoms of anxiousness induced by the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for and maintains the fight-flight-freeze response). The parasympathetic nervous system (also called the rest and digest system) takes over control. Your heart rate slows down. You feel calmer.
- Accept that change is happening no matter what.
Nothing ever stays the same. You and the world have constantly been changing.
- Stop fighting anxious feelings, start recognising them instead.
Name them as soon as you are aware of them: “My heart is racing again. I’m scared.” “No. I daren’t. I’m too frightened.” Anxiety feeds itself and escalates the harder you try to control it and deny it. Just stay with your feelings for a little while. Breathe and watch. They will pass. (refer to the previous point)
- Reach out and buddy up with a friend who can give you encouragement and support.
Asking for help is what we often resist the most. What is the point of pretending that everything is fine when it isn’t? Seeking help is actually a strength since we recognise our own limitations and the positive contributions other people can make.