Written by Dr. Marc Milstein and Ben Moorsom of Debut Group
Change: Do you love it or hate it?
Many of us don’t care much for it. We want routine! We want structure! We want predictability!
While change is often seen as a positive, it can also be associated with negative emotions.
When we are constantly expected to adjust to the changes going on around us, this can cause some of us to feel stress, anxiety, and fear. We call this “change fatigue,” and this feeling can be exhausting.
The pandemic has led to constant changes in many aspects of our lives. It is understandable if you feel change fatigue.
If you’re feeling high levels of chronic stress from all the constant changes, rest assured that you can train your brain to adapt.
The Brain on Change
Before we get to the take-home tips on how to better adapt, let’s discuss some quick insights into how your brain works in regard to change.
Change often induces a spike in your heart rate and blood pressure.
Why? We perceive change as a threat, even if it is minor. We can also perceive change as a loss and if there is one thing our brain hates, it’s the pain associated with loss.
Why does the brain sometimes struggle to adapt to change?
You have about 80 billion brain cells, but only a small number of these cells are allocated to handle change or what is called cognitive flexibility. But it’s not just the number of brain cells that matter.
Research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) suggests that while some people adjust quickly to change, others have weakened connections between these small numbers of brain cells. Weakened connections make it very difficult for some people to adapt to change. This means that they will be more susceptible to change fatigue. The good news is there are ways to strengthen these brain cell connections that help us adapt to change.
Perception and Rewards
Let’s break down what is happening in your brain when you experience change. Your brain weighs the cost-benefit ratio. Basically, your brain asks, is the change more rewarding than something I am currently doing?
If the change is perceived to be less rewarding, it upsets the brain’s stability. This disrupts the ‘happy’ medium of the brain and leaves us struggling to adjust to the change.
What can we do? A simple perspective shift can do the trick. Research has uncovered that improving our perception of change is critical. Viewing change in our lives with a positive outlook can help us adapt over time.
For instance, the next time you think about your home office, remember that you get to skip that long commute! On the other hand, if you are heading back into the office remind yourself how beneficial social interaction is for the brain.
Remember how the brain can perceive change as a loss? A simple trick to rebalance the brain is to focus on the gains from the change. It sounds simple but actively reminding ourselves of the positive is critical as our brain naturally tends to focus more on negative than positive.
Here’s the brain science. Our thoughts are connections between our brain cells. If we spend time focusing on negative thoughts we simply make those connections stronger and we are more likely to think more negative thoughts. On the other hand, if we make time to focus on the positive we strengthen those connections which also help us adapt to change.
Combating Change Fatigue in the Workplace
One of the key areas we see change fatigue is in the workplace. This feeling is understandable as the last thing we want is a new set of rules.
Studies suggest that leaders and managers who can communicate the rewards from any change can motivate and help employees adapt. Remember to focus on the positive and the gains.
Research published by the University of Illinois showed that there are two key factors involved in improved employee change adaptability:
- Work autonomy
- Trust in their leaders
What is work autonomy? In essence, work autonomy is when employees can make more of their own decisions about the structure of their workday. Research shows a little more freedom boosts motivation and productivity.
Trust is another essential factor in adaptability to change.
How do you build trust?
Here’s some good news. Giving some level of work autonomy builds trust. Second, trust grows when employees feel supported.
1. A Strong Support System
Humans thrive on social connection.
In fact, historical evidence shows a higher survival rate in those with a more robust social standing, both as individuals and in a community setting. Basically, one’s longevity can be linked to social connection.
We might think that support at work is superficial, but the need for strong social support in the work environment is often no different from that which we desire in our personal lives.
During times of change, getting reassurance from others in the same environment is critical to combat change fatigue. This reassurance strengthens the connections in the brain that help adapt to change.
2. Being Heard
Showing genuine empathy and compassion in personal and professional relationships leads to trust and can help those around us be more resilient to change fatigue.
At work, allowing employees to voice their concerns and worries and feel heard through listening sessions builds trust.
In our personal lives, setting aside time to have a partner or family member “vent” and communicate is a valuable component of a healthy relationship.
Anger is a complex emotion, but at its root, anger often stems from not being heard or understood. We don’t necessarily need to solve every problem, but it is critically important to feel heard.
The energy required to make decisions in times of change can be exhausting and can have a devastating effect on our sense of wellbeing and drain our body.
Staying in touch with simple acts of wellbeing can help to maintain or restore resilience to change — here are some examples:
- Take part in wellness programs
- Incorporate movement into your day
- Go for a short walk
- Do some stretching, exercise, or yoga
- Get into nature
- Take a short rest and manage your sleep
- Follow a healthy eating plan
At work, organizations can create an environment where wellness is encouraged, rewarded, and prioritized.
How You Can Become More Resilient to Change
Hopeful brain science insights uncover that through the right practices, the brain can strengthen brain cell connections that help us adapt to change.
Life is about change and it is critical to teach the brain to be comfortable even during the uncomfortable transitions. Some quick tips to be more resilient are:
- Remind ourselves change brings gains and innovation
- Manage sleep, stress, and specific health conditions
- Eat foods and exercise for brain health
- Try to implement change in small doses
- Allow the ‘new normal’ to become a habit rather than a stress factor.
As we move forward we can try to hold on to aspects of the past that we enjoy and embrace new changes that will bring us benefits.
Change doesn’t always need to be stressful. The mind is a powerful tool and one that can change itself to become more resilient — we just need to give it that chance to do so and implement small changes that can help the brain adjust.
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