Change is inevitable, or so begins page after page of inspirational Pinterest quotes. But knowing this to be true doesn’t alter the way change feels (and it rarely feels good). Why not? What is actually happening inside our brains when we’re faced with change?
Psychotherapist and mental health educator, Sarah Jane Crosby (@themindgeek), explains: “The body experiences, it doesn’t moralise. The brain is of no exception. Change, whether good or bad, impacts our brain in the same way – it creates new neural pathways. The brain is creating memories and adapting to new experiences. But as a species, we are primed for survival. In the face of change, we may feel the pull back to old patterns and old relationships. The uncertainty that accompanies change alerts us to potential danger and this manifests in an increase in anxiety, changes to our sleep pattern or a withdrawal from other aspects of our life.”
Franky, 36, is a copywriter from Bristol who suffered a huge and unexpected change three years ago. “At the end of 2016, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome [CFS],” she says. “I developed the condition after being seriously ill with flu, compounded by a bacterial infection.”
For Franky, the drastic change in her health was frustrating. “It’s impacted every area of my life and forced me to make huge lifestyle changes. It’s limited me physically and affected my mental health. I’d always lived and worked at a hundred miles a minute, so being forced to slow down was incredibly hard.”
The change that happened to Franky without her permission was mitigated when she chose adaptation over resistance. “Making changes to manage the condition made me feel more in control. Developing new habits, changing my diet, learning how to rest properly and focusing on self-care helped me feel like I was ruling my body rather than the other way around.”
As well as a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), “the biggest thing for me has been learning to accept what I’ve been through,” she says. “It’s not always easy and I have dark days, but my life isn’t filled with despair. Now, I know I have an incredible amount of inner strength, so I could probably handle whatever the universe chooses to throw at me.”
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For others, change can bring up similar feelings of displacement, anxiety and hope, even when it’s a change you’ve chosen. Emma, 44, is a PR manager, who relocated from Bristol to her homeland, Cornwall. “I felt every emotion! I was grateful that all my existing clients were hugely supportive. I felt sad to be leaving Bristol and my friends. I felt scared at starting again in my early forties. Making friends gets harder the older you get and I don’t have children so there aren’t those natural school gate conversations. I felt excited that I was going to share my love for my home county with my partner and our dog. I felt calm that I could now be there for my parents in an easy and natural way.”
For Emma and partner Iain, the change was swift. They decided to move in May 2018 and by August that year they were unpacking in their new Cornish home. “There is something about saying YES,” ponders Emma. “I remember some friends being quite surprised at the speed of it all. My response was, ‘What is the worst that can happen? We can always just come back’. It is important to remember it wouldn’t be a failure for trying something.”
Self-doubt coach Sas Petherick agrees. “Our adult development is partly about increasing our capacity to understand, reflect on and respond to two key psychological states: sameness and difference. Sameness offers safety, stability and peace – this is where we feel settled, where we integrate and consolidate what we learn out in the world. Whereas difference offers us the stimulation of energy, complexity and newness that we need to grow. Most of us tend to feel best in ‘sameness’ – in friendships and relationships, homes, jobs, businesses, towns that stay the same. We like to be with people who think like us, share our values, who reflect us back to us.”
But most of us can remember a time when aspects of that sameness began to feel like stagnation… “Yes!” Sas agrees. “Once we’ve mastered a job, or outgrown a friendship, or feel a hunger for the next stage in our relationship, we recognise that we are capable of much more and there is this undercurrent of dissatisfaction. We want something different.” So difference isn’t inherently bad, more a natural stage in our development. And it’s equally uncomfortable and desired, precisely because we have no idea what will happen.
Why is change important?
“Change is how we grow,” explains Sas. “There is always a period of difference in whatever changes happen in life, and it teaches us tolerance. That’s when we find the difference is no longer uncomfortable, and then we find we move back into sameness – but our sameness has expanded to fit all this new information, new ways of doing and being.
“There comes a point when that is no longer satisfying and then we seek out difference again – perhaps in a different part of our life – but we know more about our capacity to evolve, how to adapt, how to find our place. Sameness helps us feel safe and to integrate who we are, and difference wakes us up, nudging us to try new things.”
This is exactly what happened to Jodie, 39, an artist from Bristol. In 2018, she was made redundant. Going self-employed after the redundancy “feels like perhaps the most major positive change I’ve chosen for myself,” she says. “I have gradually undertaken a journey of self-improvement, which has resulted in significant changes to my daily routines, my thought processes and my attitudes.” For many of us, redundancy is far more cloud than silver lining. Did she anticipate the benefits it would bring? “I did not expect the scale of transformation I have undertaken this past year. I had felt pretty stuck for a while and wanted a change but was unsure which direction to take. My dad died suddenly and unexpectedly in October 2015. It knocked me for six, but I felt that I had to keep going, yet I craved time to stop and reflect and grieve. A year later, my body took the decision for me and I was wiped out with exhaustion and an infection. I only fully dealt with moving through my grief, with help, in autumn 2018 after the redundancy. Perhaps the death of my father is the change that created all the subsequent change.”
So what benefits has Jodie experienced? “I’m happy being my own boss. I set my own rules, based around enjoying life more and not being a slave to a desk. I get up earlier than I ever have done before, at 4:45am, drink some water, do a guided meditation, a visualisation, occasionally some yoga. I have learnt how to be more present, to be grateful, to take responsibility and not behave with a victim mentality. I have intentions and goals like never before.”
Once you realise that change is inevitable, and inevitably tricky, the key is not fighting your feelings. See them for what they are, know that moving out of sameness and into difference will eventually feel less frightening, and believe that the more you do it, the more you can do it. There are often riches on the other side of change, but there’s only one way to get there. Buckle up, dive in and keep the faith.