Did you vow this year to change your life for the better? Give up smoking, buy a house, travel the world, conquer a limiting phobia or simply become time rich?
Or maybe you did not choose change but had it thrust upon you. You had to find a new job after becoming redundant or your son or daughter moved out of home leaving you feeling empty and alone or you lost a loved one and are trying to come to terms with the pain.
It is much easier to adjust to change we choose ourselves such as leaving home, getting married or deciding to travel than change which is unexpected and over which we have no control, ie, death, job loss, separation, ill health.
Many of us find change threatening, we dislike moving out of our comfort zone.
“Humans have a strong need for excitement and stimulus yet they also fear taking risks and feeling caught up in their anxiousness,” explains Norman Warden, a local psychotherapist.
“We are constantly undergoing change as we adapt from the familiar to the unfamiliar, he explains. Fear of change often involves fear of the unknown, of losing something, of consequences and failure.
“For survival reasons, we fear the unknown. It is difficult to deal with something you haven’t yet experienced and we often make many negative and inaccurate assumptions which lead to more fear than necessary. Some fear is important to motivate us to do something in order to regain a sense of control.
“We begin to reorganise ourselves as the new territory becomes more familiar. Often, we do this automatically, other times we have to work hard to get through this stage.”
Some of us resist change because of a negative experience of it in the past, our family’s handling of it may shape our attitudes to it, too. People who have grown up seeing the benefits of embracing change will more readily welcome it into their lives.
Unavoidable life crises face all of us at some time - separation, bereavement, examinations, financial struggles and family conflict.
The factor that determines how these situations affect us is how content and satisfied we are with our lifestyles, explains Mr Warden. We are more likely to be stressed if we are trapped in a certain way of life or if we cannot amend our lifestyle to suit our needs. Too much change can overtax our adaptive resources leading to illness.
Change is important because it is part of our striving as human beings, he says. From birth, our lives are punctuated by change.
“Life is full of natural phases which involve great change. The greatest change we will ever make is from girl to woman or boy to man. We change when we leave the womb, begin school, leave home, begin new roles and fall in love,” he says. “Most of those we choose ourselves. The toughest to bear are the ones we have no control over, unexpected changes and those forced upon us.”
How can we respond more positively to change? “Put your energy into what you have influence over, respond early rather than later to changes and act, not react, to those situations.”
There are four options open to us when we face a stressful or unwanted situation, he says. “You can change the situation, change yourself, ie, adapt to it, exit from it or develop ways of living with it. It is helpful to choose the one you have most influence over and focus your efforts on it. Avoid negatising the future, that which no one can control. Challenge those assumptions. Ask yourself whether they are helpful to your wellbeing right now. Decide what you can do today that might help either to reduce any stress or simply to feel you are doing something about it.”
He advises people to consider the times when they coped well with change. “What did you do then that helped? Try doing some of that in this situation. Try reducing what isn’t helpful by replacing it with something else.”
Our responses to change can vary from shock and excitement to fear and joy.
“In responding to changes in our lives we may go through the following stages:-
* A sense of shock, disorganisation. Our sense of being in control has been rocked by reality. We may go on to try to pretend it hasn’t or won’t occur. As reality sinks in we may feel low in spirits, stressed, anxious and angry.
* Acceptance of what simply is can follow treating our feelings as understandable reactions.
* Reorganisation follows where the territory now seems more familiar to us and strategies for dealing with the changes have emerged. Often we do this automatically, other times we have to work hard at getting through these phases.”
Part of life
Mr Warden says it is important to accept that change is part of life. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to help ourselves or others. There is always something that can help, however small. Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t.
“Realising our own limitations and not thinking we should be able to handle everything perfectly can take a load off our shoulders.”
If you are trying to change something about yourself or your life remember is is easier to achieve change when you are motivated.
“This motivation or drive is aroused through our desire to fulfill our personal needs or avoid more emotional pain. In essence, we may change because we see more benefit from doing so than not doing so. We can help this process by considering possible incentives, rewards, gains from deciding to change something. Remember we all have the resources to bring about change, however small. Often this can involve experiencing short term pain for long term gain.”
Making changes, such as moving house, changing jobs, separating from your partner all involve loss.
“Our sense of being in control is threatened. People often view decisions as either/or situation rather than either/and.”
Being proactive rather than passive in our decision making is important if we want to achieve change, according to Norman Warden.
“Sometimes we avoid making decisions and wait for others, or life, to make them for us. This helps us avoid responsibility for the consequences of decisions. But in the long term we end up in less control of our lives and have erratic or destructive relationships. Decisions involve taking responsibility and facing the consequences of our actions and learning to deal with and tolerate the accompanying feelings.”
Women tend to handle change better, he believes. This may be because they are more open about their feelings while men tend to suppress the stresses associated with change.”