Why Change Is Hard According to Brain Science
Change is the only constant thing in our lives. Yet, change is something people have come to resent, fear, and avoid change in all possible ways. Have you ever noticed that if something changes in your plans or schedule throw you off, you are among the millions of people in the world who experience the same thing? Let's talk about why change is hard and what you can do about it.
If you haven't caught on, almost all of my posts have mentioned something about how the brain is changing, why we need to change habits, or even how to change your brain physically. It is only fitting that change gets its own post, am I right? In this post, we will explore why our brain (mostly that darn amygdala) seems to dislike change so much and how we can make change easier to accept when it does happen.
For this post, I have been searching and searching for research that explores specifically why the change makes us uncomfortable. Believe it or not, there are fewer studies out there about change's impact on the brain than I thought. One reason for that is because change is always happening and is a tool of adaptivity. Another reason is that change is the brain. Think about it for a minute. In each post, I have talked about why the brain does what it does. That is change right there. So let's take what we have gathered from all of the previous posts to identify what makes change so hard.
“You cannot make progress without making decisions.”
– Jim Rohn, author and one hell of a motivational speaker
First things first, let's start with that darn amygdala. As we have come to learn in the posts Fight-Flight-Freeze: the Ultimate Coping Skill and Stress and the Brain: Happy Stress Awareness Month, that darn amygdala has a way of overreacting. When we look at changes, that darn amygdala is trying to process if the information being brought in by our senses matches anything we have stored in our hippocampus. As you recall from the above posts, our hippocampus acts as the server for our memories. Things not readily available in our hippocampus sends a message to our thalamus saying “hey! This is new! What are we going to do?” What does that darn amygdala do with that message? You got it! It focuses on the discomfort that comes from not having information stored and sends the signal to the rest of our brain that this is new and unfamiliar territory.
As change is new territory, the adrenal gland starts a slow trickle of adrenaline and norepinephrine. Looking back at the post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, we can recall that adrenaline and norepinephrine are released when that darn amygdala says that it is uncomfortable. More of the adrenaline and norepinephrine are released when the neural transmitter, glutamate, struggles to recall any memories associated with the situation ahead of us. Essentially, the discomfort and uneasiness we feel when we are presented with change is a little mini freak out brought to you by that darn amygdala and the neurotransmitters it triggers.
While all of this is going on, the prefrontal cortex is trying very hard to gather facts about this new situation. It is starting to calculate if this new situation is safe for us to be in. Once that is figured out, it slowly starts to release glutamate, which then releases the neurotransmitter GABA to relax us and reverse the muscle tension brought on by acetylcholine.). The prefrontal cortex will continue to find more information about this new situation. Ever wonder why we are leery when we go into new situations? Have you noticed that you get nervous even when you know there isn't anything to be nervous about? Part of that is our prefrontal cortex working with that darn amygdala to find facts about the new situation.
It is important to remember that glutamate is one of the most prevalent neurotransmitters in our body. As it is helping try to find memories close and similar to this new situation, it is also helping the hippocampus form new memories about this new situation. As the thalamus sends messages from the prefrontal cortex to the hypothalamus and the hippocampus, this new situation will start to form a new memory. This means it is no longer a scary change, but something your brain can be prepared for. Isn't it amazing the things that your brain can do!?
But why does change have to feel so uncomfortable? Every human emotion and feeling serves a purpose. We may not like that feeling or emotion, but it is there to tell us something. In the case of discomfort, it is there to tell us that something isn't going the way we would like it to. Ultimately, this discomfort tells us we need to become comfortable. We can choose positive or negative ways to facilitate a change to bring comfort back. Fight-Flight-Freeze: the Ultimate Coping Skill helps us better understand why some of us choose certain coping skills when it comes to that feeling of discomfort.
Now that we have an understanding of why change is so uncomfortable, let's look at how long it takes for change to actually become not so scary. Let's look back for a minute on the post, Why Your Brain Needs a Routine. I hinted there that it takes approximately 66 days (give or take a couple of days depending on the person) to create a new habit. Do you think this is different than our brain accepting change? Of course not! Some change we encounter follows the same pattern of forming a healthy habit. With consistent exposure to that change or new situation, along with acknowledging and validating what we are feeling (remember the journalling, thought tracking and identifying our core beliefs?), our prefrontal cortex is able to gather more information on it, therefore storing more information about it in the hippocampus. What does that mean? That means we have to participate in that new changer situation consistently in order for it to no longer be uncomfortable!
Some of you may be reading this and saying “I get that Carissa, but I can never keep up with that change for that long without giving up on it or just avoiding it altogether.” Did you know that there are different stages of change? Each one of those stages of change is accompanied by different parts of our brain is activated! As we talk about the stages of change, let's use the example of the beloved (or dreaded, depending on who's talking) New Year's resolution of losing weight (don't lie, it has been all of our resolutions at least once).
We have all been there. We've all made a New Year's resolution at some point in time. At the end of December, we start thinking about what changes we need to make in our life or what goals we would like to achieve for the new year. That initial stage is known as contemplation. Contemplation, like the definition suggests, is where we are thinking about all the benefits and possibilities from the change that we are about to make. Have we actively started planning for it yet? Not really. We spend more time daydreaming about it than preparing for it. In the brain, that darn amygdala is exploring the emotions connected to making that change. There may be excitement as well as anxiety related to the change that you're about to make. Even if we look at that example of setting the goal of losing weight, we all get excited about our future selves looking hot in that swimsuit, or being able to fit back into our favorite pair of jeans. There is that sense of nervousness as our hippocampus peeps up and reminds our prefrontal cortex that the last time we set weight loss as our New Year's resolution it didn't nearly go as planned.
Now we are on New Year's Day. With our darn amygdala ready to make change happen, it helps us increase our motivation for change by entering the stage of preparation. This is where we're calling the local gym to sign up for our membership. This may be when we take the nerve-racking step to step on the scale to determine how much weight we want to lose. During the preparation stage, our prefrontal cortex is exploring the facts that would prove that this change would benefit us and be worth the discomfort of heading to the gym. Have we gone to the gym yet? No. But we're getting ready to go to the gym. This may be also the stage where you're buying those new shoes the head to the gym with. Or maybe you're making your new playlist to motivate you at the gym. This is the same case with those uncomfortable changes. Looking at new jobs? You are here.
Your first day at the gym is here and you are there! This is the signal that you have entered the action stage of change. The change is still exciting, your brain is releasing endorphins and dopamine, and we are feeling good! For once, we can talk about how our darn amygdala does something good! That darn amygdala is excited to see change happening for a change and is determined to make the daydreams possible! When it comes to those uncomfortable changes, that darn amygdala is still at the heart of the action stage, too. In those cases, that darn amygdala is power-moving through the change in the hopes endorphins or even serotonin will come to its rescue.
During the action phase, it is super important to note that the prefrontal cortex and that darn amygdala are strengthening their connection and communication. This is awesome news for us. Keep in mind that as this is happening, sometimes the brain puts a bit too much emphasis on reconnecting versus neurotransmitter release. Around day 30, the brain slows down on the release of those feel-good neurotransmitters. What does that mean? That means we start to lose interest in the changes we are creating. This is why New Year Resolutions seem to poop out at the end of the month or beginning of February. What is happening is your brain is changing (say what?! No! way!). During that change, the brain is taking energy to form new memories and relay to the rest of the brain that the change is good and something that is not dreaded. What does that mean for motivation? It is zapped. What about consistency? That goes out the window too. This is what I like to call the wall stage of change. We lose all motivation and accountability to what changes we are creating. That is because our brain is actively and physically changing! Be prepared for this phase! Although you may want to give up on the change, this is where the consistency is actively changing your brain!
On to the final stage, the maintenance stage! This is where our changes have become a new habit and our hippocampus has developed enough memories about this change for no longer to be anxiety-provoking. Congratulations! The change is no longer uncomfortable!
Now, that you have secured memories about this change, does this mean that future situations like this will not invoke discomfort? Not necessarily. Remember, that darn amygdala is tricky and impulsive. It has been known to jump the gun before the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus is able to say “slow down! Don't you remember when…”. So what happens in those cases? Does this mean we automatically go back to old patterns? Maybe. When we fall out of habits, our brain tends to fall back into old habits.
Take a look at anxiety and depression as an example. Both of them have been known as relapsing diseases. That means they get better for a time and then return. Even though we start over and make plans on how to recover our mental health, we have more information stored in our hippocampus and facts that our prefrontal cortex can use to make change happen quicker. That means we will not feel uncomfortable or miserable for as long as we did the previous time we tried to create a change. It doesn't mean it still isn't hard work, but it means we will reap the benefits quicker if we face the change rather than shy away from the discomfort it presents
How do we make change a little less uncomfortable? That is a great question to have! Kind of like we talked about in the post Depression and All That Jazz, we explored how behavioral activation and smart goals can help build a case to assist that darn amygdala and the rest of the brain to explore all the facts of that scary change. We can also use the information we gathered from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Why it Works and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Part Deux how challenging our own thoughts in a logical way can increase our ability to tolerate change.
Coping Skills Alert!
When we first start to learn how to sit with the discomfort of change, we must first be able to identify where the discomfort is coming from. No different than the thought tracking we use with cognitive distortions, being able to identify and label the source of the discomfort helps us to better prepare ways to combat that discomfort.
A way I like to teach people to sit with the discomfort of change is by learning how to refocus and quiet the brain around us. Oftentimes, when change is occurring, people become easily distracted by the emotions they are experiencing. This often leads people to think that their emotions are the facts of the situation, not the actual facts. By learning to quiet her mind and refocus our energy on those facts, we take away the power that darn amygdala has with our emotions. A great way would be to refer back to the Socratic questions we talked about in the previous post, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Part Deux. No different than what we've talked about in this entire post, by identifying, recognizing, and actively participating in healthy changes, will these skills help decrease the discomfort you are feeling when change is present.
Please take the time for yourself to review the Socratic questions from the last post, or subscribe to get premium content at your fingers! The printable handouts included with the premium subscription keep those questions handy for your use in the future.
As we explore the facts of our discomfort, it allows us to bring up a time to be reflective. Taking time to reflect and when you have experienced change before and the outcome of those changes help significantly decrease the release of adrenaline and norepinephrine into our body. It also triggers the release of glutamate and GABA, which allows our hippocampus and prefrontal cortex to explore additional facts we didn't know that we had. There is nothing wrong with sitting down and reflecting on past experiences to help gather strength to tell that darn amygdala to stop being such a drama queen.
Ultimately, by using these steps, you will be able to take the plunge into the change you are facing and start to feel comfortable with it. I want to thank you for taking the time to learn why we are so uncomfortable when we initiate change and why it takes time for our brains to accept change. The brain is a powerful, complex (and frustrating) organ that serves only many roles. In my next post, we will learn more about distress tolerance skills and how they work. It is a perfect way to add to the knowledge that you have gained from today's post.
To recap this post:
– there is a reason change is scary and uncomfortable
– everyone experiences the stages of change when we are faced with change
– there is a wall stage that decreases our motivation and desire for change
– consistency, practice and patients help decrease the discomfort felt when we face change