Change, whether we like it or not, is a fact of life. It’s actually one of the few things that we can be sure of happening. Change can be big or small, it can be unexpected or planned, it can be sudden or gradual, it can be imposed by external circumstances or arise from our own actions.
So while change can sometimes look like progress, it can also feel like a threatening disruption of the stability and security that we have built for ourselves. Depending on how we perceive it, it is an exciting opportunity or a catastrophic loss. A promotion at work can be thrilling and terrifying by turns. The break-up of a relationship can be a tragedy or a relief.
Two things we know for sure. Change is a reality that we have to face in our lives, and it is a reality that can cause considerable stress, both physically and mentally. Even a positive change can be extremely demanding. The key to coping is first to recognise that change is occurring, to understand the effect it is having on us, and most importantly, to take responsibility for our responses.
Before we look at strategies for responding effectively to change, let’s consider the kinds of events that push us from the known and the familiar into unknown and potentially uncomfortable territory. In the workplace, a stable job for life is now a distant memory for most people. In an increasingly competitive world, professional changes can include:
- job relocation or overseas posting
- role reallocation
- new management
- going freelance
At home, the changes we face may be part of life’s natural rhythm, but they still have the potential to disrupt our lives in quite unexpected ways if we’re not prepared. Changes can include:
- new baby
- moving house
- moving country
- home improvements
It’s also a mistake to view change at work and at home as separate challenges. One often feeds into the other. Job relocation, for instance, can mean uprooting the family and leaving friends behind. This can put pressure on marriages and create strife with children. Conversely, the birth of a new child at home, say, can trigger a deep shift in priorities and ambitions at work.
It is tempting to believe that the only kind of change that we need to be concerned about is that which is imposed from outside, such as redundancy. In reality, it doesn’t make much difference whether we’ve chosen the change or not, it will still have an impact. Any kind of change, no matter how well planned, can seem threatening and stressful. And most humans, most of the time, react to stress in one of two ways…fight or flight.
In a flight response, we try and avoid the change. At one extreme, we can go into outright denial by telling ourselves that it just isn’t happening. We ignore the change, or take a passive role in the process. In the workplace, this might mean not volunteering for teams or committees that are handling the transition, or staying quiet at meetings to discuss the move, or simply not showing up. Sometimes known as “cocooning”, it allows us to feel like a victim of circumstance, which may be painful, but it serves to protect us from the possibly far more frightening prospect of staring the looming change fully in the face.
If we go into a fight response, we actively resist what’s happening. This is even more painful and potentially far more damaging. This kind of resistance can include persistent negativity, gossiping, cynicism, undermining colleagues, constant complaining, destructive criticism and even intentional sabotage.
Both of these responses will not help you, and they certainly won’t help those that you either live or work with. But there is another way, and the key to discovering it lies in a simple (but not easy) acceptance that life is now not going to be the same as it was. Once you have done that, you have put aside the defences of fight or flight and you are free to participate actively in the process.
That does not mean that you are agreeing with what is happening. You don’t have to like it. But once you stop perceiving change as a threat, you are taking responsibility for the part you can play in it. More importantly, you are able to change what was a negative into a positive. In short, a frightening risk becomes an exciting opportunity.
If you’re staring at big changes in your life, but you’re not quite sure how to respond, here are a few tips for managing the transition.
1. Remember that change is a normal, human process. No one adjusts to change overnight. In fact, coping with change can follow very much the same path as responding to a bereavement, with all the grief that that involves. There’s the shock of discovery when you first learn of it, followed by a degree of denial and then anger. This can give way to feelings for despair and a longing for the “good old days”. But if you are gentle with yourself and allow these feelings to work themselves through, you are likely to move on to an acceptance of the new situation and excitement at the fresh opportunities that it offers.
2. Look at the big picture. Try and get a broad perspective of the change that you are facing. It is easy to get bogged down in the details and practicalities of coping and then lose sight of the long-term goal. If this is unclear, you need to get more information about what’s involved. Change can be painful, but without it we stagnate. An organisation that doesn’t change is unlikely to grow. A person who doesn’t change will never learn anything new.
3. Don’t isolate. During times of stress, it is tempting to withdraw into oneself in a bid to preserve energy. When we do this, however, it is incredibly easy to lose perspective. Small worries quickly become overwhelming fears. Make sure you are talking to people, be they close friends, trusted colleagues or family members. If you want to get an outside perspective, call Police Care UK in confidence.
4. Evaluate your responses. Keep an eye on your emotional responses. Ask yourself if you are happy, angry, scared or sad. Once you have established what you are feeling, you are in a position to determine if your reactions are realistic and justified or driven by fear or misinterpretation.
5. Participate in the process. Don’t allow anxiety to drive you into passivity and resistance. If you are facing changes at work, attend any meetings that are organised to discuss what lies ahead. If you feel that there is inadequate open discussion, talk to your managers about setting up appropriate forums for debate. If the looming changes are personal, think about which elements are beyond your control and which you can do something about.
6. Don’t rush. As we have seen, change can evoke a wide range of emotions. Taking it one small step at a time will ensure you get to the other side without getting overwhelmed. Break down what you have to do into small manageable tasks. If you have a lot of change going on in one area of your life, hold off on making other adjustments until life has stabilised.
7. Hold on to your anchors. When everything is in a state of flux, make sure you don’t lose touch with your sources of stability. On an individual level, this can be anything from a favourite hobby or pastime, to a spiritual practice, a close friendship, or even your favourite music. No matter how big the changes that you face, some things will remain the same. For a company or organisation, its values and mission can provide a sense of purpose and continuity as it goes through the transition. Regular meetings can also provide a sense of containment and reliability. Making sure that everyone is heard is also of critical importance.
8. Remember to relax. When your environment is changing, it is easy to lapse into a state of constant vigilance. This causes tension, which in turn causes stress. Once your body is producing stress hormones, you will be heading towards burn-out if you do not regularly find a way to unwind. Stress-related symptoms include headaches, insomnia, digestive problems and backache. Exercise is crucial, but so is eating well, getting plenty of sleep and finding time for fun and laughter.
9. Be patient. The results of the change may not be apparent as quickly as you would like. Our society conditions us to expect quick fixes and instant results, but real life is just not like that. If you can allow the process of change to take time, you will be less prone to frustration and stress. If your changes involve other people, remember also that not everyone will change at the same speed. Some take longer to adapt than others. If you make room for a variety of responses, you will be acting as a team, not as isolated individuals.
10. Keep the end in mind. No matter how endless a process of change can seem, remember that it will come to an end eventually. You are not stuck in a state of permanent flux, nor have you lost a sense of stability forever. You will eventually return to a sense of normality.
Remember, you are not alone in this. There is help available.