Changing, Cycles and the Brain
Some of us love the idea of change, some of us hate it. And some of us both love and hate it - deciding how they feel as and when change approaches. How do you feel about change?
According to the National Statistics survey for Coronavirus and the Social Impacts on Great Britain, over 4 in 5 adults are worried or somewhat worried about the effect that COVID-19 is having on their life right now. That is 84.2% of adults in the UK and over half of those (53.1%) feeling it was affecting their wellbeing and 46.9% reported high levels of anxiety (ONS.gov.uk). We have had to adapt to change very, very quickly. The whole planet has.
Prior to the pandemic, in a British Lifestyle research project, it revealed that 27% of UK adults are uncomfortable (panicked) by change. 71 percent said any sort of variation in their lives is hard to cope with, and eight in ten said they had missed out on opportunities in the past, due to reluctance, or fear of what change entails. (FreeAgent, 2019)
In these uncertain times it is expected that, when the planet presses the pause button, we are going to feel the jerks and jolts of things coming to a very sudden standstill. Illness and death bring grief. Job change, loss or business closure also brings its own style of grief. Being away from family, friends and even the loss of routine may trigger anxiety and perhaps panic for some. There are layers and layers of circumstances across the globe.
Change, cycles and the brain.
Change comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes we can control it, we ask for it, we need it, we want it; we can move quickly through it, (for some, like ripping of a plaster to be done with it and deal with the details once there or much later); perhaps take a slow start and change the goals along the way; maybe the decision has been made for us - job loss? Relocation? Relationship breakdown? Death or loss of a loved one? Or perhaps you feel deep down you want and maybe need change but the idea is overwhelming; people might get hurt (emotion), what knock-on effect with change have? Do I have the energy and ability to change? It is just easier to stay the same (common).
We can take on change with our rational brain, thinking things through in detail, planning, organising and preparing - we can do this even if change sneaks up on us like recent events - 46.9% will feel anxious this way, but a rational mind will look deep and find a way to, well, rationalise the process, procedures and practicalities of change. Or we can think about change, then distract ourselves instead of focusing on the process (avoidance), allow things to continue as they are; maybe life around us will change instead and make the decision easier!
Change may become more difficult as we get older and have more responsibilities, (children, financial commitments for example) so a need to consider our approach becomes more in depth and considered. For many, these can be the reasons behind change not occurring or being prolonged.
A cycle to consider.
There can be a cycle to change. Prochaska and DiClemente (1994) devised the Transtheoretical Model, or ‘Stages of change’ model, to portray the ways in which we are able to move into and through change, starting with pre-contemplation where we have a thought, but no intention of making change, contemplation where we become aware of any problems that exist but make no commitment to taking action, preparation intent on taking action to solve a problem, action, modifying behaviour and environment, maintenance, where new behaviour replaces old behaviour and in some cases, relapse, when we may fall back into old patterns of behaviour.
The study was prepared and documented on people who wanted to change addiction; addiction can describe as a physiological addiction to a substance, or a behaviour and system of being which is ingrained in the neuron-paths in the brain which can stem from learned behaviour, culture, environment and our own perception and subsequent habits.
The cycle is widely used as reference in looking at a process to change, never directive, always fluid and acknowledges that we may move between the stages, repeating and amending the action. It is a useful and straight-forward tool to support the process.
When it comes to changing behaviour, the good news is our brains have the ability to reform the paths of thought, feeling and behaviour. It takes work, practice and persistence, but it is possible. We are able to ‘re-programme’ our way of thinking and doing.
If the neuron-pathways have been in use in a particular way for some time, our thoughts and actions become almost subconscious, habit, the ‘norm’, and it is sometimes easier for us to feel more comfortable with our old ways rather than working through the uncomfortable process of actively changing ourselves.
Plasticity relates to the flexible ability of our brains to learn, develop, adapt and change.
In younger people, the plasticity is more apparent and changes are taken on with ‘less effort’ if you like. Those of us who regularly learn new things, study, hobbies, take in varied information, the brain will remain supple in plasticity and be less resistant when it comes to approaching any different behaviour patterns. (Wilson, 2014)
Of course this depends of a person’s mental health – for example, a person with Bipolar Disorder or OCD may have systems in place that are so in-built for survival, the pathways are much more resistant to change, but still, for most, it is possible.
The familiar term ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is perhaps the best way ‘out’ of change, a phrase that allows us to stay in the familiar, even if it does not serve us. Perhaps as a re-framing exercise we could sit and imagine how great it would be if the old dog suddenly started picking up some new tricks, wild imaginative tricks you never thought possible! Imagine how new life comes back after achieving new things. See how happy that dog looks and new life around him.
Change is available to us all with the right amount of dedication, purpose and attention.
Left vs right.
The brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left (rational) and the right (emotional).
The left hemisphere:
detail, patterns, analysis and organisation of information
processing information rationally and sequentially
makes decisions about right or wrong
our left brain perceives the sharper detail, lines and edges
tunes into higher frequencies of sound helping to detect, discriminate and interpret verbal language
good at perceiving time and keeping track of things
The right hemisphere:
processing the 'whole picture'
Iateral thinking, or making novel connections
less likely to put judgement or moral value on to anything
processes information more slowly, possibly because it is processing in a less linear way
sensitive to non-verbal communication
concentrates better on visual input as a whole, because the data input gathered is softer and more blended
tunes into lower sound frequencies, and is better tuned to the primal physiological
sounds our bodies make
less concerned with the perception of time and its passing
Many of us are a mixture between left and right brain characteristics. Others will be very strongly focused on information and logical processing (left). Other clients will leap from place to place, and weave around the main topic of the conversation (right).
People vary in terms of finding a pace that is comfortable for them, which partly correlates
to which hemisphere of the brain is more dominant for them.
There are many ways in which we might begin introducing change. Depending on the change we are making, we might consider first where we see ourselves outside of where we already are.
What does it look like? Sound like? Feel like? Smell like? Even taste like? Use the senses to be in that exact moment at the peak of happiness in the new situation.
Now, coming back. But feel free to take yourself to that place at any time to remind yourself of what you want – even it if changes and develops 10 times over. It’s your vision!
What are the steps needing to be taken in order to make change? Can you just pack a bag and get on the next plane to Australia, for ever? If so, what is stopping you from doing that? What needs to be ‘in order’ so that you have the room to take a step forward?
Does change involve initial conversations with people around you? Might this change the situation in itself and things start to feel better just from talking to any ‘source’?
Lists are great things. With lists we can see the big and small details and keep adding and ticking off as we go. It may look daunting when you write all the things you are contemplating and needing to do, but if they’re not on paper, they are taking up space in your mind and the mind already has a comfortable path carved out from your current situation. Let it out and keep it out. It may make it easier to stay focussed. Look at the list, remember your vision and see if you can change any uncomfortable feelings back to the way you feel having reached your envisioned goal.
If you don’t set a deadline, even a loose, flexible one, will you have the discipline not to put your goal for change to one side?
Tips for change.
I will use scenarios which may not apply to everyone, but try and apply the following snippets of guidance to your own situation. Allow the mind to be introduced to a new routine/way of thinking. Never be hard on yourself, situations don’t always change overnight.
Prepare, Self-care and Discussion - Preparation will be a starting point. Preparing for change. Self-care is so very important, look after yourself along the way – if the change is not a choice, you need to be making sure you are preparing for change and making sure there is time set aside for you to contemplate the journey and its impact on you. If you need, talk to others or perhaps seek professional help (such as mentoring or counselling) to help work through any barriers. Discussion allows for open communication between people involved – partners, managers, friends, Counsellor/Mentor/Coach – anyone involved in the process. Things may even be resolved sooner if people are aware of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours toward a situation.
Small changes to a routine – for example; instead of waking up to roll over and check phone messages in bed, perhaps try and get out of bed, wash up, dress, make a coffee/tea/drink of choice, take a seat and then check messages. It’s easy to say ‘oh it’s just easier to do it now, in bed’ (subconscious habit), but the reason you are changing the routine is to introduce the discipline of adjusting habits by using this, quite minimal tweak to your day. It might not sound like moving mountains, but when you think that you are changing the connections of neurons in the brain – it does sound like a huge (but absolutely achievable) feat.
Be nicer to yourself – when you look in the mirror, what is the first thing that comes into your head? Positive? Negative? Neutral?
Affirmations are wonderful things. They are a sentence or short paragraph of words put together and said out loud to encourage positive thinking and changed perception.
For example, if you are building courage to leave and job you’re unhappy in. When you wake up in the morning, you might look at yourself and say ‘I am strong and capable of making the right decisions. I deserve more and will get more. I can move forward with confidence in myself and find the perfect job for me.’ Little additions through the day will help also. ‘I am worth more’, ‘I can do this’, ‘Things are going to improve for me’. Say it. Believe it. Repeat.
Create a list – as I’ve mentioned, lists are great companions. They can be used to ‘dump’ all relevant information out of our heads and onto a page. Change them, add to them, tick things off and when you’re over the other side of change, look at it, be proud of how much you have achieved. Then put it in the bin and move forwards.
Focus on one thing at a time – what you are looking to achieve might involve several or more aspects. It will create a clear path (mentally) if things are simplified and worked through step-by-step rather than jumping around from task to task. Things can be categorised into ‘types’ of action such as ‘preparation’, ‘self-care’ or ‘discussion’.
For example, using the scenario above where you might be looking to leave a job you are unhappy in. The process might look like this:
Write your list:
check relevant job market (or training course) - preparation
update CV - preparation
discuss with manager your situation (if this is able to resolve your unhappiness, change will be a product of this alone) - discussion
be nicer to yourself (affirmations) – self-care
talk to partner/family about your position (if you are responsible for them or part thereof for expenses etcetera) - discussion
look for roles which you feel you will be happier in - preparation
research companies and businesses - preparation
visualise the perfect job and how good it feels to be in it - preparation
believe you deserve better and will have a better role – self-care
consider interviews - preparation
prepare for interviews - preparation
There is a lot to be said for decision making and moving forwards in creating a better life for yourself. It is common to stay in your ‘comfort zone’ which suits many, but if you continue to feel that something is not right, you are not fulfilled, or again, if change is thrust upon you and you need to adapt, take time out and think about what would make your situation better. How can you make change work for you and tell yourself that you are strong enough to change the way you think, feel and behave.
Free Agent, 2019, British Lifestyles and Attitudes research, (independent online research)
National Statistics, Coronavirus and the Social Impacts on Great Britain, (ONS.gov.uk), online research article
Prochaska, James and DiClemente, Carlo, (1994), Changing for Good, Avon Books, p21-24
Wilson, Rachael, (2014), Neuroscience for Counsellors, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, P24-30