Like it or not, change is a huge part of everyone’s life. It has been humorously said that the only thing in life that does not change is that we can always count on change occurring. Many of us have a resistance to recognizing or accepting changes that occur in our life, especially if we like how things are at the time. An old expression that reflects the pervasiveness of change is that no one can step into the same river twice (because as the water flows, the river in which you first stepped changes before you can step in it again). After we recognize that a change has occurred, we face the challenge of what to do about it. Do we accept the change and move on, or do we resist the change. The Serenity Prayer describes the dilemma in this way: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.
We do a lot of things to convince ourselves we can avoid change. For example, even though everything is constantly changing, we try to avoid knowing this by calling something by the same name. We look at a tree and think of it as the same tree we saw yesterday, even though if it could talk, it might say “excuse me, I am NOT the same tree I was yesterday because I have lost some leaves and branches and I now have two squirrels jumping from one branch to another that I did not have yesterday”. We call someone our sister even though they are transsexual and now identify themselves as our brother.
One major reason we like to avoid or deny change is that we fear that the change might harm us, and thus we are scared to admit that the change occurs. This negative bias is built into our brain and thus is not so easy to overcome. For example, when it comes to our five senses, information is only sent to the brain if it involves change. If we hear a new sound, we are alerted – information about the change is sent to the brain and evaluated as to whether it signals danger, e.g., is it the sound that a wild animal makes? Once the sound is identified as not dangerous, and it keeps happening, the brain starts tuning out the sound and we are not as aware of it. The same thing happens when we enter a new space in which there is “bad smell” – e.g., it is sent to the brain and evaluated as whether it signals that someone has “passed gas” or whether it is the smell of poison gas, and if it is not dangerous, we start tuning it out, so that we are no longer so acutely aware that the space has a bad smell in it.
Perceived change can be stressful, but if we feel equal to the challenge, i.e., believe that we have the resources and skills to cope successfully with the change, then we feel challenged and this type of stress is called eustress. Eustress promotes growth and is not harmful to the body. If we think the change is too much for us, that we do not have the resources or skills to cope with it successfully, then we feel distressed. Distress is harmful to the body and often does not lead to growth but rather to disorganization and a sense of helplessness.
One factor that increases distress is if we view the change as causing how we feel, because then the cause of our feelings is not under our control. The next post will focus on identifying the actual cause of our feelings.