Let’s face it. Most of us hate change. Whether it’s at work or in our personal lives, unexpected changes can make us feel uncomfortable… even downright miserable. Why is change so unsettling? Because more than almost anything else, the human brain craves predictability. In fact, our amazing ability to out-predict other species is part of why humans have been so successful from an evolutionary perspective. Out-predicting our rivals (sometimes other humans) has been quite literally a matter of survival. So it’s no wonder that change can be unsettling; it throws a monkey wrench into our feelings of safety.
Our need to know and be able to “see” or predict the future is so powerful that unexpected changes can actually trigger pain circuits in the brain. Left unchecked, this can compromise our sense of well-being and cause our productivity (personal and professional) to plummet. That’s because uncertainty and the corresponding feeling of vulnerability it brings can shut down the parts of our brain required for critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. But it doesn’t have to. More than anything, successfully navigating an uncertain future is a matter of better managing the things that remain in our control, even when the environment around us is in flux. Here are six great ways to start:
1. Get your self-talk in check Most people don’t realize it, but we actually control our own narrative when it comes to making sense of the changes in our lives. The words we use to describe our situation trigger pictures in our brains, which then lead to a predictable combination of emotional responses or feelings. So if you’re stuck in a bad place, the first thing to do is change the way you look at it. Reappraisal is the ability to change a negative story with an unpleasant outcome to something more positive. An example of this would be processing the loss of a job. A pessimistic story we tell our self may go like this: “Oh my gosh, I’m 50 years old with two kids in college. Nobody is going to hire me, and I’m not going to be able to take care of my family.” Conversely, we could change our inner dialogue to: “Life is full of new beginnings. I’m adaptable, have a great set of job skills and this is going to lead to something even better for me.” Knowing that the stories we tell ourselves are the precursors to our attitudes and future actions, developing a “glass is half full” monologue and mindset can make all the difference in the world.
2. Sleep on it We’ve all been there. We wake up at 2:30AM with our mind racing about all the bad things that might happen. Usually, one of the first casualties of the stress brought on by unexpected change is the quality of our sleep. That’s when paying attention to our sleep hygiene factors becomes even more important. Picking a regular bedtime, turning off all electronics and stopping work at least an hour before bed, making sure your sleep space is dark, cutting back on alcohol and caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime, and exercising earlier in the day are all part of a good sleep routine. Just how important is a good night’s sleep when navigating change? According to once recent study, it has the same impact on our health and well-being as winning a $250,000 lottery. Now, that’s a hack you can take to the bank!
3. Pay attention to the company you keep I once heard someone say that we are the product of the five people we spend the most time with at any point in our lives. Neurologically, that makes sense because human beings are the most socially wired creatures on the planet. This means that, intentionally or not, we are profoundly influenced by the narrative of others around us. In his book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, neuroscientist Matt Lieberman from UCLA wrote, “Love and belonging might seem like a convenience we can do without, but our biology is built to thirst for connection because it is linked to our most basic survival needs.” During times of change, it’s more important than ever to surround ourselves with those who can be counted on to be supportive, optimistic and resourceful. But here’s a word of advice: build this network up long before you need to rely on it.
4. Get rid of “they” Point of clarification: take this hack figuratively, not literally! With many changes, it’s easy to look for villains upon whom to blame the uncertainty, pain and occasional sense of loss we feel. In rare cases, there very well may be someone who behaved selfishly or even immorally (like a cheating spouse or unscrupulous business partner), but focusing on what “they” did only keeps us trapped in a victim mentality. Remember: other people will always do what they do for their own reasons and needs, most of which may not make sense from our perspective. However, focusing on how we may have been wronged by others only serves to trap us in a state of helplessness that delays getting to the next chapter in our lives. Put more succinctly, let “them” go and move on.
5. Get involved One of the best ways to beat the unpredictability of change is to get off the sidelines and take an active role in the change itself. If your organization is going through a merger or reorganization, see what you can do to take a more active role in the facilitating the process. If your job is going away or your family needs to move because your spouse was offered a great job in a new city, take an active role in shaping what your new reality will look like. By moving as quickly as possible to a position of proactivity, we help ourselves and become a powerful role model for others who may be in the same boat we are.
6. Practice gratitude No matter how bad things seem at any point in time, there is ALWAYS something for which to be grateful. While it’s important to take time to acknowledge the immediate sense of loss or grief that comes with some changes (such as the death of a family member or friend), there will always be things for which to be grateful at the same time. Whether it’s our family, our health, our past successes or even a beautiful sunrise, cultivating gratitude each day helps us keep unplanned changes in perspective and reminds us that happiness and success are both journeys rather than destinations at which we arrive and drop anchor.
As the old saying goes, “change happens” (or something like that). Rather than fighting, resisting or blaming others, simply developing a few great habits for navigating through it can make all the difference in the world to how and where we land afterward.