“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves.” Anatole France
We all encounter change at some point in our lives and at times we can find ourselves struggling to cope, even if this is something we have chosen for ourselves. Change pushes us outside of our comfort zone into a space that feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Comfort zones are critical for our survival. They allow us to replenish our energy levels, build up confidence, and ultimately relax! Without them, we would likely find ourselves operating in an almost permanent state of manic stress or utter exhaustion. And that is not good for anyone. But neither is constantly working within your zone of safety. There is no room for growth and development there.
Built to Resist Change
There are of course hoards of thrill seekers out there throwing themselves off of everything and anything that looks vaguely high enough to allow their adrenaline to start pumping. And then there are the rest of us who enjoy the comforting feeling of the steady ground beneath our feet. But those who live constantly with a foot dangling over the edge of their comfort zone are in the minority and that is largely down to our biology.
Our brains are actually built to resist uncertainty and unpredictability, even when we say we want such changes. In terms of evolution our brain does not like uncertainty as it views this as potentially threatening, therefore it tries to reduce any possible uncertainty, for example through changing our perception or our actions. When we are facing uncertainty and we find ourselves faced with a future that is unpredictable. When this happens dopamine floods the primitive parts of our brain and activates our flight/fight/freeze response. What this means in real terms is that we end up spending a lot of energy getting our body and mind prepared for action in case of potential threat. The less predictable a situation is the more energy we expend trying to influence the outcome. The research in this area is surprising and shows that we actually experience more stress when we feel uncertain than if we know for sure that something bad is coming our way. Basically we perceive no news as being worse than bad news.
In general human beings are not only passionate about control, but we crave it. Throughout our lives the majority of us find ourselves trying to create predictable routines, reduce uncertainty, and increase future predictability. The science suggests that at any point should we perceive ourselves as having lost control in some way that we become unhappy, hopeless, and depressed. We want to be able to imagine our future and we want to be able to prepare for it. Uncertainty of course makes this very difficult.
Ultimately therefore our brain does everything can to avoid or reduce uncertainty and increase certainty.
When we experience a big change in our lives like changing jobs, ending a relationship, or moving to another country, we have a tendency to focus on what we might lose more than how much we might gain from a new experience or perspective. One reason for this is referred to as the sunk cost effect. The sunk cost effect is the tendency we have to continue investing in something, even though it’s no longer serving us well, simply because we have already invested so much in it. This is as true for small things such as clearing out our wardrobes, “but I have paid so much for that item”, as bigger much more significant things such as ending a romantic relationship.
Short Term Focus
We are also not as good at predicating the future as we like to think we are and have a tendency to underestimate our resilience and our brains are evolved to pay more attention to the short term sacrifices than the longer term gains. Remember our brains were evolved to pay attention to the dangers that are around today, tomorrow, and in the coming weeks, and they are not as naturally attuned to considering the next five or ten years. The genes that survived and were handed down to us are the ones that saw the short-term dangers and focused on overcoming them. Thus these are the brains and thinking patterns that we have also inherited.
With the uncertainty in the oil industry continuing we are all likely to have experienced some, if not significant, change over the past year. Moreover, we may find ourselves working and living in increasingly uncertain circumstances and as a result feeling tired, burnt out and ultimately very stressed.
There has to be a better way….well there is! Seek out those around you who are also in the same situation to discuss and work through the ambiguity of change together. It can feel comforting to know you are not the only one struggling. Ground yourself through recognizing and reminding yourself of all of the things you know to be true and stable, Not everything destabilizes at the same time even though it can feel this way. Many things will be as they always were. Write these certainties down and this will help to reduce the unknowns. Stop looking for the right solution and look for one that is “good enough”. In reality there is rarely a perfect solution or answer but there are likely to be many that would work. Stop allowing your mind to run away with the “what if” scenarios. This kind of thinking is unhelpful. It is stealing whatever joy there is in the passing moments and creating a vicious cycle of worry. You of course cannot stop yourself from thinking but ask yourself is this kind of thinking helpful and productive? If it is helping you problem solve then great, but if not then get yourself out of the worry cycle and do something more productive!