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What happens when we experience change

What happens when we experience change?

Whether it’s a new job or a new way of working, something difficult or something positive, change can be tough and may take its toll on our mental health.

This is especially true for the COVID-19 outbreak: major changes to our lifestyles happened almost overnight. With health worries layered on top of that, it is a recipe for stress.

Though we don’t have control over the pandemic itself or safety measures such as movement restrictions, what we can control is our reaction to the situation.

Often, understanding the processes behind our reaction can help us better control it. That’s why we’re looking at why it’s hard to accept change and the stages of the change curve we experience.

Why is it hard to accept change?

One in three people would avoid change if they could, and two-thirds of us feel uncertain about the future.

This research, conducted by organisational psychologist Jim Bright, confirms that for many of us, the prospect of change is a worry rather than a welcome development.

A large part of this is because our brains are wired to expect familiarity.

Clinical psychologist Dr Sophie Mort notes ‘your brain will always try to take the path of least resistance. It likes to stay the same at all times. To help with this, it creates pathways for habits that it can follow with ease.’

Change unsettles us because that familiarity is no longer there - we have to re-evaluate.

On top of this, our brains are also averse to loss. Once we invest time and effort in a person, a project or a way of life, our brains try to prevent us from losing that.

We are programmed to choose options that involve the least change. That’s why change feels so challenging when it happens.

Understanding the change curve

Change can often feel scary - things that were familiar to us have changed, and it can seem hard to accept a new way of doing things.

Psychologists and other researchers have been unpicking the way our brains respond to change for many years.

Though specific changes will be personal to you, research has shown that our response to change usually follows a particular pattern called ‘the change curve’.

The change curve maps out six different and distinct phases we go through after a change. The speed with which we move through each phase, however, will be different for each individual.

Stage 1: Shock/denial – blaming others

The first stage is our immediate reaction to change. We may feel shock or denial when facing big changes and may blame others in the fallout from the initial situation.

Stage 2: Shock/denial – blaming self

It’s typical to move from blaming others to blaming yourself. The change is still happening, and emotions are running high as we try to get through the confusion change can cause.

Stages 1 and 2 can go on for some time, and we sometimes move back and forward between them. We won’t be able to accept the change until we can move beyond stages 1 and 2.

Stage 3: Doubt – uncertainty/confusion

In stage 3, the shock has died down, but doubt and uncertainty begin to grow. This stage involves asking questions, expressing doubts and rethinking the change. It represents the beginning of the journey beyond denial and towards acceptance.

Stage 4: Acceptance – rationalisation

This is the time when we begin to accept the change, focusing less on what’s been lost and starting to explore the implications of what’s changed.

Stage 5. Problem solving

Everyone is relieved to reach the problem-solving stage as this is when people start to embrace change. Denial and doubt take a backseat to creativity as we build new ways of doing things.

Stage 6: Moving on

In this final stage, people now feel better about the change and able to face the future with hope and purpose. What was a change at first has now become the new normal.

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