Adapting to change
The world changes all the time but now we notice these changes as they impact on our lives. Adjusting to a world in which nothing is quite the same is a feature of these COVID-19 times. It can be destabilising and anxiety-generating to find ordinary things like meeting up with family and friends, commuting to work, and shopping must be altered or, at times, stopped completely.
The constant nature of change
Commentators have observed the growing interest in nature during this period and how, by noticing changes in the natural world, feelings of hope can be stimulated. Impermanence, and the awareness that ‘this too shall pass’ is evident in the moment-to-moment passing of the seasons. Thinking of ourselves as eco-systems, it is good to reflect on how we adapt to change, particularly during these unprecedented times.
This context is an important backdrop to tune into the reality that nothing stays the same. How we respond to change is of significance in all our lives and, yet, we often live our lives not really considering how change impacts us and how best to respond to it. For instance, with evolving technology changing the fabric of societies, it often depends on your familiarity, engagement, and confidence in how you respond to the change that technology brings. For some, it will be fear, and for others, it will be excitement. For both groups, however, our thoughts and feelings shape our response.
Understanding our emotional response to change
As humans, we often crave certainty and answers and, yet at times of change, these feelings are elusive. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross* wrote about the emotions we feel when we move through change, and succinctly captured this in the 'Transition Curve' which covers the core emotions experienced over time.
- Shock: Surprise or shock at the event.
- Denial: Disbelief; looking for evidence that it isn't true.
- Frustration: Recognition that things are different; sometimes feeling angry.
- Depression: Low mood; sometimes lacking in energy.
- Experiment: Initial engagement with the new situation.
- Decision: Learning how to work in the new situation; feeling more positive.
- Integration: Changes integrated; a renewed individual.
Although this is a helpful summary, it also simplifies the complexity of human emotions. Some individuals can get ‘stuck’ at a single point on the curve or go backwards and forwards in the different stages of this curve.
One aspect of change is that it can feel overwhelming, and we can be paralysed by our own anxious thoughts and feelings, and worry about the future. It is important to allow these thoughts to evolve while holding onto our core beliefs and to let ourselves learn from new experience.
Reminding ourselves that, ultimately, we cannot control life can conserve mental energy and allow us to focus our energies in more productive ways; to influence others and to understand how to change our thinking to have a different response to a difficult situation. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl* noticed that, through consciously maintaining a ‘space’ in his mind to challenge his automatic, often negative, thoughts, it made it possible to alter his feelings and behaviour towards a horrendous situation. He wrote, "when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves".
Learning to adapt
Darwin reminds us that those who survive and, indeed, thrive are the ones who adapt most effectively to change. This is not just a physical adjustment, there are also key mental processes involved. Working through the feelings of being overwhelmed is not easy but connecting to our own feelings is a good place to start.
Change can often test us, and our resilience. The more that we can stay connected to what is going on inside us the more we can meet our own internal needs to adapt to the changes in the external world. Reminding ourselves that sometimes we fail, and can yet still move forward, builds our resilience. Of course, we need to build our self-belief that we can adapt and then take a managed risk of trying something different. Seeing ourselves as learners and continually needing to adjust to changes is a good strategy.
Taking a simple model developed by Dr W Edwards Deming* and used in the field of Quality Management is useful. When faced with a choice of what to do, the following framework of activities can be helpful.
- Plan: Identify your problems, consider a root cause analysis, and set goals.
- Do: Test different options.
- Check: Study the results regularly and adjust factors like your behaviour.
- Act: Implement the best solution and keep refining and improving.
The process is a continuous loop of progression in which you constantly seek to improve and modify what you do, in the light of feedback.
Another tool to use to navigate change is a simple structure to mindfully help us out of an overwhelming situation to a more hopeful place and it uses the acronym RAIN.
- R: Recognise. What is going on for you? How do you feel?
- A: Allow. Create a space within you where what you are experiencing can enter, just as it is. Accept this is how you feel. Take a pause. Consider going for a walk or talking to a compassionate friend or professional to surface these feelings held within.
- I: Investigate. Explore the feelings and how they are experienced in your body, with care and kindness. Know yourself and your reactions more fully.
- N: Nurturing. Bring yourself some self-compassion and understanding. For instance, what do you need right now? This might be acceptance, support or love. Give yourself the time and space to rest in your true feelings and unique nature.
In summary, change is always with us and may be challenging to deal with at times. The way we think about change will impact on our feelings and behaviour towards the change. Trying new things and adapting may result in some failures, but it is also how we learn and become more resilient. Taking care of ourselves so that we understand our emotions places us in a much stronger position to deal with whatever is presented to us in this dynamic world of ours.
If you would like to explore these feelings further, you may benefit from speaking with a professional. Search Counselling Directory to find a counsellor offering online support.
- Kubler-Ross, E (2009), On Death and Dying, Routledge, Abingdon
- Viktor E Frankl(2004), Man’s search for Meaning, Random House, London
- The W Edwards Deming Institute
- RAIN is a (20-year old) meditation tool developed by meditation teacher Michele McDonald and adapted by Tara Brach, American psychologist, and meditation guide.
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