Our responses to change are not always conscious or even within our control.

Our brains and nervous systems are hard wired for predictability. Neuroscience shows us that the oldest part of our brain creates patterns really quickly – we like to be able to predict what will happen next. So when unexpected things happen, or we are not certain about how things are going to turn out, our brains respond as if we’re in danger. They trigger our nervous systems into high alert. Which is why we get anxious.

Can fear of change be of physical origin (e.g. fear is regulated by the amygdala) or is it largely emotional (triggered by past events or trauma)?

It’s both physical and emotional. The part of our brain that is triggered first when we feel we are in danger is a little part called the amygdala – the bit that controls our fight/ flight/ freeze response. When this gets triggered, the energy in our brains is focused on this response to danger – which is great if we really are at risk – if you are about to be run over by a bus, you want to be able to run out of the way quickly without over thinking. But of course, it’s really unhelpful if it happens say, when you’re in the middle of a difficult conversation, or about to do something important that requires your best thinking.

The emotions come into it, because our amygdala sits on top of another part of the brain called the hippocampus which stores our memories. This means that sometime, a fight, flight, freeze response can remind us of another time when we were worried or something went wrong. So not only are we reacting as if we’re in danger in the present moment, but we are also connecting it emotionally to past events or even trauma. This can lead to a downward spiral of anxiety and worry.

What are the key signs that someone fears change?

When we have what is sometimes called an ‘amygdala hijack’ (fight, flight, freeze) our bodies go into protective overdrive. Some of the signs are: feeling hot and sweaty (our hands and faces especially), dry mouth, going red in the face or neck, feeling nauseous. This is a key sign that, consciously or not, our bodies are responding as if we are in danger.
Sometimes when people have had a negative experience of sudden change or unpredictability, it can trigger anxiety. The anticipation of things being bad can lead people to withdraw, or even actively protest about things changing at all.

How can our readers make practical steps to confront their fear of change and overcome it.

The good news about fear from a physical angle, is that there are very real, useful ways of calming our nervous systems down, and reassuring them that we are not in danger.

Calm your breathing: with good, calm, belly breaths. Counting to four as you inhale and exhale calms our nervous systems and helps us to re-set in the present moment.
Think of something positive: when we think of something that makes us smile, it creates ‘happy’ hormones in our body that over-ride the hormones that are triggered by stress. So thinking of something lovely, really does calm us down and offer us a re-set.

When you are faced with real change that you can’t avoid, another trick is to think about something or someone else in your life that is certain or predictable. This is calming and stops us from feeling overwhelmed by the change.
It can also help to draw two circles, one inside the other. In the inner circle, write down things that you can control or influence. In the outer circle write down the things that you can’t do anything about. Turn your focus to what you have written in the inner circle – things you CAN do something about. This puts you in your full agency and gives you real choices about things that you are able to affect.

Can a fear of change ever be positive (e.g. following your gut/a form of self-protection)

Without doubt, sometimes fear can be positive – our body is well designed to keep us safe and protect us, and it’s always worth listening to our instinct or intuition. The key is not to get overwhelmed by it. Taking time to calm our nervous systems, breathe, think positive, take a moment is crucial. When we are in that state we can look at any choices we have calmly, with all our best thinking. We want to be able to be pro-active not re-active – it helps.
And in those moments when we are in real danger – the great news is – we can genuinely trust our bodies to instinctively do what we need. The fight, fight, freeze response is annoying when we don’t need it – but brilliant when we do!

First published in Woman & Home.

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