Written by: Brendan Barker
If there is one constant in life, it’s that everything changes. Change is inevitable.
From a psychological perspective there are two different coping mechanisms through which we try to protect ourselves from the stresses associated with change, avoidance coping and approach coping. Avoidance coping is a passive response to change characterised by attempts to avoid the stressor. Approach coping on the other hand is an active response to change characterised by attempts to address the stressor and minimise its impact. Both coping mechanisms can be driven by our natural flight or fight response to stressful situations. In this case the stress associated with the onset of an external force for change.
Consider the changes you have encountered during 2020.
The impacts of job losses either for yourself or for people around you. The results of the economic downturn driven by the pandemic. Even the need to isolate, work from home, social distance and remove yourself from potentially unsafe situations. All of this represents change we neither wanted nor saw coming.
Yes, change can be scary, and we may never truly get used to it, but developing mechanisms for coping with change can help to build resilience when change is upon us.
Here then are 6 ways to develop better coping mechanisms
1. Acknowledge the change
Embracing change can be hard but we should, at the very least, acknowledge it. Ignoring change – or avoidance coping – can have highly detrimental results because it leaves us unprepared, exposed to the impacts and vulnerable to the outcomes. Ultimately ignoring change leads to increased stress levels.
The first step we need to take on the road to approach coping is to step outside your comfort zone and acknowledge the change. This may feel less secure and even counterintuitive to some but the longer-term benefits are considerably less stressful.
2. Focus on what you can control
In his book ‘The 7 Habits of highly Effective People’, Dr Stephen Covey identified the circle of influence and the circle of concern – a proactive response tool that helps to focus our attention on factors over which we have some control.
Faced with the impacts of unexpected change, Dr Covey suggests we break down each aspect of the change into two categories. Those factors over which we have no control and those over which we have full or partial control. Those elements over which we have no control are then placed in the circle of concern. Yes, they may impact us but there isn’t anything we can do about it. In the current climate these may include such things as the spread of the virus, the behaviour of other people, the economical effects of the pandemic etc.
The remaining elements are those over which we have full or partial control. How you behave in public, what you can do to minimise potential exposure to the virus, your decision to wear a face mask or self-isolate etc.
Dr Covey suggests that, by focusing on those aspects of change over which we hold a measure of control, we increase our sense of situational control and reduce any associated stress.
3. Instead of asking ‘why’, ask ‘what’
Organisational Psychologist Dr Tasha Eurich in part studies self-awareness and the effects it has on our ability to cope with change. Dr Eurich’s studies on the effects of introspection identified that, when people introspected a lot, they tended to ask ‘why‘…Why did this happen to me? Why can’t things stay the way they are now? Why is it so much harder now? The problem with asking why is that it guides us toward a rear-view mirror perspective. Looking back results in depression and a general sense of lacking control.
The trick then is to ask ‘what’. What can I do to protect myself from the negative effects of these changes? What are the benefits of the new system? What can I do to make things easier? When we ask ‘what’ we are encouraged to look forward rather than back and we learn to embrace the new normal.
When you find yourself dealing with unexpected change try to identify the ‘why’ questions you are asking yourself and change them to ‘what’ questions.
4. Ask for help
Why are we sometimes afraid to ask for help? Is it because asking for help makes us feel weak? Is it because it makes us believe others will think less of us?
Asking for help can cause crippling anxiety. A sense of humiliation based on how we think the world will view us. But it doesn’t have to because asking for help when we need it can lead to better outcomes. In a productivity study conducted by MIT, researchers found organisations with an inculcated culture of helpfulness were far more productive than those without. This is because the people in the organisation understood they don’t need to know everything, they just need to work with people who can help them when they need it. This culture extended to employees’ ability to cope with change. People were more prepared to ask for help in coping with change because it wasn’t viewed as a sign of weakness.
If you find yourself feeling anxious about asking for help, try to remind yourself it isn’t weakness and that you will achieve better outcomes if you do.
5.Focus on the positives
Alison Ledgerwood and her team at UC Berkeley identified the human brain has a fundamental bias towards the negative side of any situation. This is really an evolutionary thing. Our brains are hard wired to look for danger and so it’s easier to see the negative side of things. But just because focusing on positivity is harder doesn’t mean it’s impossible, all it takes is some practice.
A great way to move towards a more positive focus is to talk with people you trust. Using open ended questions like ‘what are some of the benefits of this change?’ ‘How could this help you to grow and learn?’ or even simple questions like ‘What were two good things that happened to you today?’ Asking open ended questions of each other that focus on the positive side of change is a great way to begin building positive, resilient habits.
Seek out people who will help you focus on the positive side of change through open ended questions.
The health benefits of exercise are undeniable but studies have also shown that regular exercise can reduce the symptoms of depression. Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University. Her research into the brain changing benefits of exercise shows regular exercise increases focus, creativity and long-term memory and reduce stress. Increases in both focus and creativity allow you to direct your attention to your circle of influence and find creative ways to manage those change factors over which you have some control.
If you already exercise regularly, great. If you don’t, try to factor a thirty-minute cardio workout into your routine three to four times a week. If you currently find yourself working from home, use the time you would normally devote to your morning and afternoon commute to go for a walk. Over time you will begin to see some great benefits.
Maya Angelou once wrote “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude”. In the end, coping with change isn’t always easy but it’s always going to be something we must do. The world changes every day and we change with it. If you’re naturally prone to avoidance coping, practicing these coping mechanisms can help shift your perspective to a more effective approach coping mode.
After all, how we respond to change determines how we grow.