The coming of the new decade brought a lot of unexpected changes none of us could have prepared for. These are certainly not the optimistic ones we wished about and toasted to the first minute of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant changes in many aspects of our lives, from the way we interact with people to the blase attitude we may have had on hand hygiene and disinfection. Things we used to take for granted are now done with the utmost care, lest we want to fall victim to the illness. It is no surprise, therefore, that with this major “shock” in the system and life as we know it, there have been increased reports of people feeling depressed and afraid. The isolation, the loss of income, change in lifestyle, personal and professional goals having to take a backseat, and the illness itself is mentally draining.
Motivational quotes tell us that change is inevitable. True. We do experience change in every aspect of our lives, although we do not always notice it. We only take note of it when it has a significant impact on us socially, physically, emotionally, and mentally. We must also remember, however, that it does not mean we are not allowed to feel apprehensive about it. After all, humans are predisposed to stick to what is familiar and comfortable. Just because change is one of the universal truths in life, does not mean that we would not be afraid of it. We ought not to be, yes, but that is unfortunately not the way we are wired. That does not mean, however, that just because it is a normal human condition, it is healthy. Depending on one’s psychological make-up, how we deal with fear could have negative implications that require intervention.
The first step is acknowledging the fear, and then validating it as NORMAL. That is already a big step that not all people get to do successfully because that in itself manifests a change in the psyche. Most people accept an idea more readily when they understand it. Now that we know why the fear of change is normal, let us find out how and why.
The amygdala is a part of the brain whose primary function is processing and regulating emotions. When we are exposed to fearful stimuli, the amygdala sends signals to other areas of the brain that will activate a “fight or flight” response. It is the one that initiates a fearful response. There are even times when it bypasses the rational part of the brain (cerebral cortex), meaning before we even make sense of what is happening that is so frightening that the amygdala has already sent signals to activate the fight or flight response. This is because it also plays an important role in forming memories that are associated with fear-inducing events. This is a biological function designed to protect us from danger, but this well-intended mechanism could become a problem. Fortunately, as there are ways to “train” the amygdala to associate certain stimuli with fearful memories, we can use this to our benefit to “re-train”, or at least, let the rational, logical parts of the brain, take over.
Figure the root cause of fear. Write down, in more specific terms, what aspects of change you are most afraid of. During this stage, one might usually find out that the fear comes from negative experiences similar to the perceived fear. They are beliefs, although valid, based on assumptions that may or may not even happen at all. Another reason is, we aren’t really afraid of the ‘change’ itself. We know inherently that it is inevitable. What we are afraid of is the UNFAMILIARITY that comes with it. There are, of course, more external factors to consider, but as we are talking about the fear of change, we will focus on the fact that we are essentially challenging the brain to reconsider a response that will, ultimately, be healthier for us mentally.
With what has been written down, determine which of these fears you have control over, and which you do not. Most people find relief when they can be in control of the outcome of a situation. Unfortunately, we will go through life encountering things we cannot control, things that are beyond us. We can, however, control how we react to what we cannot control by being more mindful of our thoughts.
Mindful.org defines mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we are doing. When we are mindful, we are not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us. As it is a basic human ability, it is something we only need to learn how to access. Once we learn .how to consciously center our thoughts, usually through meditation, it will be easier to address any fears we may have, and act (or NOT act) on them as rationally as we can.
Note that this is a process that is not going to, well, change us, overnight. The first few attempts to just let all thoughts be will be challenging. There will be resistance, the need to go back to what is familiar, and that is perfectly normal. It takes time to rewire the brain. In other words, even with discipline, it takes a minimum of 21 days to develop new habits.
Related to this, it is important, throughout the process, to continue treating ourselves with compassion, especially on the days we revert to old negative thought patterns. Writing down these bad days also helps because not only do we get to vent, we get to put into concrete thought the triggers we need to be more aware of.
The more we understand something, through processing our thoughts and becoming more aware of what makes us afraid and dealing with that, change need not be as scary as we are making it out to be. We may even actually find ourselves looking forward to it.
By Nicole Alberto
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