The Brain on Change

Most people see change as difficult and thus resist it adamantly.  I see this happen often among all types of individuals and teams.  It’s due in large part to a fear of the unknown that change represents.  This fear then shows up as resistance that can block or stall organizational change efforts.

What many people don’t realize is that when a person is highly resistant to change, their brain is most likely activating a neurological stress response in the body.  As human beings, we are biologically wired to enter a stress response when we encounter a situation that makes us anxious or afraid.  Under stress, the sympathetic nervous system sends a signal to the brain’s prefrontal cortex command center.  The brain responds by diverting the body’s attention to a “fight, flight or freeze” survival mode and away from activities that create opportunity and help a person thrive.

In primitive times, this stress response helped our ancestors fight or run from predators.  Today, it can be triggered by a fear of change, causing us to resist by pushing back, fleeing some situation, or simply “checking out”.

When addressing change and resistance, we can get the best possible outcome by being aware of and managing this stress response.  You are probably in a stress response if you are feeling:

  • Unfocused
  • Overly focused (obsessed, “tunnel vision”)
  • Impatient
  • Anxious
  • Your heart rate increasing
  • Your breath becoming shallow
  • Your muscles tightening

Notice your reactions to change, using your body as a source of information.  If you become aware of one of the stress response signs listed above, let that be a piece of information.  Awareness and understanding allow you to work with the response in a productive way, instead of getting hooked and stuck in it.  You can stop and calm your response – even retrain your brain – through mindfulness, relaxation and other techniques.

Keep these things in mind when facing change.  Be kind to yourself and others going through change.  You might find that when you shift your attitude and response to change, it can in fact be easy and a positive thing.