The brain on change

Change is stressful and can be hard to accept, but our brains are up to the challenge.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Everything around us is constantly changing. Your environment changes as you move to a new place. Your favorite local pub updates its menu to fit people’s new eating habits (maybe that vegan sandwich is worth a try after all). Every once in a while, you have to renew your email password because, no matter how hard you try, you never remember it. Whatever it is, change is always a challenging experience to adapt to, but our brain allows us to do so.

Why is change so challenging for us?

Change pushes us to adjust our idea of reality in order to integrate new pieces of information. This affects our sense of safety, making us feel tense and alert. In this context, we tend to switch to an instinctive flight-or-fight response mode. As a result, our interactions with others become more difficult and our daily routines and biological rhythms (e.g., sleep, eating habits, etc.) are disturbed. For example, an American research team suggested that changing the country could affect our gut and the bacteria that live in it.

The reaction to change lies in human evolution.

Evolutionists suggest that the way we react to change is acquired from our ancestors. The survival of our ancestors was so dependent on understanding social cues and environments that any change occurring was potentially lethal. Although nowadays our chances of survival are much higher, we remain largely dependent on our environmental context.

Although change is challenging, our brains are wired to handle changes.

Our brains process changes by continuously updating and storing new information in the so-called working memory. Here new inputs are processed and integrated with previous knowledge that is stored in long-term memory. This experience requires many back-and-forth exchanges between this working (short-term) memory and the long-term one, conveyed by connections between brain cells, also known as synapses. As change occurs, our prior knowledge needs to be updated, and new synapses are formed, sometimes replacing old ones. This ability to make new connections means that our brains are incredibly plastic: it changes in response to changes in our environment.

Supported by our plastic brains, how do we react to change and successfully manage it?

Apparently, there are four stages of change management. An initial phase of denial leads to a subsequent state of anger and resentment, which generates internal stress that needs to be overcome. It is thus necessary to go into an exploratory state, which allows us to recognize what benefits new information or situations bring us. This leaves us with the final stage: acceptance. Embracing change is the only way to fully process and adapt to the new information.

Author: Martina Arenella
Buddy: Kim Beneyton
Editor: Rebecca Calcott
Translation: Wessel Hieselaar
Editor translation: Jill Naaijen

Photo credit geralt via Pixabay

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