Change…the only constant. Sure…they may be right but nobody said it’s always fun. Author, speaker and change expert MJ Ryan is here for all of us dealing with change with her new book “Adaptability: How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For.” With over 1.75 million books with her name on them in print, MJ Ryan is a big voice in the motivation category and is well known for her role in creating the bestselling “Random Acts of Kindness” series as well her books, “Attitudes of Gratitude,” “This Year I Will,” “The Power of Patience” and more.
It’s with great pleasure that we welcome MJ Ryan to Smart Planet.
MJ, why is change so hard?
When it’s change we didn’t ask for, it disrupts our sense of control. We realize that we’re not totally in charge of our lives and that can feel scary. In addition to having to cope with difficult feelings, our brains may be working against us. Let me explain.
We have two parts of our brain involved in responding to change. One is the amygdala, which we share with all mammals and reptiles. It scans for pain/pleasure, safety/danger. When it perceives danger or pain, it triggers the fight, flight or freeze response, which interferes with our ability to think well about our situation and has us running in fear or stuck in denial (freeze) or railing about our situation (fight). That’s why I say change is not the enemy, fear is.
The other part of our brain at work is our cortex. It likes habit so it wants to keep doing what it’s always done and sees the world the way it has in the past. So it isn’t necessarily happy to have to adapt and may not even perceive the situation accurately. That’s because, when a change hits, your cortex take in the facts and create a story to explain what’s happened. It can’t help but do this.
What story you tell yourself has everything to do with whether you cope well or poorly with what’s occurring. Stories that don’t help us have one or more three dangerous Ps: personal (it’s all my fault or it’s only happening to me); permanent (it will be like this forever); and pervasive (it’s ruined my entire life). We need to catch ourselves in these stories and turn them around: other people are going through the same thing; it’s only temporary; and there are still parts of my life that are enjoyable.
When change is accompanied by fear how do you suggest we deal with that fear?
First, you need to acknowledge that you are afraid. Labeling it helps you gain a bit of control of the cortex over the amygdala so it doesn’t run so wild. I give a great meditation in my book for calming down the amygdala that can also be helpful.
Then you need to find out what will help you feel safer and in more control. These can be actions, like getting more information, or attitudes, like reminding yourself you can get through this time. Or perhaps you need support from other folks. Or all of the above.
You’ve defined some truths about change. Can you share them?
The most challenging one is that change is the only thing we can actually count on. How and when things will change none of us know. But that everything will is absolutely guaranteed. The Buddha called this awareness the First Noble Truth—the fact that everything in life is impermanent. Fighting against that truth only causes us suffering, he taught, because it’s fighting against reality. Accepting that truth diminishes our suffering because we’re in alignment with the way life is. Night follows day, winter follows summer, the moon waxes and wanes. Our work and personal lives will change—guaranteed--and we need to be ready with the appropriate attitudes and actions so that we minimize the negative impacts on ourselves and capitalize on any opportunities. When we are aware of change, we suffer less when it happens and can see the signs earlier so are ahead of the wave. This gives us a distinct advantage in responding.
Another is that we are all resilient. According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is the human ability to adapt in the face of tragedy, trauma, adversity, hardship, and ongoing significant life stressors.” Research by psychology professors Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun shows that not only do we have the ability to grow through the challenges of our life, what they call post-traumatic growth, but the benefits of doing so include improved relationships, new possibilities for our lives, a greater appreciation for life, a greater sense of personal strength, and spiritual development. Psychology professor George Bonnano of Columbia and other resiliency experts say it comes from a commitment to finding meaning in what’s happening to you, a belief in your capacity to create a positive outcome, the willingness to grow, and the choice to laugh and be grateful.
Can you share some tips for surviving the change you didn’t plan for?
1. Focus on the solution, not the problem. Because society rewards analytic thinking, we believe that identifying the cause is the answer: Why is this happening. That’s a starting point, but don’t spend too much time there. What are you going to do about where you are?
2. Don’t waste time or energy on blame. Focus rather on getting as much information about current reality as possible and expand your thinking to consider as many options to deal with it as possible.
3. What opportunities has this change created that I/we can take advantage of? How can I/we turn this situation to our advantage? These are classic entrepreneurial questions that can work for all of us.
4. What if you don’t believe you have the confidence or talent to find a solution? Pretend you do. Turns out that “fake it till you make it” has validity in brain science—the thoughts we hold and actions you take really do create new pathways in your brain. “As we act, so we become,” as Sharon Begley puts it in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.
5. If you find yourself worrying all the time, set aside a 15 minute worry time, say 5pm every day. Then when your mind starts worrying at other times, tell yourself it’s not worry time and distract yourself—read a good book, do a puzzle, something that occupies your mind.
Learn more about MJ, her books and sign up for her survival tips Here.