Change anxiety: Is your brain holding you back?
Facing something new presents us with a choice between taking shelter and taking charge.
Recently, Slate magazine ran a piece in which a married couple described the root cause of most of the arguments they’d had in the decade or so they’d been together. It boiled down to a basic difference in outlook: one of them wanted adventure while the other sought stability.
The couple had moved several times during their marriage, living in locations as far-flung as New Zealand, Australia, and the US. For the wife, change was refreshing and invigorating. It opened up new possibilities. For her husband, change meant risk and uncertainty. It needed consideration and contingencies.
“I see risk-aversion as banality, boredom, giving into convention,” was how the wife explained her stance. Her husband, however, felt it was better to be more circumspect.
“I just like to think things through. I tend to be more deliberate in my decision-making,” he said. “Being aware of the downside kind of gets outsourced to me.”
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, neither was “right” or “wrong”. Both approaches have their merits and drawbacks.
Without adventure and novelty, life would become dull and repetitive. Yet without stability and planning, it would become vulnerable and chaotic.
The brain’s complex relationship with change
The couple’s story perfectly sums up the conflicting energies we’re all familiar with: we want excitement while simultaneously craving security.Fears such as “What if everyone laughs at me? What if I fail? What if I look foolish?” are potent deterrents to trying something new. Click To Tweet
People are complex like that. Our brains are hardwired at a very basic level to fear the unknown. There’s a specific region of the brain that’s responsible for this.
Located in the temporal lobe, the amygdala gives us the survival instincts that keep us out of harm’s way. The entrepreneur and author Seth Godin refers to it as our “lizard brain” – a legacy of our evolution that’s concerned only with the rudiments of life:
“The idea of the ‘lizard brain’ is this: it is hungry, scared, selfish, and it is horny. That’s its job, and that’s all it does.”
As the diagram shows, the amygdala doesn’t represent a particularly large portion of the brain, but its influence on our day-to-day actions is considerable. For one thing, it prefers routine.
Since change is unpredictable – and therefore a threat – the amygdala forcefully resists it. According to Godin, most people will actively look for objections to change so they can pacify their panicking lizard brain. Fears such as “What if everyone laughs at me? What if I fail? What if I look foolish?” are potent deterrents to trying something new. Indeed, the closer you get to making a change, the stronger the amygdala’s resistance becomes. As a result, many capitulate to their primal instincts and allow life to continue on as before.
The problem with letting the amygdala run the show in this way is that change won’t occur until it arrives into your life uninvited. That’s typically not a good position to be in. It likely means you’ve renounced control so you have little say over what happens or when. This can have all kinds of effects on relationships, careers, or personal health.
Comfort zone to twilight zone: The big businesses that resisted change
But individuals aren’t alone in fearing change; many large companies have been just as reluctant to try new things.
One noteworthy example was video rental chain Blockbuster. With thousands of rental stores worldwide during its heyday in the early noughties, the company became synonymous with weekend movie nights. At the peak of its success, it boasted over 80,000 employees.
Then a competitor appeared on the scene.
Netflix was originally a mail order service that didn’t charge late rental fees. Blockbuster didn’t take this advantage too seriously and even had the chance to buy its upstart rival back in 2000 for a reported $50 million. But while Blockbuster was content to sit on its laurels, Netflix fully embraced change, leveraging improved web connectivity in homes and the popularizing of digital devices to launch a streaming service that delivered movies straight to users no matter what their preferred device. The company is now estimated to be worth around $130 billion, while Blockbuster has, well, sadly blockbusted.While Blockbuster was content to sit on its laurels, Netflix embraced change, leveraging improved web connectivity in homes and the popularizing of digital devices to launch a streaming service that delivered movies straight to users. Click To Tweet
There are numerous similar falls from grace. Another famous case is Kodak.
Having established outright dominance in the camera market, the company maintained its position for close to a century, but its hegemony masked a slow demise behind the scenes. Threatened by the popularity of Polaroid’s instant developing cameras in the late 1940s, Kodak copied its rivals innovation and was later sued by them for stealing its idea. In 1990, it was forced to pay its rival damages to the tune of around $1 billion.
Things would then go from bad to worse for Kodak with the rise of digital. Rather than look to innovate using the new technology that was available, Kodak took the narrow view that digital was an enemy to its chemical-based film. In the end, Kodak’s real enemy was its own stubborn refusal to fully embrace a technology it had ironically helped develop years before.
From the forest to the cloud: Overcoming change anxiety
While the lizard brain is a powerful survival apparatus, it is also an ancient one. It kept our ancestors on high alert for potential dangers when wandering the forests and plains in search of food, but its scope was limited. So as time went by the brain continued to evolve, developing new capacities to help us not just survive, but thrive.
“As evolution came along that little one went there and then we grew this new one on top – the limbic system and the neocortex,” says Godin. “That part is all about how do I share? How do I be loyal? How do I connect? And then the part on top of that is: How do I come up with a really cool way to do something? How do I break tradition? How do I challenge the status quo?”
The brain’s higher-order cognitive functions are capable of imagining future events and spotting opportunities for improving one’s present position. The problems begin when the higher-order brain functions tell you one thing and the amygdala tells you another.
Attempting to overcome the lizard brain’s powerful resistance to change is hard work. Godin uses the example of blowing a large balloon – the first few breaths are the most difficult, but then things get progressively easier.
Developing this ability to wrestle control from the amygdala has probably never been more important. Technology is advancing so rapidly around us that the world of today is barely recognizable from the world of half a century ago.From how we work to how we learn – technology is disruptively affecting just about every aspect of our daily lives, making change as much an obligation for us as it is an opportunity. Click To Tweet
At times it seems as though a new startup appears every five minutes, offering some pioneering technology that challenges the status quo in some dazzling new way. From how we work to how we shop, from how we travel to how we learn – technology is disruptively affecting just about every aspect of our daily lives, making change as much an obligation for us as it is an opportunity. Dwelling on the safety of the past carries with it the danger of staying there too: age-old habits can easily become restraints. As novelist Paulo Coelho once wrote:
“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.”
Whether we seek it or not, change is inevitable, and that prospect can make it scary for many. But recognizing that we all have the ability to control change makes it exciting too. So when you feel that urge to resist doing something new, just remember the first few breaths are the hardest.