Grinding the gears: When change feels overwhelming
Case study by SJ Whitaker
Change is usually considered a positive commodity in many societies, and even difficult changes are given a positive spin. But for some people, change is always traumatic and this can be hard for others to understand.
Have you noticed how some drivers seem to change through the gears effortlessly, whilst others seem to grind from one to another, no matter how long they have been driving? The same applies to how we process changes in our lives: some people are able to assimilate change fairly smoothly, yet for others it can seem like an insurmountable challenge – every time.
Change is inevitable. Nature is in a constant process of flux. The human body is continuously regenerating, replacing old cells with new ones. This movement and flow is reflected in the circumstances of our lives. As much as we may want to keep the status quo, it is virtually impossible to maintain. Even if we manage it for a while, there is a kind of stagnation that arises from deliberately trying to stop growth, development and change. It can cause a negative reaction that eventually forces a change whether we want it or not.
When facing change, whether large or small, most people will experience mixed emotions, even if the change is apparently a positive or sought-after one. There can be excitement about the new job, change of location, relationship, yet anxiety about how it will affect us, whether it will be better than what we have now, or worse. We wonder if we will be overwhelmed or able to cope with it. We might also experience sadness at the loss of our current situation. These feelings are understandable and generally overcome by ‘just doing it’, accepting the situation and going with the flow. If we express anxiety about a new venture, many people will smile and say something along the lines of, “Oh, you’ll be fine once you get used to it. It’s exciting! This could be really good for you.” If the change is going to cause hardship, the reply can be “I’m sure it will all turn out fine.”
More often than not, for most people this is true, or else they adapt and gain a new perspective of their situation. And yet what happens as a result of the ‘new’ is neither here nor there, especially given the fact that we already know change is inevitable. It will come whether we want it or not. The trick is to be able to ‘live life on life’s terms’ and accept whatever comes our way. We don’t need to approve of it, and it doesn’t have to be forever (it can’t be, because change is inevitable!) but we do need to accept it, or we will have no peace and our life experience will be miserable. For most people this is a continuous journey of learning.
Change can be harder for some
However, not everyone’s psychological armoury is equipped to deal with change this successfully. For some people, change is extremely difficult to process – even the very idea of change can seem impossible to manage. It brings up intense anxiety and fear, feels completely unacceptable, and creates deep distress. Given the prevailing attitude towards change, such individuals may receive little empathy or compassion for the intensity of their feelings. It may just seem like ‘an over-reaction’ to the majority of people. For the sufferer, levels of distress vary in intensity, depending on the person, and their physical and mental state of being.
People with autistic spectrum condition (ASC), for example, often find change almost unbearable. This is not just the huge life changes, but smaller alterations to routines, or unexpected situations. Unexpected change is one of the most difficult things for people with ASC to process. It could be as simple as thinking a certain event was going to happen at a certain time with certain people, but then the time is altered or a new person is added. People with ASC have a varying intensity of reaction and response, depending where they are on the spectrum, but The National Autistic Society puts it this way:
“The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic people, who often prefer to have a daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. They may want to always travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast.”
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For people with ASC, who often have High Sensitivity* as well, the world can feel very intense. Dr Therese Joliffe, of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, describes reality for an autistic person as, “...a confusing, interacting mass of events, people, places, sounds and sights... Set routines, times, particular routes and rituals all help to get order into an unbearably chaotic life. Trying to keep everything the same reduces some of the terrible fear.”
There is also another recognised mental health condition called Metathesiophobia – Fear of Change. More than just fear of change, it is often an irrational fear, causing individuals to try and avoid any change in their current circumstances. Even natural changes in their lives will often feel unacceptable and lead to extreme anxiety and even panic attacks.
A person who suffers from Metathesiophobia usually experiences severe anxiety when their surroundings change, even in a very small way. This intense anxiety leads to a desperate desire to keep safe.
According to Psych Times, people with metathesiophobia can be described like so: “(They may) try their hardest to control their life and all of the events in it to ensure that no unexpected change occurs. In short, this will inevitably fail. Thus, leaving the person with metathesiophobia to feel even more anxiety as they are not able to control all of the events in their life.”
Like ASC, the experience of Metathesiophobia varies in its intensity depending on the person but it is characterised by a need to control circumstances and feel safe at all times. Sadly, life does not work that way, and the fear itself takes over. Increasing demands to control situations backfire eventually and also severely limit a person’s opportunities. A person with many talents and abilities may never fully realise their potential through repeated missed opportunities driven by fear. Not feeling safe in the world is often at the heart of it. For some this may go back to childhood experiences of change that felt traumatic.
Methods to manage the fear
Whatever the reasons, if you are reading this and identify with any of what has been written, the good news is that there are tools we can learn to manage change, and cope with our condition. There is also some evidence that, by repeated exposure to new ways of dealing with change, we can help to create new neural pathways in the brain. This is called Neuroplasticity**: the brain's ability to change and adapt to new information. Some of us may always still react more intensely to change, but we can develop ways to deal with it.
Strategies to help people with ASC could also be adapted to help others who struggle with change, as described by the Autism Society:
Understand the change
Find out as much as you can about the change, when it will happen and what it will look like, all the little details to help you really understand the height and depth and breadth of the new situation. Being specific takes away a little of that fear of the unknown.
Describe the change
Be able to talk about the change with others, rather than keeping it all in your head. Be honest. Talk repeatedly if necessary, and mark on the calendar when things will happen.
Use visual aids
Photos and pictures of the change may make fear worse, but creating a picture board of all the steps in the process of change may help to give the mind time to manage it all.
For many people, it isn’t enough to simply work on a surface level, we need also to do a deeper dive into causes and conditions or the new tools won’t work. Rooting out the fear and finding out what is at the heart of it (i.e. not feeling safe, and why) will help.
In the Psychology world, although there is no specific treatment for Metathesiaphobia, a variety of techniques have been used. These include:
Medication, such as anti-depressants
Talking therapies like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) – DBT suggests many useful coping mechanisms which can be learned, including mindfulness meditation
Exposure therapy – subjecting people to regular changes to acclimatise them to change can also help, but it is of limited benefit for some, unless we deal with the underlying issues
So, take heart if your instinctive reaction to change is always in the negative. Employ the three P’s. You can PAUSE, come back to the present moment, to a deeper sense of self, in which we are always ok; PONDER - remember that there are tools that can be practised that will help make the change more manageable; and PROCEED, start to respond in a new way, which may also include being honest with others and reaching out for connection. A change may not ever feel like plain sailing for you, but it might just be more manageable. In mental health recovery, we talk of ‘progress’ not ‘perfection’.
From the author’s own experience
For me, it has been important to find out what is at the core of my extreme reaction to change – it turns out to be a mixture of things, both physiological and psychological.
One aspect that I could definitely identify was fear, and it felt like a very deep, abstract fear. This led me on to root out a childhood trauma reaction that had carried on into adulthood. Knowing this helped me to discover ways to begin healing and changing my habitual response to change. It is slow. I may always react more intensely than some people, but I am on a journey of personal growth that I hope will continue for my lifetime. A whole new article could be written on this, but here are few of the things that help me to heal/manage my issues with change:
Building my self-esteem – low self-image and shame often goes hand in hand with fear
Knowing that the ‘inner me’ is always ok, regardless of changing circumstances, comfort or discomfort. Knowing that I am not my Mind, which is always fear-based and will make every situation feel like a catastrophe
Keeping things in the day, or the moment, and not projecting into a vast fearful future. We only ever really have NOW
Meditation – the struggle with learning to meditate has reaped so many rewards in terms of inner peace. I have a long way to go with this and it can be frustrating, but it is so worth it. This also helps draw me back to the moment
Connection – not being isolated in my own head, but sharing or reaching out to others. Being honest with myself and others – as honest as I can be at any one time
Separating the Mind from my Inner Being, or my Heart – The mind is Ego-based and mostly fear-driven, and tells me lies and over-exaggerates the situation so I lose all perspective