I love change. It drives me. I like the challenge of change; it energizes me. It also terrifies me. And I have no idea why. When major administrative changes hit my library recently (I’ve only been here for six months), I found the changes were energizing to me. In the space of two weeks our cataloger, director, head of IT and cataloging all went to short term or resigned.
Despite the staff shake-up, I proactively encouraged my coworkers to be excited about the changes. “This is a good thing,” I would positively say to them. “Change is good. It’s always nice to shake things up a bit.” I honestly believe these sentiment. Then, why do I have butterflies in my stomach? Why have I started chewing my nails again (ew, gross, I know)? I decided to look into it.
At the most basic, change produces anxiety; that’s the emotion that causes all of the nail-biting, butterfly-inducing, icky energy in our bodies and minds. The scientific definition of anxiety is “a multisystem response to a perceived threat or danger”. It is the culmination of biochemical changes in the body, recollection of personal history and memory, and the social situation at hand.
Now for the biology part: that sense of dread I have been experiencing? Yeah, that’s from my hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is where our “fight or flight” response is located and it’s an emergency reaction regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The coolest part of the ANS is that every animal has it. From Usain Bolt to a slug on a leaf, “fight or flight” is hard-wired into our brains, an evolutionary byproduct of evading predators. This is a comforting discovery, because it means no matter how much I consciously choose to be invigorated by change, subconsciously, I can’t help it. My hypothalamus will hijack my response every time.
If I know that I can’t control my subconscious response to change, how much can I control my conscious reaction? Surprisingly, quite a bit, though that doesn’t make it easy; much of how we internalize change is affected by how we construct our identity of self.
What does that even mean?
Here’s the psychological bit: the self is how an individual perceives himself or herself. It is a mental construct, and for everyone it is different. It’s the answer to the old question, “Who am I?” Our response to change is directly affected by our perception of self. Moreover, the self can be defined by different levels of inclusiveness, that is, through the different relationships we have with the people in our lives. Essentially, if you define much of your “self” as it pertains to others: mother, brother, coworker, friend, and if any of those relationships is affected by change, then your concept of self must be redefined. And for some people that is terrifying, which is why there can be so much resistance to change. In order to better cope with stress, you have to revise your perception of self to also include intrinsic aspects, like self-enhancement and personal growth, which are less affected by change.
The workplace is the environment that many people find to be the most stressful. I’ve worked in a university, in retail and finally, my dream job, in a library. There’s been a joke used in every breakroom in which I’ve spent time; you’ve probably heard it before or something similar. “Can’t take a vacation around here; everything changes while you’re gone.” Usually relayed with sarcasm, the sentence is also a passive-aggressive complaint. Change is so commonplace in the workplace that it’s as unifying a concept as an angry customer, hard-headed boss or lunch-stealing coworker. And yet, we still fear change. There are endless manuals for organizations for implementing occupational change, without causing the staff any undue stress. But the recommendations for coping with organizational change all seem to follow a few basic principles:
- Expect change.
- Accept and make the best of change.
- Learn from the change.
Knowing what I know now, I feel better about my anxiety. I know that I can’t help the butterflies or the nail-biting (mostly). But at least I don’t have to let it get in the way of how I learn from the change. I’m choosing to be positive about change.
- Mitchell, Mark A. The Gale Encyclopedia of Nursing and Allied Health, 3rd Edition. (2013) Cengage Learning.
- Wisse, Barbara and Sleebos, Ed. When Change Causes Stress: Effects of Self-Construal and Change Consequences. (2016) J Bus Psychology 31:249-264
Cross, Kay L. Coping with Change. (2006) IDEA Fitness Journal 5: 104-5