How to Ease the Stress of Change

changeWhat is it about change that’s so scary? It doesn’t matter if the change you’re experiencing is perceived as positive or negative, shifts from life as you know it can be interpreted as stressful.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in the context of my life. The past year has been overflowing with changes for me, including:

  • Getting married
  • Buying a house and moving
  • Two major hip surgeries
  • Transitioning to a new career after 15 years in comfortable career

All of these new and unfamiliar events had positive undertones, where life promised improvement with the shift. But even the most positive changes can cause large amounts of stress.

I attribute this to something I call “The What If Attack,” which is how my mind (and I suspect I’m not alone,) naturally processes uncertainty. I have the tendency to worry, and with change, I feel as though I’m being attacked by possible scenarios and potential roadblocks – most of which will never become a reality. The sum of the voices is what I refer to as “The What If Attack.” If you’re familiar with self-doubt and can relate to being a worrier, you probably know what I’m referring to.

In the past, I’ve lost this battle with uncertainty, which has left me feeling beaten down and overtaken by the voices in my head that focus on only the potential negative outcomes. This has stopped me many times from moving forward with opportunities. If you’re not aware of the voices and their insistence on starting a “What If Attack,” it’s easy to let them carry you away into a sea of stress when you’re faced with a change.

What Exactly Is Change?

The dictionary defines change as “the act or instance of making or becoming different.” When we refer to life changes, we’re really referring to a shift of any kind in life, it doesn’t need to be limited to one instance – it can be a transition in a relationship, emotional or physical state, family or work situation, environment, or otherwise. These shifts challenge what we know – not necessarily because they are innately challenging – but because they are different from what we know.

Your Brain Is Conditioned to Dread Change

The tricky thing with change is that it’s unfamiliar, which the brain translates as a threat. With new territories of learning come the uncertainty of the outcome.

When that uncertainty arms itself with “ The What If Attack” and I’m not prepared to fight back, I get overwhelmed by the stressful possibilities of failure that my mind creates. When this happens, I lose the battle.

Train Your Brain to Manage Change in a Healthy Way

Since your brain likes information and experiences that it understands, increasing your brain’s experience with change will help it feel more comfortable. Like anything in life, you get better with practice. Practice change and you’ll become more adept at handling it.

Meditation can also improve your capacity to respond to change. A consistent meditation practice will help you de-condition your reactions and habitual activity – i.e. reacting to change with “The What If Attack”— and increase your capacity to choose your response to change. Creating the pattern of pausing before reacting and speaking with conscious intention is a natural extension of meditation.

Fighting Back

The first step to fighting “The What If Attack” is to become aware that it’s happening. When faced with change, the fear of uncertainty and all of the “What Ifs” that come along with it is normal. Just because it’s normal, it doesn’t mean it’s helpful. Expect the “The What If Attack” and you’ll be prepared to respond in a healthy way, instead of allowing it to overtake you.

The second step is to accept the change. Even if you don’t agree with it, when you accept that it is happening, you are essentially aligning yourself with the reality that is the change. Removing that layer of resistance will make your life easier.

The third step is to have a conversation with the voices behind “The What If Attack.” Explain to them why you are moving through the transition and describe the potential positive outcomes that may result from the change. You may have to repeat this step. For every “What if you fail?” that comes from the other side of the battleground, respond with a “What if I succeed?” example. This step requires a mood of confidence, stability, and two feet on the ground.

With practice and awareness, you can step into times of change with ease instead of stress.

Here are nine more strategies you can use to help you cope with change and fight “The What If Attack.” Find the ones that suit you best and practice to ensure you’re taking charge and not letting the potential threats rule the roost.

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.