Dealing with change is undoubtedly the most stressful thing for humans to have to endure. No, allow me to rephrase that. Stress isn’t caused by change – change becomes stressful when we don’t adapt or roll with the punches. There are times when life throws you a barrage of many small, new – or even just slightly different – situations, people, rules, restrictions and routines, such as moving house or changing jobs. Then there’s the sucker punch of change that you don’t even see coming, the one that leads to an avalanche of sudden difficult decisions – think divorce or losing a loved one. And sometimes life tries to knock you out entirely with a combination of both: a global pandemic that changes absolutely everything, for everyone.
Yet, nothing in life is constant. Change is inevitable. Whether you roll with it or fight against it, it’s going to happen. When you think about it, it’s not change itself that we don’t like. It’s the uncertainty, loss of control, unexpectedness and upset of the status quo we have gotten so used to that we don’t like. It’s completely normal to feel these emotions. The trick is to not sit with them for too long. Feel them, acknowledge them and then move on. In other words: roll with the punches.
So what can we do to be OK with change? When you are irritated for having to wear a mask, or tired from home schooling and working, or when you no longer have precious alone time twice a day to listen to music or read a book on the train? How do you get your head around all this newness when you can’t sleep because you wish things could return to how they were?
Here are a few suggestions:
Everyone is different
Remember that you are not the only one going through this shift in ways of working, shopping, travelling and socialising. Even if you are super adaptable and not at all fazed, others will be. Everyone deals with change differently and at their own pace, and we need to be mindful of these differences.
If dealing with change is about being adaptable, it’s also about making the decisions required for adaptability. In 1987, Alan Row and Richard Mason identified four decision-making styles. Each style has different characteristics:
- Analytical coping strategy – You see change as a challenging puzzle that can be solved as long as you have the time to gather information and draw conclusions. You will resist change if you are not given enough time to think it through.
- Behavioural coping strategy – You want to know how everyone feels about the changes ahead. You work best when you know there is support for the change. If the change adversely affects someone close to you, you will perceive change as a crisis.
- Conceptual coping strategy – You are interested in how change fits into the bigger picture. You want to be involved in defining what needs to change and why. You will resist change if you feel excluded from participating in the change process.
- Directive coping strategy – You want specifics on how the change will affect you and what your role will be during the process. If you know the rules of the change process and the desired outcome, you will act quickly. You resist change if the rules or procedures are not clearly defined.
Can you see yourself in any of these descriptions? What about when you think about how your boss typically makes decisions? Or your work bestie? Once you have a rough idea of what you and your closest colleague’s decision-making styles are, you will know how to reduce anxiety around change.
Let’s use the example of having to return to the office post-lockdown:
Analyticals should give themselves plenty of time to consider and gather as much information as possible about the best train, cycling or walking routes to get to the office. Behaviourals should stay in touch with colleagues to offer and receive support for the first day back in the office. Conceptuals and Directives rely heavily on information, so should seek out what is required.
When the Conceptual Lawyer can’t provide the Analytical Secretary with a floorplan showing exactly where the hand sanitizers will be located, because he is happy enough just knowing that there will be “some around the office”, that is going to lead to frustration and even fear on the Secretary’s part.
If you’re the person in charge of readying the office for the return of staff, it is imperative that information is shared well in advance and that the information is as detailed as possible. Some people don’t need or want the details, but others take great comfort in knowing everything.
We’re in this together
It might seem impossible to focus on someone else’s needs when you yourself are struggling, but research has shown that once you can look outside yourself and take the time to be kind to someone else when they have to deal with change, you will have a more positive outlook. Brain imaging studies indicate that kind and compassionate feelings cause physical changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the area associated with positive emotions. The area grows, just as a muscle would do when exercised, with repeated acts of kindness. As a result, it becomes easier to access the positive emotions area of the brain, which in turns makes it easier to have a positive outlook in general.
There’s no point denying it
It helps to accept that things have changed (again). No matter how tempting it is to pretend that everything is still the same, it really isn’t. It’s actually more stressful to deny reality than it is to say to yourself “Things have changed, and I’m OK with that.” Repeat this mantra as many times as you need to.
You are not powerless
Focus on what you can change. In the most basic of terms, that’s your breathing. If anxiety sets in at the mere thought of going back to the office, the Square Breathing technique will help you slow down your breath. Start by breathing out completely. Then take a deep breath to a count of four, hold to a count of four, breathe out to a count of four, and hold for a count of four. Repeat.
On a practical level, think about what aspects of working from home and/or returning to the office are within your control. If your office gives you a choice of hours for the return, that’s in your control. If you work from home, you decide what to do with the time you would have spent on your commute. That’s in your control.
Take it easy
Pace yourself. Adapting to change can’t happen overnight, so don’t force yourself to get to grips with it all in one go. Break it down into smaller, manageable parts. For example, first try to get used to wearing a mask on the bus. When you feel more comfortable with that, pat yourself on the back and work on accepting that you will have to queue on the pavement for your Pret sandwich. (On the other hand, you could take a packed lunch to work and regain a bit of control over how you spend your lunch break.) Take it one day at a time and be kind to yourself. Some days you may find you take everything in your stride, other days it will feel like a battle. That’s OK too, as long as you try again tomorrow.
You’ve come this far
You’ve been through changes before, and you survived. You can do it again. And hey, any changes in your life post-COVID-19 are going to feel like a walk in the park (while keeping an appropriately safe distance) in comparison.
Article by Natasja King FILS.
Natasja is a Fellowship Member of ILSPA, currently working as a Legal PA at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in London. Natasja has more than 20 years’ experience as a Legal Secretary and PA and has worked in both the UK and South Africa. She is currently studying towards an Integrated Resilience & Wellness Coaching qualification.