Hijacked by Your Brain

How to free yourself when stress takes over

Are You Capable of Change?

Change can be truly life affirming if we use it to sharpen and focus our minds.

We’re more than a month into 2014 and already, it’s happened. Most of our New Year’s resolutions have been abandoned, forgotten, or somehow just fallen off our radar screens as we rush through our hectic lives.

Yet, only a month ago, when the year was still new and it was the time for a fresh start, our resolutions meant something important to us. Each resolution was—and still is—a statement to ourselves that something serious needed to change. We know we can’t stay stuck in our familiar ruts. We’re ready to be a better version of ourselves.

So where did that resolve go? What happened to the determination to make a fresh start and replace old habits with wise choices?

Change is painful and can feel impossible sometimes because it triggers our body’s inner alarm system. The alarm in your brain, the amygdala, doesn't like it when something is different. Different could mean trouble. So the alarm tells our body to pump out the stress hormones and pulls up distressing thoughts and feelings from our memory centers, in order to drive us to get back to what seems like a comfortable place of old habits.

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But you are more capable of change than you know. Every day we make numerous changes, and we don’t realize it. You think you're stressed by your fast paced life; you feel like everything is chaotic. But you constantly adapt, taking charge and making your life as good as it can be even when it is ambiguous and complex. We may not like change, but it is, in fact, what’s sets us free from the worst aspects of stress: the tedious grind of not really living when we're stuck on autopilot.

There are three kinds of change that trigger the brain’s alarm: unexpected, traumatic, and planned. In each situation, there is an opportunity right alongside the crisis, a way to focus that will allow you to handle change with a sense of calm and confidence.

Unexpected change, whether a re-org at work or a snowstorm that was supposed to be fair skies, brings with it the alarm’s signals that something is wrong. Those alarm signals may take the form of feelings of sadness, worry, guilt, or frustration. Mindless habits can be a distraction from those unpleasant feelings and the uncomfortable thoughts that accompany them—but nothing really changes. As a result, our inner alarm stays turned on and sooner or later we’re feeling upset or miserable again, and nothing has changed for the better. The way to make unexpected change an opportunity is to pay attention to the challenge that change is posing, instead of trying to distract ourselves. Whether change happens for a reason or is just random, it always poses a challenge: to re-examine the beliefs or choices, the lifestyles or relationships, that we have taken for granted and might either need more thoughtful attention or serious reconsideration.

Traumatic change, whether natural disaster, violence, or a serious accident or sudden illness, turns our alarm on red alert. That's when we feel like the world is going to end, or that the world as we knew it really has ended. Traumatic change confronts us with an immediate challenge—survival, and a much longer-term challenge—transforming our lives to preserve what we value while adjusting to a radically new “normal.”

The brain’s alarm is an expert at the adjustment process, but it takes the whole brain, and the heart, to remember that there is more to life after trauma than just survival. In the wake of traumatic change, focusing on our core values and life commitments can be incredibly difficult, yet those are the constants that are the best—and often only—guide when trauma forces us to confront deeply painful changes.

Finally, there’s planned change, for example the changes you resolved to make for this new year. Planned change may seem much easier than change that is unexpected or traumatic, but it still makes us uncomfortable. We know it's happening, we don't like it, but we have time to prepare for the discomfort.

When planned changes get stalled or left unfinished or never really started, it’s not a lack of desire in most cases, but our alarm that shuts us down. To the alarm, change, even planned change, equals danger. It takes more discipline to set a goal and stick with it when the change is coming from our own decisions rather than from unexpected or traumatic events. But when the goal is based on what we truly value in life and who we are as a person, that focus can make change really happen. The key to sustained success in making a planned change is to pay as much, if not more, attention to the push-back from your brain’s alarm as to the change itself.

We’ve found a good way to do this is to create a new habit that is mindful, rather than mindless like most other habits. The habit is mental focusing. It is as simple as one-two-three, or as we’ve learned to do it, S-O-S:

  1. Sweep your mind clear, take a break from all the racing thoughts and just be quiet for just a few seconds.
  2. Orient yourself by choosing one thought that expresses what you value and who you are as a person—the thought might be deep, like thinking of someone you love, or very ordinary, like picturing a place or activity that makes you feel peaceful and happy.
  3. Self-check your stress level (from 1 to 10, no stress to the worst stress ever) and your personal control level (from 1 to 10, feeling confused and out of control to thinking so clearly that you can handle anything).

This can be done anywhere, anytime (as long as you don’t close your eyes while driving). Every time you focus your mind in this way, you’ll find it easier to remember and actually make the effort to make a planned change. You’ve turned down the alarm in your brain and reminded yourself to pay attention to what’s important in life.

Once you’re focused on what you value and who you are as a person, change makes more sense and becomes real. But you can’t do this just once or twice and expect dramatic results—to harness the power of your brain to make important changes, it’s necessary to live every day in a focused way. Not every moment, but returning to your focus repeatedly during the day.

Change can be truly life affirming if we use it to sharpen and focus our minds. The essence of a fresh start is not simply a change in behavior, it’s a fundamental change in our hearts and minds and a focus on what we value and who we are.

When change is based on what we deeply value and believe in, then change is not just a temporary diversion, but a return to who we truly are as a person. Thankfully, we have the ability to focus on what matters to us during times of transition. That's the good news, but the bad news is that most of us haven’t decided to seize be clear about what beliefs and values are most important and stay focused on them when we are uncomfortable. We can though, and that’s the secret to turning the alarm down in the face of change.

Hijacked by Your Brain blogs are co-authored with Jon Wortmann. Visit our website at www.hijackedbyyourbrain.com. You can follow us on facebook or join us on twitter @hijackedbook.

Julian Ford, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

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