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If Change is the Only Constant, Why Don’t I Like it More?

29 December 2022

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Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, is the fellow credited with coining the phrase “change is the only constant in life.” Coping with change – even change you really want or know is a good thing – is hard. Change you don’t want – losing a job, going through a divorce or experiencing the effects of a serious illness, for example – can be even harder to deal with.  

The good news is that in either case, the mechanics of change (and our reactions to those mechanics) follow the same pattern, so we’ve put together handy dandy guide to understanding and weathering changes large and small.

Why is change so hard?

It’s easier said than done. Here’s an example. You completely understand (and are 100 percent on board with) the fact that a sedentary lifestyle combined with a diet of heavily processed foods will likely have negative health outcomes for you, in the form of increased risk for diabetes, obesity, cardiac disease and some cancers. 

But then…it’s Monday evening. You’ve worked all day and are exhausted. You decide to be ‘kind’ to yourself and skip the gym, and while you’re at it you order in some pizza for dinner (again), with the idea that this is self-care. Fair enough, it is self-care every so often. But then the same thing happens Tuesday, and Wednesday. Except you mix it up by ordering Chinese or Indian food instead of pizza. Thursday you have a happy hour with your besties and Friday is date night. Saturday you promise yourself you’ll do better, because you know you should take better care of yourself. How many of us rinse and repeat this scenario week after week? 

We prefer the devils we know. Our status quo is not perfect, but gosh darn it it’s comfortable, so why rock the boat? Maybe your job isn’t particularly fulfilling, and maybe you’re being underpaid and undervalued, but you have a great ‘work bestie’ and good benefits so you just sort of linger, not particularly happy but not driven to act. Every so often the tiny voice in your head tells you to update your resume and get out of there, but not with any real urgency.  

There are actually multiple stages of change. Six, to be exact. The Transtheoretical Model (AKA the Stages of Change Model) was developed in the 1970s. It’s idea is that people work their way through these six stages of change, which people may enter and exit multiple times before lasting change occurs: 

  • Precontemplation. In this stage there is no intention of taking action or making a change in the near future. There is no acknowledgement that there is a behavior or situation that would benefit from change. Change is seen as a con, not a pro.
  • Contemplation. During contemplation, the problematic behavior or situation is recognized, as are the possible benefits of making a change. A person in the contemplation phase may see themselves making a change within the next six months. 
  • Preparation. This is also sometimes referred to as ‘determination.’ People in this stage have decided to make a change attempt in the next month or so. They’re getting ready to act, and they may take one or several small pre-steps. Maybe they’re not ready to go to the gym yet but they purchased a membership, for example.
  • Action. Behavior has been changed! In the action stage, a person has adopted new behaviors or let go of old ones for six months or less, with the intention to keep their change(s) in place.
  • Maintenance. The changes have stuck for six months or more. Perhaps going to the gym or taking a morning run is now becoming ingrained, but still requires a bit of discipline to stick with. Folks in the maintenance stage must guard against lapsing back into old behaviors.  
  • Termination. This phase is rarely reached and is often left off of the ‘stages of change’ list. Termination is when people have zero desire to revert back to the way things were before and are certain they will not relapse. For most, this is a tough stage to attain, so we hang out in the maintenance stage.    

One change often involves other changes. Deciding to lose weight immediately triggers other changes and choices you’ll need to make. You may meet with a dietician. Will your diet involve counting calories or will you opt for a Paleo or Mediterranean diet? Will you start exercising or increase your gym time? How will you handle lunch meetings or social gatherings? What about your grocery list – does that need an overhaul as well? It’s important to pay attention to all of the small changes that must accompany the larger change. 

You’ve confused simple with easy. Not smoking is actually simpler than smoking. You don’t need to budget for cigarettes, make sure you’ve always got a lighter in your pocket, scan everyplace you go for smoking areas or make the time in your day to light up when the cravings hit. It’s not easy, though, because smoking, specifically nicotine, is incredibly addictive and you have to get used to a totally new daily routine. Smoking can’t be your break, stress reliever or celebration anymore.

Tactics: how to get better at dealing with change:

Stick with your normal routine. When you’ve got a big change to deal with, it’s helpful to keep as much of the rest of your life as normal or consistent as possible. People love routine. Routine serves as an anchor for us. If you walk your dog at 6PM each evening, keep walking your dog at 6PM each evening – even if you have added a morning gym routine or if you no longer have a cigarette while walking your dog. If you’re going through a big, externally driven change (divorce, job loss) it can be helpful to write down events or actions that make up your daily routine, and then check them off one by one each day.

Acknowledge the change. Don’t pretend things are normal when they’re not. Denial, while sometimes a useful defense mechanism, is not helpful in the long run. Instead of ignoring or denying that things are different, try saying to yourself ‘Things are changing and that’s OK. Things are changing and I’m OK.’ 

Realize that change takes time. Change is a process. Even the most gung-ho, super-motivated among us, who love and welcome change, hit stumbling blocks. Your circumstance may change in a split second, but it takes longer than that to adapt and/or embrace change. Lasting change requires patience.

Take extra good care of yourself, ideally always but especially during times of change. Change is stressful, even when it’s good. A natural reaction might be to reach for comforting foods, which for many of us are things like cookies, bread, cake or chips. Eating carbs like these boosts serotonin (feel-good hormone) levels, which might be running low thanks to the stress. The key here is moderation. Sure, have a cookie or two. But also eat plenty of veggies and lean protein. You may be tempted to indulge in sugary soft drinks, again for the comfort factor. Keep yourself in check by tracking what you eat, in a small notebook or with an app such as MyFitnessPal. Taking extra good care of yourself also means exercising and getting plenty of sleep. Exercise relieves stress. You don’t have to train for a marathon or set a personal record on your Peloton. Just go for a walk or do some light stretching during the day, even if you would rather not.  

Cut yourself some slack. Change feels funny. It can make us feel out of control (which we sometimes are). We may feel that the change we seek is not happening fast enough, or that our reaction to the change we didn’t seek doesn’t meet our expectations. The thing is, nobody can perform at 100 percent all of the time, or even most of the time. People make mistakes and missteps but consider framing them like this: there is no such thing as mistakes, only good stories to tell later. It’s learning from our mistakes that really matters.   

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