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change, like winter, must come slowly

September 15, 2015

Every minute of every day we seek out patterns and we scour our environment looking for changes in those patterns. We are pattern recognition machines.

There are systems in our body that are keeping us alive by making sure that very little changes. When things do change those systems make sure that we know about it. Systems monitor your internal body temperature and respond to make sure it stays within acceptable bounds regardless of the outside temperature.

Image Source: Huffington Post

Golgi tendon organs in your muscles can scream when you try to stretch a muscle beyond what it is used to – so much so we can feel afraid the muscle might break. Eat more than you usually do and you will receive signals of discomfort from your stomach. Walk, run or ride more than normal and you will be getting feedback for days about just how objectionable that sort of change in habit is to your body.

We are hardwired to find change distressing!

The process that seeks to manage that change is known as homeostasis. The tendency of the body to seek and maintain a condition of balance or equilibrium within its internal environment, even when faced with external changes.

For many things (like our body temperature) that is a good thing. For other things (like our weight or our cardiovascular health) it can be not so good, particularly when our condition of “balance” is one that lacks regular exercise and proper nutrition. It is twice as bad when eating less than you usually do is just as likely to send signals of discomfort as eating more!

And it doesn’t only happen on a physical level. Our affect system is driven by changes in the environment around us and its job is to make us aware of those change that are important to us.

A gun shot is an easy example of a rapid change in the external environment. Relative quiet is punctuated by a brief but large change in sound levels that draws our attention away from everything else and spins our head towards the sound in a standard “startled” response. That is our affect system doing its job.

When things happen a little more slowly, perhaps when we are riding on a roller-coaster or we see a tree falling towards us, then our affect system triggers a fear response in us so we can take action to protect ourselves.

A new boss at work that we don’t yet get along with, the knowledge that a critical project deadline is going to be missed are examples of lower levels of change that take place over a longer period of time that can result in us feeling distressed. Our affect system at work again.

Any change in the patterns of our life that we have come to think of as normal or being in balance will activate our affect system and generate an emotional response. It is a wonder that we change at all with a range of our own systems making change so uncomfortable for us.

There is hope though if we work with these systems and not against them. Like the proverbial boiled frog, to avoid activating the pain and distress the change, like winter, must come slowly.

The key to achieving significant and long-lasting change is then to make sure that you make those small changes on a regular basis.

Eat a carrot stick before you eat anything sweet. Instead of calling your colleague, walk to their desk. Plan to make a plan to achieve a goal that seems huge and insurmountable and then take the first small step in the plan… and then the next. Meditate for 1 minute each day. Read two pages of that book you have been meaning to read.

The only big change might be that you notice how much better you feel and how much more you seem to get done. And there is nothing distressing about that!


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