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There is an awful lot of change at the moment isn’t there?

With Brexit, our governance and work place may have to change considerably. Coronavirus is not only threatening life but affecting our global economy. Even the Royal family is having a shift about. But change in the workplace can be extremely good for our brain and mental health and should not be shied away from according to neuroscientist, business psychologist and leading change specialist Dr Lynda Shaw.

In fact, stress in the workplace is so big a problem that Dr Shaw is inundated with businesses asking for her expertise in coping with change and her aim is for leaders and workers to welcome, embrace and thrive with change. “Never before have we needed to embrace change at such a furious pace, but it’s going to happen with or without your blessing and affects everyone, so we need to look at change as an opportunity to embrace and grow beyond what feels comfortable. This helps us build resilience and experience new things that we might otherwise never have done and ultimately could help the bottom line.”

As 90-95% of the way we operate day to day is done unconsciously this means that only 5% of our cognitive activities are conscious which include behaviour, decisions, emotions and actions.   “Think about the rhythm of our heartbeat we don’t control that, or in fact very much about our bodies. We mostly run on autopilot. Its predictable, comfortable and our normal.  What we need to do is jumpstart our conscious thinking to keep our body and mind fresh and rejuvenated which is where change comes in.”

But not all of us like change because it can come hand in hand with uncertainty, loss, confusion and anxiety. “Unmanageable, prolonged uncertainty makes the brain hypervigilant in response to the sense of threat. Studies show that uncertainty is scarier and more stressful than known outcomes, whether they are good or bad. Our brain endeavours to reduce uncertainty and demands extra energy from the body and increases hormones like cortisol. If the uncertainty from the change is not reduced then the brain can become overloaded and you can display symptoms of stress, like insomnia, low mood and anxiety, high blood pressure and headaches.”  In fact, according to one study in 2018, 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the previous year they felt unable to cope and overwhelmed.

However, Dr Shaw adds reactions to change can be worked through if the commitment to your goals is there and that great things could be around the corner. “The brain is constantly monitoring our surroundings and making decisions to ensure predictable outcomes, so you remain safe. Change can result in us feeling initially uncertain about what may be about to happen, but this uncertainty activates our frontal lobe and can stimulate a situation in which we learn and can move forward with strongly.”

Doing something unfamiliar and unhabitual can be harder and time consuming but helps you to make new important neural connections. Taking a leap of faith can feel scary so we often delay starting or we convince ourselves that we don’t have the knowledge, money, etc. to pull it off. Try to just take a first step and choose your most productive time of day to do it. A first step may just lead to a life-changing path for the better.”

“What really helps is a growth and positive mindset which can be the deal breaker between you doing something or not.  The outcomes are predictably in favour of someone who is often positive rather than someone who is usually negative. Being positive and facing change is the best way to learn, grow and move on.”

Dr Shaw’s top tips on how individuals can cope with, adapt and embrace changes in life include:

  1. Challenge yourself. Are you approaching it with a ‘can’t do’ fixed mindset? We are inclined to choose options with a familiar and known outcome. Push yourself to consider other options and do your research.  Avoid having a narrowing or shrinking fixed mindset, aim for a growth mindset. The brain is fantastically adaptable, and the chances are you can do it. It’s an opportunity to move into your learning zone. Be nimble.
  2. Control your emotions, so they don’t control you. It is completely fine to feel emotions like anger, anxiety, fear or sadness and it is important to sometimes just sit with those emotions. But your mood can influence your decisions and interactions so there is also a point when you should acknowledge them and try to move past them.
  3. Be your own friend and praise yourself. Whilst it is important to enjoy non-toxic, supportive relationships with your partner, friends, colleagues and family, having your own strong inner support system is important during times of change.  Talk to yourself in the same way you would speak to and coach a friend. Dismiss constant negative internal chatter and replace it with gratitude and an occasional self-pat on the back for trying your best.
  4. Fail well. Some say reach for the stars and push yourself over and beyond. Others advise you to have reasonable, achievable expectations to avoid deep disappointment.  Either way learn that its ok to fail and learn how to fail well by picking yourself up and trying again using different tactics.
  5. Take your time. Demands for change can trigger our fight or flight instincts, cause stress and debilitate our decision making. Follow your gut feel is not just a metaphor; our brain and gut are connected by an extensive network of neurons and are in constant communication.  It’s harder though to make good decisions when stressed as we are less reflective and more impulsive. Try to take a little time to make hard decisions so allow yourself time to reflect before you respond and to summon your strength in case it is needed.
  6. Schedule in creative/ innovative time.  This way you have the space to think, and reassess what is your calling, what are your passions, what you need and what is important to you. We need time and space to create lightbulb moments.
  1. Good health is crucial to giving you strength. Make sure you are sleeping enough and eating well. Obstacles can seem insurmountable when you are overtired and you will feel less motivated, have trouble concentrating and be less productive.
  1. Watch out for feeling overwhelmed by stress during times of changeStress alters practically every part of our body including brain functions such as memory and cognitive ability. In times of change and stress, allocate time for stress combating exercise such as yoga, meditation, walking, or going to the gym or simply relaxing and doing your favourite things.  Always take time out.

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