What is it about transitions that are so hard to deal with? In the case of major life events, we often anticipate the change that’s coming—the big move to a new city, the loss of a relationship, the ending or beginning of school or of career. But even when we know the date of whatever change awaits, there is only so much that can be done to prepare for unknown future circumstances. You think the apartment you’ll sublet will be spacious and sunny, but the pictures weren’t totally convincing. You believe that you’re ready to part ways with a companion, but you’re not sure how you’ll feel. This uncertainty is one contributing factor to why it can be difficult to navigate change.
In the face of unknowns the brain reacts with a basic fear response. This neural impulse is rooted in the amygdala, an almond-shaped composition of cells in the temporal region of the brain. It is primarily responsible for receiving and processing sensory information—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste—and triggering behavioral and emotional response signals to other parts of our brain. In a review published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry, a number of recent studies demonstrate higher levels of amygdala activity during phases of uncertainty, such as in cases of exposure to fearful, ambiguous facial expressions as opposed to clearly angry faces.
One possible reason the amygdala is more affected by fearful expressions is that more information is required about the nature of a probable threat, according to research by Paul Whalen, Ph.D., a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth University. In other words, the less you understand about what’s pushing you out of your comfort zone, the more your body’s fear response goes into overdrive.
In practice this fear response can often take the form of escape and avoidance (you can think of this as the “flight” in “fight-or-flight mode”). You imagine that new position you were courted for will be a positive change, but you worry you might miss your current routine, so it is hard to sign on the dotted line. The act of avoidance in the face of unclear and fear-inducing circumstances is a normal nervous system response set off in part by the amygdala. While this is a way for the body to protect itself in extreme circumstances, it also may cause undue stress on the body over time.
Thankfully, there are simple ways to practice honoring and navigating natural fear response of avoidance. Research shows that our brains are capable of pattern-change and sometimes even “perception reversal” at any age based on our commitment to practice. This effect is known as neural plasticity or neuroplasticity. If you practice shifting your perception of fear from being debilitating to being motivating, it could help you to instinctually manage times of change more gracefully.
In a recent review paper from the Journal of Indian Philosophy, one quality of true liberation from suffering, according to Buddhist texts, is intentionally stirring up perception of fear, or “bhaya,” in order to let it go. By accepting fear and ambiguity as part of an ongoing cycle, we can gradually accept and release instead of resist, thereby finding fearlessness, or “abhaya,” and uninhibitedness and subsequently moving more freely throughout the rest of our lives. When you find fear stirred up, consider practicing a simple guided meditation.
When you notice fear arise, meditate on the experience of fear in that moment and stay aware of your breath. You can use the following prompts as a guide for this exercise:
- Ask yourself, “What triggers the fear?”
- How does fear feel inside when it comes up—hot, tingly, or perhaps constricting?
- As it lingers, notice its presence and where it resides in the body.
- Then, allow yourself to begin to let it go.
Perhaps the feeling will persist at first, but trust in the ongoing practice of awareness and gradual release of fear. Eventually you may find yourself transforming from thinking, “If this apartment doesn’t work out, I don’t know what I’ll do,” to “It might have a great view and space and it might not, and either way, I’ll figure it out and have fun.”
“Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
Another simple strategy for easing the fear response is to seek physical affection. It may sound trivial, but a recent study at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, revealed that the natural hormone oxytocin—the same chemical that bonds mothers with her young ones in periods of newness—is linked to decreases in “freezing” as a fear response. In a related study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers concluded that a natural way to potentially increase oxytocin levels is to give and receive nurture in the form of warm contact. If you’re feeling frozen and could use a quick thaw in the moment, call on the healing power of an old fashioned heart-to-heart hug.
A final action you can take to circumvent the amygdala’s fear response is to simply identify and make clear what is presently unclear. Achievement goal theory (AGT), the study of learning, performance, and outcomes relating to goals, has been gaining traction in the realm of psychology over the last decade. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Education Research, undergraduate students who adopted “mastery-approach” goals that were digestible, positively framed (as opposed to beginning with “don’t”), and self-focused (as opposed to comparing themselves to others) showed higher levels of growth on an important science assessment than their counterparts. This can be applied to one’s ability to thrive in the face of change and uncertainty.
To support yourself in making a larger life transition successfully, start by identifying what lingering questions lurk and note them down where you can see them. From there, take simple “mastery-approach” steps to gain clarity as you ramp up to larger change, whether it’s just sending a 10-minute email to negotiate your new job start date or taking a quick trip to the post office to change your address. Positively framing small steps that you can master quickly and achieve by yourself can help gradually reduce ambiguity, keeping you calm through bigger change and reserving your need for fight-or-flight responding for when you really need it.
As leaders in mindfulness often remind us, change and uncertainty are inevitable. Thich Nhat Hanh, the noted Zen Buddhist monk, offers: “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.”