The Challenge of Change

Brian Forbes, Ph.D, R.Psych is the head of Forbes Psychological Services, Assist’s professional service provider.

Change is a part of life.  As you have heard many times, the only constant in life is change.  According to author John Kotter change is the “central issue of our age.  But too often you find complacency on one hand, or fear, anger and anxiety on the other”.  We all experience change, some good some bad, and throughout our lives change cannot be avoided despite our best efforts.  Change, even good change can be difficult.  John Norcross, a major researcher of change and the co-author of Changing for Good says that “change shakes us to the very core”.  All of us respond to change differently at different rates and depths.  When change occurs some of us feel angry, some feel excited, some feel helpless, some feel paralyzed by anxiety, and some feel sorry for themselves.

Change is a major cause of stress in people’s lives and it often creates anxiety and in some cases depression depending on the nature of the change.  Change means letting go of the way we are and moving in a new direction.  This means we have to go through a period of transition.  A transition is any event or non-event that results in changed relationships, roles, routines and assumptions.  Transition requires us to adapt and usually involves both losses and gains.

People are creatures of habit and it is particularly distressing when change is the result of events outside of our control such as the loss of a job due to an economic downturn, or a change in our job responsibilities due to a restructuring, or the loss of a loved one or a relationship.  People tend to resist change because it takes us out of our comfort zone and hurls us into a transition state.  This transition state may create feelings of uncertainty, confusion, anger, anxiety, frustration and depression.  Things often seem out of control during the transition state.  The path of least resistance is to try to return to our comfort zone.  Indeed, people tend to do what is familiar and comfortable, not what is logical or beneficial.  But, if we persist through the transition state we develop a new sense of self highlighted by increased self pride, self acceptance and self respect.

Factors which influence our adjustment to change include:

  • Trigger – what set off the transition?
  • Timing – how does the transition relate to our social clock?  Is it good timing or bad timing?
  • Control – what aspects of the transition can we control?
  • Role Change – is there a role loss or role gain?
  • Duration – is the change temporary, permanent, or uncertain?
  • Assessment – how do we appraise the situation?
  • Support Network – do we have an adequate and varied support network to draw on?
  • Other Factors – have we successfully resolved similar transitions in the past?
    -are we experiencing other stressors?
    -are we flexible and optimistic?
    -do we have a realistic sense of control?

Of all the factors that influence our adjustment to change the most important, in my opinion, is our assessment of the situation.  How we think about what is happening.  How we think determines how we feel.  Most people when faced with change, particularly change over which they have no control, tend to catastrophize.  Few view this kind of change in an optimistic fashion.  But the fact is you do have control, and that control is over your reaction to the change.

According to Dennis O’Grady, psychiatrist and author of the book Taking the Fear Out of Changing, a major impediment to our adjustment to change is fear.  Fear is the characteristic reaction to something new.  O’Grady identifies five fears that prevent people from changing.  These fears include:

  • Fear of the unknown;
  • Fear of failure, what if I’m unable to meet expectations;
  • Fear of commitment, we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket;
  • Fear of disapproval, we often value other’s opinions over our own; and
  • Fear of success, success may mean more demands from others.

Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente in their book Changing for Good have identified a six stage program designed to help people change.  They argue that it is possible to change many behaviours but it takes skills that must be practiced and it may take more than one concerted effort.  The stages of their plan for change are:

  • Pre-contemplation – During this stage research the benefits of change.
  • Contemplation – In this stage make a list of the pros and cons that will come with change.  How can you reduce the cons?  Visualize the benefits.
  • Preparation – Develop a plan to deal with the change and set a date for taking action.
  • Action – Implement your plan.  To cope with the change, exercise, use relaxation techniques, refute self-defeating thoughts, and celebrate the positive gains.
  • Maintenance – Expect to backslide, but stay focused on the outcome you wish to achieve.  When stress revives old patterns use relaxation techniques, exercise, and meditation to get back on track.
  • Successful Change – At this stage new behaviors should now be automatic.

The change resistant can take steps to practice.  For example, disrupt your daily routine by: parking in a different spot or taking a different route home; go to a movie you would not normally go to; let the waiter order for you in a restaurant.

Change takes time, determination, practice and perseverance.  As Calvin Coolidge once said “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent”.


  • Leading Change, John P. Kotter, Harvard Business Press
  • Taking the Fear Out of Changing: Guidelines for Getting Through Tough Life Transitions, Dennis E. O’Grady, New Insights Press
  • Changing for Good, James O. Prochaska, John C. Norcross and Carlo C. DiClemente; Harper Collins Publishers