Fear of Change: What to Do When You’re Afraid
What is the fear of change ? What are the signs? Why do humans fear change? Do humans enjoy any type of change? How do you know if you need to make a change? How do you make a change?
Metathesiophobia, or what’s more commonly known as the fear of change, originates from the Greek word “meta”, meaning changes and “phobos” meaning fear. Most people worry about the future and question themselves, but for some, this fear of change can be much more debilitating. It is intense anxiety over confronting change. “A marked or persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.”
Someone with a fear of change is likely uncomfortable with that which is unfamiliar to them. If some sort of change is on the horizon, it is likely that their fear is continuous. “Exposure to the feared social situation almost invariably provokes anxiety.”
Someone that fears change will definitely experience some form of anxiety when confronted with said change. Most people who fear change are able to recognize that their fear isn’t completely rational. This rationality, though, may not be enough to assuage anxiety.
“The feared social situations are avoided or else they are endured with intense anxiety or distress.”
If one fears change, it is extremely likely that they avoid it. If they are not able to avoid change, they would likely experience a major increase in stress.
If one fears change, it will commonly interfere with their life. It may cause them to remain in situations that make them unhappy, leave a lot of potential untapped, and even cause a strain in their relationships.
Fear of Change: Manifestation
Having a fear this severe is relatively rare and would almost certainly coincide with some other type of social phobia. However, most people still fear change to some degree. Even if one is not experiencing blatant effects from this fear, like avoiding important opportunities or having obsessive thoughts, this fear could be causing someone to miss out on a lot of chances.
Could a fear of change be disguising itself as complacency in one’s current life? Maybe one’s choice to stick with certain people, certain activities, certain jobs, etc doesn’t only stem from preference. Fear of change can manifest itself in ways that aren’t explicit but could potentially have a massive impact. It’s possible your fear of change is impacting you or someone you know negatively if they:
- Are staying in an unhappy marriage/relationship, where emotional or physical manipulation is not part of the influence.
- Are staying in a job where they are underemployed or unfulfilled, despite having the ability to seek employment elsewhere.
- Have a very distinct set of interests and do not usually like trying new things.
- Have a very distinct set of friends and has no desire to meet new people.
- Have a very distinct list of places where they like to go and do not like to deviate from them.
- Turn down opportunities that have the potential to be beneficial for them.
- Become upset and irritable when their daily routine becomes mixed up.
- Become very defensive when someone suggests they make a change in their life.
These symptoms can be indicative of a lot of things, like an antisocial personality disorder or a generalized anxiety disorder. However, these often occur in the absence of any mental disorder. Fear of change is likely to underlie these disorders, implying that it could be the root of a lot of anxiety-related issues.
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light.”Plato
Fearing change is not only the root of many anxiety-related issues but a root of humanity. Infants experience inborn stranger anxiety, and soon after, experience separation anxiety in toddlerhood. In fact, evolutionary psychologists theorize that this fear of change could be embedded into our DNA from thousands and thousands of years ago when people were hunter-gatherers. Compared to the other creatures that lived in the wild, humans were extremely vulnerable, lacking the natural strength and resilience that allowed other species to be more suited to hunt all day and withstand difficult weather conditions. Before humans had a full grasp of their intellectual capacity and technology developed into the marvel that it is today, we were prey.
Being the most successful predator on the planet due to our intellectual advantages in the present day, most of us no longer have to fear being killed by hungry animals. We now have the means to avoid starving to death because its winter and our only source of sustenance is in hibernation and we have nearly no protection against the brutal elements. These external issues don’t remain, but these fundamental survival responses do persist for humans internally. The explosion of human knowledge through periods like the Age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance and the eruption of technological advancements like in the Industrial Revolution happened much quicker than our genes could possibly mutate. Because of the inconsistency between the speeds of society’s evolution and humans’ evolution, we are left with an intrinsic fear of change in a new world that changes constantly.
This inconsistency doesn’t necessarily code for undeniable tragedy, however. Society is propelled only by the people within it. It would not have been possible to make the strides we’ve made as a human race without a lot of people working towards, pushing for, and desiring change. This seems like it doesn’t align at all with our DNA. Why would we as humans catalyze the most rapid and influential changes ever conceived if we’re scared of it? It seems that this fear of change has some stipulations.
We may resist change in most cases, in general, but when we can foresee a change improving our life or the lives of others, this aversion to change will sometimes dissipate. In school, students study the genius inventions of scientists before them. People almost always encourage their friends to take that new job opportunity; it’s rarely the other way around. It seems as though people applaud change when they are not the ones having to take the risk. When there is minimal risk involved, our attitudes are generally different. People fear and abhor the unknown, possibly more than anything else.
“Time isn’t the enemy. Fear of change is.”Oprah Winfrey
Fear of Change and the Brain
It was discovered that our cerebellum, the part of our brain responsible for muscle memory and certain fine-motor controls, has a neural substrate that plays a big role in anticipatory anxiety, a more specified fear of change categorized by its ambiguity. These substrates, which come from a periaqueductal grey-cerebellar (a part of the cerebellum that contributes to our defense-arousal system) link, underlie fear-evoked freezing. This is contrary to the response more commonly associated with fear in general, our fight-or-flight response. Scientists have found that threats that can be predicted will more likely to produce this fight-or-flight response, while more vague stimuli seem to trigger something closer to this freezing response. The reason behind this distinction is still unknown, but one prediction is that it occurs because, in the face of a vague threat, there is not much you can do to combat it.
Our fear of change, when we know what’s ahead of us, produces this fight-or-flight response in people. Since we are less afraid when we know what we are confronting, most people choose to fight or face the change. We still may have underlying anxiety, but our attitudes are naturally going to be more open when we believe something positive will come of it. Humans generally enjoy this type of change.
The reason why it’s a more acceptable statement to say that humans resist change is that most change that we encounter is going to be wracked with uncertainty. One may know what their new job is going to entail and where it is and who their boss is, but they are still likely to feel uneasy about their new coworkers and worry about messing up. When you truly don’t know what’s to come, though, it’s impossible to choose between fight-or-flight, so freezing is the most likely response. This may explain why having “brain-freezes” and engaging in those awkward, “drawing a blank” conversations are such common occurrences when confronting first day jitters.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”H.P. Lovecraft
Humans also have a tendency to resist change because we are creatures of habit. Studies have connected the acquisition of habits with the basal ganglia, a part in brain focused around reinforcement and procedural learning. When we begin to create a routine, our brain maps our reality around these new habits, which can be useful when trying to reach a goal, but inhibitive when trying to create new ones. When thinking and acting with intention, people have to make a conscious effort. In order to achieve this, the prefrontal cortex becomes highly engaged, which creates hard work for the brain. It’s made even harder due to the fact that the fear processing center of our brain, the amygdala, restricts risky and exploratory behavior when it’s activated. Even if we don’t explicitly fear change, we’re inclined to avoid it merely because it’s hard to overcome old patterns of thought.
However, just because we’re wired to dislike change doesn’t mean we can’t rewire our brains. Change is important to embrace because we often to don’t have a choice. Still, we do have the ability to make a change at our own discretion. Staying in your comfort zone forever will not allow you to gain new perspectives, experience the world around you, or find your authentic self. Feeling content does not always equate to feeling entirely fulfilled and happy.
You may need to consider making a change if:
- You dwell on the past, especially a past that you cannot return to.
- You are caught up in the future that you are not taking initiative to get to.
- You feel like you don’t know yourself, or that you don’t like yourself.
- You lack a passion or strong emotion that you once had.
- You crave more direction and sense of purpose.
- You feel like you are trapped or held down in your daily routine.
- You believe that you are settling for less than you deserve or can attain.
- You have regrets about where you are or feel “burnt out”.
- You are jealous of the lives of others and have low self-confidence.
- You’re consistently irritated and “making mountains out of molehills.”
- You experience regular fatigue that can’t be attributed to anything else.
- You dread going through your daily routine and feel bored for most of the day.
- You feel like you can’t be your authentic self in your current setting.
- You don’t like sharing details about your life with others.
- The things you stress over never seem to amount to anything worthwhile.
Tips on how to get over the fear of change
Experiencing the symptoms on the above list may not force you to make a change, but it’s not living a life that most people would consider ideal. Here are some ways you can slowly start conquering your fear and initiating change for yourself:
- Try to create certainty where you can. When you can ensure certain things, like your own approach to the change, it becomes easier to tackle.
- Expect and prepare for the worst. Repressing the idea of a bad outcome may only worsen underlying anxieties. When you are ready to address even the worst-case scenarios, not knowing what is going to happen becomes more manageable.
- Learn to create goals that are realistic but challenging. Challenge your own critiques but adjust as necessary. Overcoming perfectionism and opening up to the idea of failure is hard but setting yourself up for “trying again” can be easier to stomach.
- Become aware of all the choices you truly have. Open yourself up to possibilities that may not be achievable now but could be later. Setting small goals can make these choices more attainable in the long run and acknowledging all the choices you have means you aren’t limited if something doesn’t go as planned.
- Make sure old business is completed before you move onto new business. You cannot fully embrace a new way of living if you are caught up in the very thing you were trying to change.
- Be deliberate. When breaking past habits and forming new ones, existing on autopilot makes it difficult. Think about what you’re doing and especially why you’re doing it while you’re doing it. When we go about our lives with intention, we can more easily find meaning and reason to continue our efforts.
- On the same note, be proud. Remind yourself that you should feel good about yourself, and that what you’re doing is to improve your life. Be excited about your successes, no matter how big or how small, and give yourself incentives to continue stepping outside your comfort zone.
- Create a rock-solid support system. Gather a group of people that will not allow you to give up, even when you may feel like you want to. It is a lot harder to go back when you have people encouraging you to move forward. It’s also difficult to tell those closest to you that you are giving up, giving you even more of a reason to persevere.
- Work on overcoming less significant fears that don’t necessarily have to do with the change you’re working on. It will gradually desensitize you to your primary fear, making it easier to deal with overtime.
- Get out of the echo chamber! Being around people that think exactly like you can be peaceful, but you won’t be exposed to doing things in new ways. Surround yourself with people who think differently and adopt new strategies and outlooks.
Rachel is a second year student at the University of Georgia majoring in psychology and minoring in cognitive sciences. She is also currently working as a research assistant in an Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory!