We live in a world of unprecedented change - change
occurring at a pace that does not give us time to get used to one before
we must cope with the next. But while we can do little to influence
the rate of change, we can choose to respond positively to the changes
around us and often learn to thrive on them.
Being educated about change will enable us to cope better with it. The
important first step is understanding the process, and the second step
is to develop tactics for coping with change and responding to it more
What is Change?
Change occurs when something ends and something new or different begins.
It is a time to let go of the old (the familiar) and embrace the new
Change is an inevitable part of living. It can’t be avoided, it’s
a fact of life. Far from being a negative part of life, change is what
drives us, challenges us and keeps us striving to achieve different
goals and aspirations. Without change, most of us would become stale,
bored and unproductive. Change keeps life interesting!
The only constant in the Universe is change!
Most of us have strong responses to change, yet no two people will respond
to change in the same way. Some people may perceive certain changes
as being positive, while others may view them as negative. Change itself
is not a problem; it’s how we deal with it, how we react to change,
that determines whether or not there is a problem.
When the winds of change blow, some people build windmills (to take
advantage of the change) while other build windbreaks (to try to stop
Change may result from a choice that we make for ourselves or it may
be imposed upon us. Changes that we choose include marriage, moving
house, moving to a new job, etc. Those that are typically beyond our
control include redundancy, certain illnesses, bereavement, divorce,
Change at Your Place of Work
In the workplace change is occurring at a faster rate than at any time
previously. Technology is moving forward at an incredible rate, and
the result is a constant need to update skills and knowledge and to
make frequent changes in how we do our jobs. Also there is often less
staff required to do the same tasks.
Another cause of rapid change is that the business environment in Australia
is becoming more competitive. Competition for customers is increasing
and it is more true than ever that ‘the customer is always right’.
There is an anecdote that represents the ultimate case of zero change
at work. The tale - true or false, it doesn’t matter - is that
the man who shook the coconut onto Iced Vovo biscuits at Arnotts did
this simple job for 45 years. When Arnotts was looking to multi-skill,
the firm offered him training for other tasks. His response was that
he wasn’t interested in changing and took a redundancy package
He who rests, rusts.
Change Involves a Sense of Loss
Whether a change is happy or sad, within our control or beyond it, most
change is associated with a feeling of loss. If the loss is someone
or something you value, it is normal to experience grieving. Even with
positive changes, such as getting married or winning the lottery, there
is still likely to be some sense of loss, such as leaving the family
home or saying goodbye to workmates because you are able to quit work.
Our grief and sense of loss are likely to be more severe if we have
no control over the change. For example, if your job is made redundant,
you are more likely to feel a deeper sense of loss than if you left
the job of your own volition.
Similarly, grief is more profound if we lose someone or something very
important to us, such as a loved one or a job that we are particularly
committed to. Losing a job often means also losing the good friends
that went with it. This is all too easy to understand - people need
How we Respond to Change
Although we all respond differently to change, we generally progress
through a range of feelings as we gradually come to terms with the new
situation. The typical sequence of phases is:
Denial - Normally when a significant change/loss occurs, our immediate
reaction is one of shock followed by numbness. We often deny what is
happening and focus on the past. This phase is usually short-lived.
Resistance - After the numbness of denial, we may go through a period
of preoccupation and uncertainty about the future. We may experience
feelings of self- doubt, sadness, anger, depression, anxiety, frustration
or fear. These emotions are unpredictable and can be irrational.
Exploration - We start to let go of the old and accept the new. We begin
to identify with the new situation and explore its future potential
Commitment - We are now more accepting of our change/loss and are more
willing to commit to our new life or new direction by making the most
of ‘what is’ rather than holding onto ‘what was’.
Interwoven throughout these phases are likely to be emotions, including
Fear - Fear is commonly associated with change, arising particularly
from uncertainty about what the future holds. It may take the form of
worry, anxiety, apprehension, restlessness, panic and/or dread.
Anger - There are many reasons why we may feel angry about a change.
Having no control, that is, having a change forced upon us, is a very
common one. Recent research found that people who lack control at work
experience more stress like frustration and suffer more illness as a
Sadness - Whether we see a change as positive or negative, we are likely
to feel some sadness as we leave behind the familiarity of the past.
Joy - In most cases, good things do result from change, although it
might not be obvious at the time. Change may provide us with greater
freedom or new opportunities, which can lead to happiness, excitement
Be aware that the phases described above may overlap or we may swing
from one phase to another and back again.
The speed with which we move through these transitional phases and come
to terms with change or loss depends on many factors including the support
we have from friends and family and any coping strategies that we adopt.
At the age of 58 and after five years as a staff member of Alcan, Ray
of Kingswood, NSW, was retrenched. He had been thrown suddenly into
the midst of one of the most feared of changes at an age when it is
generally difficult to find another job. He says he felt “depressed,
cheated, really down”.
After 18 months of applying for jobs and piling up a 15 cm-thick file
of applications and negative replies, he gave up in utter frustration.
As he had been out of work for over a year, he was eligible for a ‘mature-age
pension’. Because he already had his home, car and other basics,
he was able to live on this.
Ray’s hobby was involvement with the NSW Rail Transport Museum
at Thirlmere (near Picton) and this now became an almost full-time interest.
He was soon elected President of the Museum and was still President
three years later at the time of writing. Apart from providing a fascinating
interest, this has given him the opportunity to meet a lot of people,
including the State Governor and other prominent people.
“As it has turned out,” Ray said, “retrenchment certainly
wasn’t a disaster for me. I am busier than ever and enjoying life
more than ever. Life is wonderful!”
Every cloud has a silver lining, and in Ray’s case the silver lining
(having plenty of spare time) turned out to be far bigger than the cloud
Ways of Coping With Change
Some people love change - the more the better - while others, faced
with the same change, will feel distress. Change itself is not the problem,
it’s how each person responds to the changes happening around them.
While we can’t help being affected by changes, there is a lot we
can do to improve our ability to cope with them. Here are six steps
for coping better with change:
Anticipating change is the best way to prepare for it and deal with
it. It’s so common for us to bury our heads in the sand and hope
that a particular change won’t happen. After it does, we say, “I
should have known”, and regret not taking action at the time. The
key is to make a conscious effort to be aware of what is going on around
you and be involved as much as possible. For example, in relation to
your work, keep up-to-date, keep open the lines of communication to
supervisors and workmates, read memos and attend meetings and be part
of the change process by participating and contributing to help ensure
your future. Preparing for change is like driving a car. If you only
watch out the rear window of the car, you will soon come to grief. By
looking forward, you can steer a safe course. To ease the fear of the
new and unknown, have faith that... when one door closes another one
Acknowledge and Express Your Feelings
A vital step in dealing with change is to acknowledge grief as a normal
process and to accept and express the feelings that go with it. Too
often we insist on ‘soldiering on’ and ‘keeping a stiff
upper lip’ and are very intolerant of anyone who responds emotionally
to a situation. The impact of these bottled-up feelings on yourself
and others can be more stress, more illness, lowered morale and increased
In practice, allow yourself to grieve and accept the need of others
to grieve. Most people feel better when they talk about their problems,
so talk things through with family, friends, workmates and/or a professional
counsellor. This is where friends can be invaluable.
Remember - a friend is one who knows all about you and likes you anyway!
Adopt ‘goodbye rituals’, such as keeping a photo album or
having a farewell party to help you remember the past, but then move
on. Also avoid making further changes in your life until you have begun
to recover from the current change or changes.
Maintain a Good Support Network and Use It
The speed with which we come to terms with change depends on many factors,
the most important of which is having a good support network. It can
Your immediate family. By seeking their support, you will also be helping
them to feel needed.
Close friends - can also be very supporting.
Workmates. If collectively going through changes at work, you will all
benefit from the mutual support.
Social contact. When we are grieving or under stress, it’s easy
to shun this, but it’s worth making the extra effort to maintain
social links because they distract you from your own problems.
A professional counsellor.
Involvement in a community group can be valuable.
Look After Yourself
Good physical health leads to better mental health which, when combined
with positive attitudes, greatly increases our capacity to cope with
the demands of a changing situation. Keeping well mentally and physically
boils down to four major aspects:
Balanced eating of natural, unprocessed foods.
Regular physical activity. Brisk walking can be ideal.
Minimise exposure to man-made chemicals.
Use techniques to take the distress out of stress. Particularly strengthen
your self-esteem. So often when we are going through change, we lose
confidence in ourselves and feel uncertain about the future. Focus on
the things you do well and keep feeding yourself positive thoughts.
(Ways of dealing with stress is covered in the next section.)
Remember - if you don’t look after this body, where else are you
going to live?
Bring Some Control Into Your Life
One of the main reasons that change can be so difficult is that there
often seems to be little or nothing we can do about it. When you feel
you have little control over your future, it is important to find ways
to give yourself more control.
Choose positive thoughts. If we think positively, we feel more positive
and attract more positivity to ourselves.
Get used to change by creating it. For example, travel a different route
to work occasionally; watch a different television program or read a
different newspaper; eat new foods and try a different restaurant.
Keep up your personal development in areas such as communication, assertiveness
and coping with change. Many good books on personal growth are now available.
Reassess your priorities so that you don’t get caught up in doing
things which are unimportant. Keep a clear head about what tasks are
important and tend to these first.
In relation to your situation at work, keep learning so that you keep
up with the pace of change and ensure your future employability. And,
very importantly, find interests outside work so that loss of your job
does not mean that the entire bottom falls out of your world. Keeping
some balance in our lives will help keep work in perspective.
Get rid of attachment to material things. We cannot afford to become
emotionally involved with cars, diamond rings, etc, because these things
tend to come and go from our lives as a matter of course.
Remember, an optimist makes as many mistakes as a pessimist but has
a lot more fun on the way!
Devise a Plan of Action
In times of change, it is important to devote time to planning so that
you are clear about your path of action and what you might do in the
Typical action plans might be: a plan of action for personal well-being,
including your support network, social life, a hobby, planning a holiday,
etc. A plan of action for work - arranging meetings with your supervisor,
finding out more about impending changes and so on. A plan of action
for your future, such as a five-year plan.
If ever you feel overwhelmed, just remember the late Mother Teresa,
who said, “I know God will not give me anything I cannot handle.
I just wish he wouldn’t trust me so much!”
Also remember .. when opportunity knocks, the optimists put out the
‘welcome’ mat, but the pessimists complain about the noise.
Taking The Distress Out of Stress
When change does upset us and we react with negative emotions like fear,
anxiety or sadness, these are all forms of stress. The way to cope with
this stress, to make it less distressing, is to use some of the tried-and-true
stress management techniques.
To help us give priority to our problems and needs, let us first look
at the kinds of stress that, if they persist for prolonged periods,
may do harm.
The Most Harmful Kinds of
A 20-year Swedish study of 10,000 people, aged 40 or over, found that
the single most important factor protecting people against disease and
death is not lifestyle factors like saturated fat or smoking, but rather
the number of people that live under the one roof! The second most important
factor is, again, not dietary faults, etc., but the amount of social
contact that people have outside the home. In other words, the number
of people in your life is likely to be the greatest single factor in
your well-being and survival. The more the better.
Dr Dean Ornish, who conducted the landmark Lifestyle Heart Trial reported
in The Lancet, September 1990, made this observation of people with
heart disease: “Underneath their differences they, almost to a
person, felt a sense of isolation from parts of themselves and their
own feelings, isolation from other people and isolation from a higher
force, whatever that meant to them.”
Some years ago, after spending two weeks in Sydney, an Indian gentleman
who was seeking volunteers for Community Aid Abroad observed, “Never
among the poorest of poor in India have I seen the spiritual poverty
that I see about me every day here in Sydney. You drive in your cars
alone, you watch television alone and you turn to your cats and dogs
It has become clear that the most harmful kind of stress for most people
is that associated with social isolation, alienation and loneliness.
Warm, supportive contact with other people is the greatest need that
we humans have for keeping ourselves alive and well.
If we are not fortunate enough to be a member of a large family, we
can keep in regular contact with friends and relatives. In addition
- or in the absence of close friends and relatives - we can join a community
group. The yellow pages in the telephone book under ‘Organisations’
list hundreds of clubs and societies that are screaming out for members
- sporting clubs, library groups, religions, political parties, voluntary
organisations and so on.
Instead of complaining about having to go to work, as we sometimes do,
let us appreciate the fact that the emotional support from being part
of the team at work may be second only to the family in keeping us alive
Another kind of stress that can cause harm if persisting for prolonged
periods is unresolved grief. If, after the loss of a loved one, there
is the support of family members, workmates and/or professional counsellors,
the grief will usually be resolved. If it isn’t and it goes on
for many months or years, then serious harm to health can result.
In the 1960s is was believed that constant pressure at work and rushing
for deadlines were likely to result in harm. Now it is known that this
is not necessarily the case, especially if the work produces satisfaction.
But there are four emotions that are known to be potentially dangerous
if they persist for months or years - anger, hostility, fear and anxiety.
It is easy for anger or hostility to develop in a society where laws
and regulations abound, hence the classic ‘angry young man’.
We are living in an age of fear and anxiety because of the rapid changes
occurring around us all the time and the tremendous pressures on us
to perform. In primitive times, people didn’t have to cope with
such uncertainty and pressure.
All the worrying that some of us do can be very distressing in the long
term. However, worry is not a separate emotion, it is a form of fear.
The effects of chronic, ongoing stress can be quite specific. Long-term
unresolved grief produces a persistent depression of the immune system
which can increase the risk of serious diseases, including cancer. Chronic
anger and hostility can increase blood pressure. With chronic fear and
anxiety, the body is continually in emergency mode, producing high levels
of adrenalin and other stress hormones. Because these are made from
cholesterol, the body produces more cholesterol. It also increases blood
triglycerides (fats). So it’s vitally important to do something
about long-term stress.
Easing the Distress in Stress
Any of the following tried-and-true relaxation techniques can be expected
to make a difference.
Meditation is the most effective solution to emotional stress. A five-year
study found that people who practised transcendental meditation had
87% less hospitalisation for heart disease, 55% less for cancer and
87% less for nervous system disorders. Among nursing home residents
with an average age of 81, those who practised TM were all alive three
years later with an average age of 84. Of those who did not meditate,
5 out of every 8 had died in that time. Meditation produces alpha waves
in the brain which are associated with deep relaxation and a feeling
of well-being. [Refer to Meditate Rejuvenate by Dr Paul Galbraith, reviewed
in the Autumn 1998 issue of this magazine, page 63.]
Stress Management Courses are conducted by community health centres
and private groups.
Relaxation Tapes. When you find a tape that suits you, it can make relaxation
easy and very effective.
Yoga. If you have the time, it’s very effective.
Deep Breathing. This can be practised on its own at any time and any
place (though be sure not to overdo it). Deep Breathing is an integral
part of yoga.
Philosophically - worry only about those things you can do something
about (and do it) and forget all the rest!
A very simple relaxation technique that can be done almost anywhere
involves the eyes. Sit comfortably with a straight back and the feet
flat on the floor. Let the eyelids fall shut so that the little eye
muscles relax. Repeat if necessary until there is full relaxation of
the eyelid muscles. Progressively locate other little muscles around
the eyes and let those go also. With practice, more and more eye muscles
will be located and can be relaxed. Because the eye muscles are triggers
of tension throughout the body, you can expect to feel muscles everywhere
letting go and relaxing.
Worry - Trade it in for Peace of Mind
In our highly-pressured modern society, it’s easy to worry. This
is serious because worry is the full-blown enemy of peace of mind. Worry
is basically fear. If we are worried about a relationship, we are fearing
that something will go wrong with it. If worried about job security,
it is fear that we may lose our job. If worried about impending change,
it may be fear of the unknown.
When an issue is worrying us, the first question to ask ourselves is,
“What am I afraid of?”. The next question is, “What can
I do about it?”. Once you get cracking doing something about the
problem, you will often be too busy to worry. There are times when we
say, “But what if such-and-such happens?”. The Dale Carnegie
approach is to ask ourselves, “If this does happen, can I handle
It?”. Most problems will have many different solutions, sometimes
hundreds. After we have come up with a possible solution, the next question
is, “Well, if I can handle it, what am I worrying about?”.
The bottom line is, “What if the worst happens, can I handle it?”.
If the answer is, “Yes, I think I could”, we can say to ourselves,
“So what am I worrying about!” Most of the things that we
worry about never happen. If we look back over recent years, we are
nearly always surprised at how few of our anxieties were justified.
And often we worry ourselves sick about relatively small things. If
in five years time, we look back on the things that are worrying us
now, we would probably say, “Well, what on earth was all the fuss
Don’t sweat the small stuff, it’s nearly all small stuff.
The sections in the above article entitled, ‘Understanding Change’
and ‘Ways of Coping With Change’ are based partly on Living
With Change which was developed for presentation to Telstra’s NSW
Network Design and Construction employees as part of their ‘Best
of Health’ program. Thanks is extended to Telstra for kind permission
to use this material.
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