Mental health: managing your response to change

Change needs good self-management, to make sure the changes stay.  Photo by Anton Darius on Unsplash

When life changes, we have to change.  This is easier said than done, since we also have in us a strong urge to keep things the same.  Whether we are going to work after a time away, altering the way we work or live, or making some other change, it’s not that easy.


Biologically, humans thrive on an extensive amount of repetition.  We sleep because for millions of years our ancestors have slept.  We eat because our ancestors ate.  The cycles of our daily existence have a very strong element of past in them.  This applies not only to human evolution before we were born, but to the habits we have formed after we ourselves were born.  We will each have grown up with family and peer routines which gave our body expectations.  Even our recent activities have spawned habits which we have got used to.


Typical bodily reactions to change are varied, but seem to have a few common themes.  Often there is an initial reluctance, followed by fairly quick cooperation, followed by a new recoil, as though an elastic bank has pinged us back into established habit.

An example is a typical human response to dieting.  It can take a while to overcome an initial reluctance to diet.  Then we may cooperate with our new plan.  Then there may be a new recoil, as our old eating habits seek to return.


This mean that our response to change needs to encompass, even expect, those three stages.  We need to expect:

  1. Initial reluctance to change
  2. Fairly early cooperation with change
  3. Recoil from change as old habits try to reestablish themselves
To achieve balance throughout our change management, we need to apply different balancing forces at different times.  When we are initially reluctant to change, we can often balance that with a bit of quick self-cajoling (a little like the kick we give ourselves to get out of bed).  When we are cooperating with change, we can balance that with a sense of realism, that we may soon be surprised by our own reluctance.

That third stage, the recoil and reestablishing of old habits, it a hard one.  But at least, if we are prepared, we can take some actions to counteract it.


If it was easy, people would not suffer relapses all the time.  But it’s difficult.  A few worthwhile techniques include:

  • enlisting social help (using online groups, peer support, coaching etc)
  • monitoring and measurement (if you are the type that likes statistics, this can help keep you on track)
  • building new routines (i.e. deliberately replacing old habits with strongly regulated new routines, to give the new a chance to embed)
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Whether changing job style or life style, managing our own change is difficult.

Humans are creatures of habit.  We are first reluctant to change; then we cooperate; then we relapse if the old habits can regain a foothold.

In that third stage, when old habits seek to return, we can use social support, monitoring and measurement, and strong new timetables and routines, to embed our changes.