The Secret To Effective Change

The following is a guest post from Carol Putnam Ph.D.

Have you ever wanted to make a change in your life?

You know, like those New Year’s resolutions that you’ve tried in the past.

For example. Join the gym and exercise 4-5 times a week, find a better job, travel to another country, or develop a better relationship with a friend, colleague or family member?

All of these types of changes are noble and positive, but for some reason when we decide to make changes we think we need to do so in a BIG way.

Change Doesn’t Have To Be All Or Nothing

We tell ourselves that the only way to get the exercise we need is to get up at 5:30 a.m. and work out for an hour, before we get ready for work.

Somehow the fact that we like to stay in bed until the last possible moment, repeatedly hitting the snooze button, doesn’t factor into our plan.

You’ve probably read those articles that say most New Year’s resolutions fail because we can’t sustain them long enough for them to become part of our normal behavior.

So when you aren’t successful creating that new exercise habit, how do you feel?

Do you tell yourself that you are lazy or perhaps a failure?

Do you envision your future as a total couch potato?

Congratulations, your brain is working properly!

When we feel our lives aren’t what we would like them to be, we decide to make big changes. It’s almost as if we decide that to make improvements we need to “go big or go home.”

This behavior reminds me of my older sister throwing all the playing cards in a deck up in the air when I was a kid.

The supposed goal was to see how many you could get to fall back into place. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always hated 52 card pick-up.

Why Try If We Are Doomed To Fail?

So why do we try to make big changes in our lives, only to be unsuccessful, then beat ourselves up? Because for some reason, we’ve been led to believe that if change is worth doing, it’s has to be big and bold.

Have you made a significant change in your life, one that you chose, not one that was imposed (e.g. getting laid off due to downsizing)? Take a moment and think back to one of those changes.

Perhaps you moved to another state or took a job in a different company or industry. Positive changes, right?

But what else did you experience with that change? Fear, anxiety, excitement, fatigue (both mental and physical), perhaps a sense of exhilaration as well as a sense of isolation, all typical responses to major changes.

Big changes can be exciting and they can also be exhausting. I remember my exhilaration when my former company sent me on assignment to Spain for two years.

What a great opportunity! What a great move for my career! The job was perfect for me and the company took care of everything—moving, finding housing, providing a car, etc. It was perfect.   And it was hard!

When people ask me about my time in Spain, I truthfully say it was a wonderful experience and one of the hardest things I’ve done.


Because everything changed! Now some of you may be saying to yourself, “I’d take that opportunity in a minute, what’s the big deal?”   It was a big deal to my brain.

The Evolution Of The Brainhappy brain

Our brain’s developed over a long period of time, each major section evolving between 100 million and 200 million years apart.

The brain stem or reptilian brain is roughly 500 million years old.   This is the part of your brain that regulations basic functioning, so you don’t need to consciously think about keeping your heart beating and your lungs expanding and contracting.

The mid-brain or mammalian brain is approximately 300 million years old.   This part of your brain is where your emotions reside and where the amygdala is located.

The amygdala are the parts of your brain (there are actually two) that reacts to any real or perceived threat and elicits the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response.

The cortex is the third part of the brain. It was developed approximately 100 million years ago. Covering the rest of the brain (think of a head scarf), it is responsible for rational thought processes and is where we generate our creative ideas.

Our brains are unlike any other organ in our body. Other organs like our skin, heart, liver, etc. were basically stable and consistent in their development over the millennia.

Because the three parts of the brain evolved over different periods, with different functions, they can at times operate at cross purposes.

The purpose of the amygdala is to signal threat of any kind, perceived and real. Imagine a tornado warning siren, a loud signal to take action to protect yourself, that’s the amygdala.

The amygdala is a rapid response system, when it is triggered it sets of a series of chemical reactions that shut down some bodily functions (e.g. digestion) and allow for the release of adrenaline into your bloodstream.

These chemical reactions also restrict the functioning of the cortex, the rational part of our brain and where our creative abilities reside.

So what does this have to do with New Year’s resolutions and big changes you ask? Big changes trigger the amygdala.

The response of the amygdala is instantaneous, while the processing of the cortex is a slower process.

Change Always Feels Uncomfortable

Therefore, even when the change is desirable (a move to another country, a new job, etc.) our body is experiencing the same reaction as if we were stuck in a malfunctioning car on a railroad track with a train rapidly approaching.

Unfortunately, when we are in the midst of these positive changes, we aren’t mindful to what our body is experiencing.

We might rationalize that we are excited and that’s why we feel that adrenaline rush. However, as we now know, the stress response triggered by the amygdala is not intended for long periods of time.

If we are mindful of our circumstances, and how our brains work, we can interrupt the cycle by taking a few deep breaths, allowing the cortex to catch up.

If we aren’t aware of this brain-body connection, we may wonder why it takes so long to learn the jargon in our new job or why we are exhausted at the end of the day.

You may ask yourself, “Why am I so tired?” or “Why can’t I remember all the details?” Due to our amygdala and cortex being at odds in these types of situations, we miss information or it is just harder to concentrate.

Okay, what do you do when you really want to lose 10 pounds? First, consider that your brain doesn’t like big change (the mammalian brain), but your brain likes small questions to ponder and to apply creative solutions (the cortex).

Big changes trigger the amygdala, so ask your cortex, “What small change can I make that will get me to my goal of losing 10 pounds?”

Perhaps it is a small as standing for 5 minutes every hour, taking the stairs rather than the escalator, or parking your car as far as possible from the entrance to the mall.

Small Is The New Black

Brainstorm a list of small actions you could take to reach your goal that won’t trigger your amygdala. Start small and add to your list, soon you’ll be exercising regularly without having to overcome your brain’s natural response to change.

What about that wonderful new job you just started? What are the small steps to help you overcome the amygdala response? What can help you free up energy and creativity when your brain is at cross purposes?

It may sound simplistic, but an important small step is to focus on your breathing. When we are anxious (when the amygdala fires) we breathe shallowly and incompletely. Consciously stopping to take a few deep breaths is the small step to help counteract the brain’s response to big change.

One simple breathing technique is to inhale to the count of 3 or 4, pause to the same count, exhale to the count of 3 or 4 and remain empty to the same count.

Try this a few times at home to practice and to get the sense of how this feels.   Then incorporate this breathing sequence into your day, especially before you walk into a meeting, when you are going to make a presentation, or just feel tired.

Please don’t mis-understand me, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t make changes in your life.   Take that new job, move to another state, start exercising, or go for that promotion.

We only have one life to live, so create the changes you want to experience. Being mindful of how your brain works and creating small steps to avoid the fight, flight, or freeze response will make those changes easier.

You’ll be surprised how much more energy you’ll have and how much of your natural creativity will be available by taking small steps and consciously breathing deeply.

Author’s Bio

Carol is actively practicing mindfulness and taking small steps as a result of moving to another state, starting a business, and learning about her new community. You can read more about her at Why Strive? Thrive!

Main Image Courtesy of tracyshaun

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