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  • Writer's pictureLena

Change Fatigue: When our brain's ability to adapt is exhausted 🧠🙅🏻

All changes, even positive ones, come with a certain price. Whether we're dealing with personal changes - a new role, a newborn, a new city - or experiencing the broader societal changes that impact our daily lives, each change forces our brain to adapt and alter its neural pathways to process new patterns and reduce uncertainty.

This is why change feels stressful: We don't just observe change, we change ourselves in the process, and each change challenges our mental and physical adaptive abilities. This is why many of us feel so tired at the moment: these systems are designed primarily to deal with sudden changes, not to cope with long, drawn-out periods of change.

The resources that enable us to deal with acute stressful situations have been depleted by years of turmoil. Psychologists would put it this way: our "mental capacity" is exhausted. We are experiencing change fatigue on an unprecedented scale.

Change fatigue as a hidden driver of burnout 🤯

Imagine a world where you have to relearn everything you know every morning. How to get out of bed, how to turn on the tap, how to brush your teeth, how to make coffee, how to open a door. It would be impossible to act.

Instead, our brain stores all these general patterns and then adapts our actions to certain situations. Sometimes you come across a new pattern. This can be something mundane - maybe you bought a new coffee machine that works differently from the old one - or something more complex, like a new project at work that requires different skills.

In these cases, doing the new action takes more effort. You may figure it out yourself, or you may ask someone for help. Once you have learned the new pattern, your brain will associate it with the appropriate response. The more often you encounter this pattern, the more effortless the process becomes and the less energy your brain needs.

This process, which seems simple on the surface, applies to everything we do. Over time we develop habits and routines, we become more familiar with the skills we use at work, and we certainly don't think twice about brushing our teeth.

But what happens when things keep changing? When we can no longer rely on many of the useful patterns we have acquired?

Slowly, our ability to deal with change begins to fade. Each new change requires even more effort. Because of the constant cognitive overload, we feel a sense of resistance, apathy or resignation. If this continues long enough, we can even experience burnout.

Fortunately, change fatigue does not necessarily lead to burnout. As is so often the case when it comes to mental health, becoming aware of the reasons for our problems is an important first step. If we feel that the constant adjustment is becoming too much, some simple strategies can help us deal with change fatigue.

How to deal with change fatigue 💪🏼

Change fatigue occurs mainly when we feel we have no control over the never-ending chaos that keeps upsetting our routines and forcing us to constantly adapt. Very often it is the case that change itself is inevitable. What we do have some control over, however, is how we respond to change.

Instead of resisting change and thus putting additional strain on our adaptive system, we can strive to accept, embrace and even encourage change in a way that leads to personal growth.

Accepting change. The first step is to face reality. No, the situation may not return to normal anytime soon, but you must maintain hope that it will eventually - even if it is in the distant future. This is known as the Stockdale paradox. Admiral Jim Stockdale was a military officer who was imprisoned in a POW camp for eight years at the height of the Vietnam War, with no set release date and no certainty if he would ever see his family again. He attributed his resilience to a mindset that may seem contradictory: "One must never confuse the belief that one will win in the end - which one can never afford to lose - with the discipline to face the most brutal facts of the present reality, whatever they may be." Accepting change means accepting the worst and yet hoping for the best.

Embracing change. The next step is to seize the opportunity to learn how to do things differently, having accepted that change - good or bad - is an essential part of life. Change is a tough teacher, but a teacher nonetheless. One effective way to unlearn old patterns and learn new ones is through metacognition - thinking about thinking. Write down each week what surprising new patterns you have noticed, how your current response may no longer be appropriate, and how you might adapt. Think of this process as an experiment where your life is a giant laboratory and where failures are just another data point to include in your next iteration.

Drive the change. The final step is to become an agent of change yourself. You may not be able to bring about large-scale social change, but you can bring about local change in your community, whether it's at work, in your neighbourhood or even online. How can you support others to make change? What actions can you take to improve the development of projects and people around you? Is there any knowledge you can share with others so they don't just have change as a relentless teacher? "The people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world are the ones who do."

And most importantly, don't be too hard on yourself. Everyone has a different mental resilience and you don't have to go through all three stages if you don't feel mentally and emotionally up to it. Just accepting change is a remarkable feat of resilience. 💙

Source: Ness Labs