Fear of Change: Insights from Neuroscience

01/11/2016Fear of Change: Insights from Neuroscience

Urgency of Change

John Kotter’s first step of leading change is to create a sense of urgency. That means to create a meaningful reason for people to invest time and effort to change. Nowadays we don’t really need to create that urgency – the fast pacing and ever-changing environment creates it by itself. So, the essence of change is our personal and collective growth, but fear is one of the core factors inhibiting our actions towards our success. It’s not the change we fear most nor the success itself, it’s the fact we usually know nothing about them.

Fear of the Unknown

We don’t know how to go there, what we are going to meet, and how to deal with it. Yes, success is not the end of the line. Once attained it needs to be maintained, and this alone is rather stressful. Even if we are now successful we won’t be forever unless we keep adapting to the new environmental circumstances. Especially in a frantically advancing world, there is no success without change at any level. The trap we usually fall into is that we think too much about success but we do not act accordingly towards it. And the main inhibitor of our actions is our fear of the unknown. However, success means that we opt to adapt in the realm of uncertainty. Surprisingly, this requires our attention to the present, because being in a constant anticipatory anxiety activates our fears and we keep thinking of what will go wrong, hindering us from taking action towards our future.

Resisting to Change

Change is the creation of new processes, or habits if we speak about inner change, which result to a new state. However, whatever the change refers to, it is a new territory and our brain does not deal well with the unknown. It sees it as threat and resists, preferring stability and continuity. Stability offers the perception of security, and humans are primed by a “lose averse” bias, tending to be more alert to threats than rewards. Although this was beneficial to some extent during our evolution it is now prohibitive for our further advancement.

Insights from Neuroscience

The advent of neuroscience provided us with great research based insights about how our brains work under fear, and how we can override it. We now have the chance to develop new skills in order to quickly adapt and pursue transformation. The amygdala, the part of our limbic system associated with emotions, is the coordinator between cognitive information we receive from the environment and our physiological responses to these stimuli. It is located in our lower subcortical layers, the ones created in our early developmental stages, long before our newest cortical areas provided us with our higher cognitive functions.

Amygdala is always and subconsciously alert for rewards and threats, ready to trigger towards or away actions respectively. Consequently, it plays a significant role in regulating our fears. Although fear keeps us vigilant to the occurrence of physical threats, it is also restricting our ability to focus to anything else (possible future rewards), by consuming massive energy that could alternatively be used in other conscious and creative ways. What happens when we fear, is that the rise of norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline), which is the equivalent of adrenaline, triggers our expectation of negative events, in that we see the unknown future as threat, hence we tend to avoid it and consequently resist to any change efforts. However, the chemistry of interest also dictates the prospects that novelty brings to our focused attention. Dopamine is released and its levels are raised when something unexpected and positive happens. Every time that we expect something positive, a reward, dopamine is generated by our brain. We feel an excitement that turns into an interest (increased level of motivation), but when we fear, the release of norepinephrine nullifies the positive effects of dopamine.

Bringing the Change

Creating a safe and brain friendly environment that fosters change is mandatory, now that uncertainty has become part of our existence more than ever before. A leader who supports such an environment:

  • Helps people to direct their focus and their energy, and
  • Stimulates their motivation in that they increase their willingness to change (by setting positive expectations).
Change however is not a one-off process. Efforts have to be constant and repetitive, because they are highly associated with learning new things which takes continuous practice. Finally, a trust based environment promotes change through positive signals of supportiveness which reduce our adrenaline levels (to the benefit of dopamine effects) and increase the probabilities of producing another brain chemical, oxytocin, which is found to boost trust by weakening fear-processing circuities.