Science Says Change Doesn't Have To Feel So Scary If You Tackle It In This Specific Way

I've always been a little reluctant to commit to big changes. Whether in previous relationships, in career moves, or in everyday decisions, it takes time for me to really feel confident that I'm making the right choice. There's no concrete way to instantly become a go-with-the-flow person if you aren't one naturally, but knowing how to make change less scary could give you a few tools to feel less anxious about making big decisions. And, lucky for us, new research has touched on this exact topic.

According to a ScienceDaily press release, experts from Virginia, Spain, and Singapore led the research to figure out what types of goals tend to suit people best in terms of easing transitions and the feelings associated with change. For instance, are small, short-term goals more favorable, or "easier," than no goals at all/sticking to the status quo? Researchers set out to find the answer to that question in six different studies, the press release explains, all of which looked at how the brain thinks about goals and assesses their difficulty.

Overall, the research, which has been published in the scientific journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, found that most people tend to think small changes are easier to navigate than no changes at all — which is somewhat surprising, right? After all, change is often talked about in this intimidating, daunting sort of way. However, your brain seems to think otherwise, according to this new research.

"When evaluating goal difficulty, our brain first considers the gap between the starting point and the desired state. Usually, the bigger the gap, the more difficult the goal," study co-author Amitava Chattopadhyay, professor of marketing at INSEAD, said in a statement, as per ScienceDaily. "However, if there is no gap to speak of, as in the case of a status quo goal, the brain starts scanning the context, anticipating potential reasons for failure."

In other words, a lack of change — or a "status quo goal," as Chattopadhyay put it — might cause your brain to focus more on an end result, which could include failure, and that itself might naturally elicit more anxiety and make the whole thing feel more difficult to deal with. On the flip side, focusing on steps that work toward a relatively small goal, the study argues, could be easier for your mind to handle, at least compared to not working toward change at all. Even if you're someone who generally finds change to be scary, it kind of makes sense when you think about it this way, doesn't it? Like, wouldn't you rather know that you're working toward something than sit totally still in life?

If you have a big shift approaching in your own life — to a new city, a new home, a new job, whatever it may be — or even if you simply want to be better prepared to roll with whatever life throws your way, it could be helpful to understand that there are essentially two kinds of fear when it comes to change, according to Eric Ruffing, MA, AMFT, a registered associate marriage and family therapist in Orange County, California (who was not involved in the current study). Knowing what kind of change is putting you on-edge, he explains, might help you better understand your emotions. For instance, Ruffing tells Elite Daily, sometimes fear comes from feeling out of control of your circumstances. "When forced change shows up in our life, we often feel that change is controlling our life story now, and that we are forced into it unprepared," he says.

But even when you're undergoing a transition that you have actively chosen, you can totally still feel anxious, Ruffing adds. "When a new job shows up or we decide to marry or move in with a partner (a change we desire)," he explains, "we start to worry either about what we lack to successfully make the change, or what we are giving up in the form of security and consistency of our life's narrative."

Whatever the situation, Ruffing says it's all about making sure you don't get too caught up in your own head about what change may bring for the future. "Incremental change may best be done by not getting caught up in either the negative thoughts or the positive thoughts," he tells Elite Daily. If you fixate too much on one specific outcome that you want from a new experience, he explains, it'll either fall short of your expectations, or you might feel like you weren't as equipped to handle it as you might have wanted. Instead, Ruffing suggests, be kind to yourself, and understand that you don't have to navigate the situation alone.

This isn't to say you shouldn't think about the future at all, of course. It's obviously useful to consider potential outcomes, but it's also important to realize that it may take some time to get used to any changes you're making and how they affect your life. "Take it step by step in smaller bites," suggests licensed marriage and family therapist Michelene Wasil, MA, LMFT. Instead of catastrophizing, she tells Elite Daily, plan for how this shift might affect you. "Know your deadlines," she says. "How much time do you have before the changes take effect? How can you best prepare yourself?"

Regardless of whether you're a "cup half-full" kind of person or not, it can be easy to think of all the ways that a big life change might make things worse instead of better. "When we hear 'change,' we have a negative, protective bias in our brain that makes us worry that we will be losing something and end up worse off than we were to start with," explains leadership coach and change management expert Lisa Sansom in an email to Elite Daily. "The unknown ahead can be frightening because we fear that there could be misery ahead of us." But don't feel like you have to fake confidence if you are truly worried about a situation, says Sansom. It's totally OK to work through a shifting time in your life with a professional, she explains.

If you want some perspective, remember that you've already made it through a number of enormous changes in your life. Even the mere act of being born — shifting from the safety of your mother's womb to the instability of the world — was technically a huge change that you successfully endured. "It may be helpful to create a mantra in your head to repeat to yourself when you are [feeling] scared about an upcoming change," Courtney Glashow, LCSW, psychotherapist and founder of Anchor Therapy, LLC, tells Elite Daily over email. "You can tell yourself, 'You got this. You've gotten through before.'"

"And remember," Glashow adds, "change is a part of being human."