For the next few weeks, Wellness Wednesday is exploring the concept of change. Recognizing that things need to change is a key first step towards wellness. Join us over the next month as we dig into change and the barriers that can emerge along the way. This week features the return of Wellness Wednesday's editor Michael Decaire.
Last week on Wellness Wednesday we discussed the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change. This model can help us identify where we are in our change journey, but can also assist us in identifying barriers those seeking change may face along the way. It can also be a process that is derailed by fear, an emotion that many of us will experience surrounding a process of change. How fear presents itself during change can be a shifting pattern, with each major stage of change reflecting a different type of fear that may either move us forwards or backwards in our journey towards wellness.
Fear in Contemplation. As a reminder, an individual in a contemplative state is beginning to recognize that change might be a good idea or necessary. These thoughts are often fleeting and may not be particularly flushed out to any significant depth. Fear can derail early contemplative states due to the emergence of anxiety surrounding the unknown. While we may not be particularly comfortable in our current state, it is familiar. That familiarity can reduce certain anxieties, where a dive into change without having initiated some early preparation steps can reflect an undefined journey ahead for the contemplator. That lack of definition can often be a substantial barrier to initiating action.
Fear in Preparation. The early contemplator may find that, despite their fears, they have been forced through the unknown by the emergence of a stressor that tips the scales and makes the initial preparatory steps less scary than the thought of inaction (e.g. facing an ultimatum from a partner; a health emergency). While the shifting balance of fears can help facilitate movement, it does not mean that fear of change has entirely subsided. Instead, the nature of that fear has changed.
During preparatory states, an individual may feel overwhelmed by the number of steps they have deemed necessary to move towards their defined goal. They may be fearful that this is a journey that they are not yet capable of taking, pushing them back towards a contemplative state and reconsidering whether change is even possible. The trick here is to recognize that change is a journey and is rarely something that can be completed in a single step. Mapping out a multi-step journey does not mean that we need to successfully navigate each of these steps now, but it does tell us what the first or next step looks like. Generally that next step is not particularly scary. If it is, you are likely combining two steps at once and need to break that next step down to a level that it is not particularly fear inducing.
Fear in Action. The action-staged individual has undoubtedly battled successfully through many fears. This in itself can be an empowering process that fuels change, but the action-stage of change is rarely a short one and fears may creep back in throughout the process. A common fear during early action stages is the fear of failure. This fear
can be a double edged sword; helpful in one way, but detrimental in the other. Fear of failure can spawn increased attunement to threats to successful change, which can help us anticipate and counter those threats as we face them. Fear of failure, however, can also cause us to feel unwilling to take the necessary steps towards change due to discomfort with the idea of failing and what that would mean to our self-esteem and worth. Feelings of hopelessness can often leave us stuck in an unchanging state, but we also may perceive that this feeling will be compounded by attempting change and actively confirming to ourselves that we are destined for failure. The funny thing about hopelessness is that it is really only an accurate feeling if you always fail to act.
Fear in Maintenance. A surprising fear can emerge towards the end of the maintenance stage of change that can be a bit of a surprise, but poses a barrier towards a final transition to termination. A “fear of letting go” of some of the resources used in the action and maintenance stage can emerge due to anxieties of falling back into old habits. This could include something as simple as no longer tracking calories during a push towards increased healthy eating or something more substantial as discontinuing therapy that helped you along the change journey. At times, some of these new resources may be part of your ongoing termination plan. For instance, attending peer support meetings for an addiction may allow you to keep other wellness factors in check or permit you to support others along their journey. At other times, they can be actions that are not meaningfully supporting wellness, but are instead mental crutches that we are holding on to out of fear. Letting go of these “crutches” does not mean they cannot be accessible to you in the future if needed, but judging whether they are legitimately helpful in the here and now is an important step towards termination.
Is Fear a Bad Thing? Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. All humans have the capacity to respond to fear in multiple ways. Evolutionary theories have long looked at the concepts of fight, flight, or freeze, the latter often being excluded in the public lexicon around “fight or flight”. In the process of change, the most common initial barrier to change is a freeze response. In this state, the individual is in stasis and unable to move. Old habits persist and there is either no further consideration of change or they feel paraliyzed with the simple thought of considering movement forward.
A flight response is more likely to emerge during action stages and result in an individual retreating back to their old habits. This can leave an individual feeling like they have failed and may increase the likelihood that the next time they consider change the freeze response begins to emerge.
Successful change comes when an individual’s response to fear is to activate their fight response. The fight response initiates action, but can be followed by a flight response when stifled. The trick is to keep on fighting, looking at failures as an opportunity to reassess what went wrong and to put new action steps in place. The power is in assessment and understanding. It is difficult to fight against something you do not understand. By assessing their own experience and the barriers they have faced, one can reduce the power of the unknown and a fight response becomes a much easier thing to initiate.
Join Wellness Wednesday next week as we tackle this final action. Looking at initiating the change process on your own and recognizing when you may benefit from a little help along the way.
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Jessica is a member of the clinical wellness and learning support team at FLEX Psychology. Jessica started Wellness Wednesday out of a desire to provide further opportunities for her clients to extend their wellness journey to all avenues of their life. You can learn more about Jessica by clicking here or by learning more about her and the clinical team at FLEX Psychology by clicking here.