The brains of all mammals must keep an up-to-date ‘image’ of the reality in which they exist. This ‘image’ is wired into the appropriate neural circuitry in the brain.
Our limbic/mammal brain tries to help us survive and stay alive for as long as possible. An up-to-date image of our reality is absolutely vital for our safety. All mammals need to know what is around them, how to navigate their environment, where to find food and shelter and stay safe from predators and other dangers.
Any significant change to our reality therefore requires that our neural circuitry that contains it is updated *as soon as possible* after a change happens in order to make sure we are safe. Any mammal that does not have an accurate image of their reality wired into their brain is potentially at risk and is vulnerable to danger.
(When I decided to go and type this on my laptop I went to the wrong room. Last weekend I painted and redecorated my old counselling room at home and turned it into my new study. Because my circuitry isn’t yet updated, my brain made me go and open the door of my old study, only to be surprised for a brief moment that it is now an empty room.
It’ll take me using my new study a few times in the next few days and possibly opening the wrong door a few more times before the old wiring is updated and the image of my new reality is properly established. This is a simple and not an emotionally-loaded example of how this works.
I am sure everyone can find examples of this from their own lives like when you automatically reached out to the cutlery drawer for example, only to realise it is no longer where it used to be because the kitchen was renovated or it is a different house you’ve just moved into…)
We interact with our reality *from within* our neural circuitry, not the other way around. In other words, we see the world not as it really is, but as it is wired into our brain! If the internal circuitry and the reality out there are not reasonably well-matching it can feel a bit crazy, confusing and strange not to mention unsafe when the two clash like when I went to the wrong room even though it’s no longer my study.
Because the change we are going through now keeps happening and we don’t know when it’ll end or what things will look like when it does, our brain doesn’t know exactly what it is adjusting to. The goal posts keep shifting so to speak and we have no control over it. This can make the current situation more challenging to the adjustment process and therefore more uncomfortable than change that is clear and final.
A natural process
Adjusting to change is a natural process, not an illness or a mental health ‘condition’. It ends when our circuitry is fully adjusted to the new reality after the change. Since the situation we’re in just now isn’t clear and since it is ongoing, our brain doesn’t exactly know what to adjust to. It’s doing its best under the circumstances but it’s not easy.
How much your reality has been interrupted because of the current situation we’re in will determine how demanding your adjustment process is going to feel. The less change the less discomfort. The more change the more discomfort you will feel.
Grief & Adjustment to Change
Grief can be a part of adjustment to change if there are losses involved and there are losses in almost every change we go through. Some losses are bigger and more significant than others and what losses each of us experiences are unique to us. I don’t particular feel a loss about changing rooms but you might feel a loss if you are unable to see or spend time with people that are dear to you because of the lockdown.
What we experience through the adjustment
While our brain is busy adjusting, we can feel insecure, disoriented, confused, out-of-sorts, angry, irritable, forgetful, scatty and restless. We can feel quite lost, which is accurate because what is wired into our heads, temporarily does not match our actual external reality. We can feel fearful and have a tendency to anticipate danger, expect the worst, focus on negatives and all the things that can go wrong.
This is a normal function of our mammal/limbic brain, which is just trying to keep us alive. Our species survived so well because on a dangerous planet full of predators and other dangers it paid off to expect the worst. It might not be useful so much now, but this is still with us and will be triggered whenever our mammal brain believes we are in danger.
This natural ability can also make us feel quite low. It’s not nice when we can only see bleak stuff ahead and our reality feels crappy. There is no energy or interest in playing or having fun when our brain thinks we are in danger. The limbic brain’s priority is short-term survival and all long-term things take a back seat temporarily. That’s totally normal. While negativity and predicting the worst might not accurately reflect reality as it is or as it will actually be, it’s normal to feel this way.
Unreliable access to our executive brain
When we adjust to change our mammal brain will tend to take over and we will have unreliable access to our executive brain. We can lose reliable access to executive functions such as clear thinking and our ability to plan ahead and make decisions. We can lose our empathy on and off and feel like we don’t care about others as much as we normally do. We can lose our sense of purpose and direction.
An incredibly common symptom of adjustment to change is exhaustion and I mean the kind of exhaustion that is not necessarily relieved by sleep, no matter how much sleep you get. When the brain adjusts its circuitry it is a physiological process and it take a great deal of energy that’s why it’s feels so exhausting. The brain takes 25% of our energy just to maintain itself in normal times so don’t under estimate this. We feel the same kind of exhaustion when we engage in learning something new. The bigger the task the more tired we will feel at least in the early stages.
Compromised immune system – When our survival instincts are triggered our immune function can be compromised. Maintaining a strong immune system takes a lot of energy which under threat is naturally diverted to short-term survival.
Feeling like you’re going crazy
When our neural circuitry doesn’t yet match our actual reality, we can feel crazy… It just means we feel like we are not exactly ‘in’ our reality. But we’re not actually crazy or going crazy. We’re just adjusting and it is temporary.
What to do and what not to do
o It is important to allow the adjustment to take its course. It is a normal, if incredibly uncomfortable and disorienting process.
o It’s important to reassure yourself that what you are feeling is normal that you are not sick or crazy and that it will pass. Tell yourself that although it can feel like you are in danger you’re not. You’ll need to breathe more deeply to be able to do this.
o Avoid hyping up fear by reading, watching or listening to anything that seems intended to make you feel scared.
o If you can hold on to some of your usual practices, rituals and routines that can be very helpful. If there is a change to adjust to, it helps if some things don’t change and remain familiar.
o Don’t drink or do drugs and try to not avoid how you feel but instead validate everything you feel. Drinking alcohol even in small amounts compromises the very executive functions we actually need in order to support and encourage the process the adjustment. Any escapist behaviour only makes things worse in the longer term because it interferes with the adjustment process.
o Support children and young people in your life by validating everything they feel. Be honest with them and do not pretend (they can feel what you feel no matter what you think you put on your face). Help them understand what their brain (everyone’s brain) is doing right now in response to change. Even very young children can understand this. (You will feel rewarded when you see their reaction!)
o Eat well (even if your appetite isn’t great) and take supplements that you know strengthen your immune system. Avoid toxins and foods that take too much energy to digest and that can be mood altering. You want to feel your feelings and validate them so you can adjust faster, not avoid them and interfere with your natural adjustment.
***If you are not safe where you are, if you are in a bad relationship where you are abused or mistreated in some way, seek help. If you know someone else who is in that position, do not keep silent. Make sure they get help.