There’s no escaping change. Change can pop up in any realm of our life. At work, it can be new directives coming from a boss. At home, it can be children going off to college. In current events, as vaccination numbers increase and COVID cases decrease, many people are faced with having to leave what has become their haven at home and return to life pre-Covid. For many of us, change can be challenging and unwelcome.
Why is change so hard?
Our bodies instinctively act to ensure self-preservation by maintaining consistent internal conditions. For example, when a body’s internal temperature gets too high, blood vessels in the skin react to bring down the temperature and regain homeostasis. Similarly, the mind works to maintain efficiency by resisting change to systems that are tried and true. It perceives change as a threat and defends against it. This reaction is appropriate when a real danger, like a virus, that the body needs to fight. However, the same reaction occurs even when the changes can be beneficial to us. For example, John encounters a new platform at work that holds the possibility of increasing his productivity by 20%. However, he procrastinates learning how to use the new system and remains using the old, to the detriment of his workload. Minds do not distinguish safe and unsafe and treat all changes as a threat, even if they benefit us.
How can we differentiate between safe and unsafe change? Let’s explore ACT and DBT’s STOP strategies to create a game plan for making informed, strong choices when faced with change.
As a therapist, I use the modality of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach that focuses on living life through what you identify as your values. Dr. Russ Harris, a leading authority on the ACT model, explains ACT as a conscious analysis of “towards” moves and “away” moves in your reactions to life events. He defines “towards” moves as actions that bring you towards the life you want to live and “away” moves as actions that pull you away from the life you want to live.
Towards moves and away moves are unique to each person. The same action can be a towards the movement for one and an away move for another. For example, Lydia decides to start walking twice a week to increase her weekly exercise regimen. This move takes her towards her value of being physically healthy. Ryan, however, is feeling depressed and is having a hard time finding self-motivation. Although he previously ran six days a week, he currently runs twice a week and is frustrated that he is moving away from his value of being physically healthy.
Through ACT, one evaluates the moves they choose during life events related to their core values. ACT helps clarify how to avoid away moves that bring them farther from what is important to them and build on toward moves that will allow them to remain true to their life values.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is an evidence-based therapy model that provides strategies to help with various social-emotional challenges. One of these strategies is explained through the acronym STOP and can increase mindful responses to charged situations. STOP stands for:
- S- Stop- When you are about to take action guided by emotion, press the pause button.
- T- Take a step back– Don’t act on impulse. Do something physical to signify your break. For example, stand up from your chair, step in forward, take a breath, think or say the word “pause.”
- O- Observe- Notice what is going on in your body and mind. What emotions are you experiencing? Is it anxiety? Is it sadness? Name the feeling to yourself and notice how that emotion is playing out in your body physically. Is your chest or stomach tight, is your heart beating, are your eyebrows furrowed?
- P– Proceed mindfully- What action are you about to do to respond? Will you regret the response, and do you think that it will lead to a satisfying resolution?
STOP is an approach that people can use during a variety of situations. We will now take a closer look at how the model of ACT can be used alongside the steps of STOP when faced with a new and challenging change.
ACT meets STOP
Let’s take an example of a challenging change situation that an individual can more appropriately manage through STOP and ACT.
- S – Stop
Kim’s boss sends her an email saying that she needs to return to work in person in the office and can no longer work virtually from home. Kim is about to send a strongly worded email to her boss, sharing her thoughts about this unexpected change.
- S- Stop.
Kim doesn’t send the email.
- T – Take a step back.
Kim gets up and walks away from the computer. She takes a short walk around the block.
- O – Observe
Kim notices that she feels angry about the apparent lack of concern for her needs and anxiety about finding childcare for her toddler. She pays attention to the physical responses accompanying these emotions: a tight jaw and shallow breathing.
- P – Proceed Mindfully
Kim uses the ACT model to decide the best way to proceed mindfully. Sending a nasty email goes against her values of being a dedicated worker and kind colleague and would constitute an away move. The value she is focusing on is taking care of her family. A towards action for this value may be reaching out to friends who have returned to work and successfully found childcare. She can then use this value to advocate for her family by emailing her boss to explain the predicament and ask for more time to arrange proper care for her child.
Change can be challenging and scary. But, with the right tools, you can make informed and mindful choices to manage change head-on.
“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
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Jonah Green and Associates, LLC is a highly regarded group of mental health clinicians who treat children, teens, and families with a variety of emotional, behavioral, and relationship concerns.
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