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Surviving Change You Didn’t Ask For

Editorial Team

M.J. Ryan is the author of Adaptability: How To Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For (Broadway Books). In her book, Ryan, a columnist for Health magazine, shows how to get past fear and resistance to change and re-train your brain to master new challenges. Women For Hire asked her Five Questions.

1. A lot of women are being hit in this recession with change they don’t want and didn’t ask for. If you had one short bit of advice for dealing with it, what would it be?

Focus on the solution, not the problem. Because society rewards analytic thinking, we believe that identifying the cause is the answer: Why is this happening. That’s a starting point, but don’t spend too much time there. It can send you into a spiral of negative feelings that only keep you stuck in blame or shame. What are you going to do about where you are? How are you going to respond in the most effective way? These are the questions that lead to a positive future.

2. What are a few things that happen to your body and mind in reaction to surprise change?

Change not of your choosing often sets off an emotional process that experts say follows a predictable cycle. Not surprisingly, this cycle is similar to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief—denial: “this can’t be happening to me”; anger: “how dare this happen, it’s not fair”; bargaining: “I’ll do anything not to have to go through this”; depression: “why try?” and acceptance: “it’s happening and I can handle it.”

That’s because unasked-for change always represents a death of some sort—the death of homeownership, for instance, or the dream of parenthood or of an early retirement. It is the death of your expectations for the future. Whatever else this change means, there’s always a sense of loss of control.

The good news is that experts have discovered that we can simultaneously be going through this grieving process and adapt.

Many times unasked for change also produces fear, which triggers the fight or flight response in the more primitive part of our brain that we share will all mammals and reptiles. It’s constantly scanning the environment for pain/pleasure, safety/danger. It turns on when it perceives the possibility of danger or pain. Anger is part of the fight response. All forms of denial are a flight response.

But these two aren’t the only options. In extreme fear, animals, including humans, have been known to literally become paralyzed. At least one of the survivors of the Virginia Tech shootings for instance, reported that it happened to him. And traders on Wall Street have been known to freeze on the stock exchange floor as they watch their clients’ money disappear. It’s a kind of stupor that creates an unfortunate self-reinforcing feedback loop.

No matter which of the three you respond with, the stress hormones that are triggered in the fear response by the part of our brain called the amygdala can sometimes increase the fear, making it ever more difficult for the other parts of the brain to respond.

If the fear gets strong enough, the amygdala actually cuts off access to the other parts of our brain and we lose the capacity to think rationally altogether. That’s why I say the enemy is not change, but fear. We need to have ways to get out of fear so we can use all of our brain’s capacity to deal with the situation.

3. How do women handle unexpected change differently from men?

When the hormones are released that create the fight, flight, or freeze response, women secrete another hormone, oxytocin, which gives us a fourth option for how to respond—to bond with others. UCLA social psychologist Shelley Taylor calls it the “tend and befriend” response. Because of this built-in tendency, women more naturally seek out others when times are tough.

This is extremely useful because in times of unasked for change, the question is not do you need support, but what kind of support do you need? Someone to listen to your feelings? To help brainstorm solutions? To offer practical help?

However, I have been seeing many women not opting for this more useful choice because of believing that they must be the care giver, never the care taker. We need to remember that support is a two way street that should flow from and to us.

4. I have a good job but there have been cutbacks at my company and talk of layoffs. The uncertainty is making me very anxious. What to do?

You need two kinds of strategies–one intellectual and one emotional. First, gather as much information as possible as to what is going on and focus on doing the best job you can so that you will be retained. In order to do that, you need to tend to your feelings. Every time you feel anxious, breathe slowly and deeply. Shallow breathing is a sign that you are in fight or flight, where you are not in touch with all of your resources to handle this change.

A few conscious slow and deep breaths, especially if you also relax your muscles as much as possible, tells the part of your brain responsible for fight or flight that you’re not in danger and so it calms down. Then you’re able to think more clearly, widely and deeply. To test if you’re breathing deeply, put one hand on your chest, the other on your belly. Take a breath in and out. Are both hands moving?

If only the top one is, see if you can get the bottom one going as well. If you find yourself worrying all the time, set aside a 15 minute worry time, say 5pm every day. Then when your mind starts worrying at other times, tell yourself it’s not worry time and distract yourself with something that occupies your mind, like a challenging work task.

5) I have been at the same job for 20 years but due to the economy I suspect it’s just a matter of time before I’ll be laid off. I’ve never done anything but what I am doing now – and never wanted to. How do I go about identifying new opportunities?

Time to get in touch with LIVE: what you Love to do, your Inner gifts and talents, your Values, and the Environments that bring out the best in you. There are many ways to explore these that I offer in my book Adapt Ability.

Or you could consult with a career counselor or coach. Does your company have career training? Can HR help you find resources for this? I strongly urge you to take action NOW, before you need to so that you won’t have to waste time figuring this out if you do lose your job.


  1. MS

    I have not worked in 4 year’s. Because I was hit by a Tractor-Trailer and all I’ve been doing is having surgeries. I just had my last surgery at the end of May. I did have a career. I was in the Women’s Wholesale Shoe Business. I need to redo my resume and add other thing’s that I have done in the busines and I don’t know how to execute this style to make my resume and myself stand out.To get myself back in the game. I am not completely ready to go back to work. I know it is going to take a little time to process everything but I think it’s time for me to begin my journey. Can you help me with my situation.I need someone to help me and I don’t know where to turn. I’ve seen you on Oprah and ABC. I thought reaching out to you would be a good start for me.

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