June 10

Why We Struggle to Adapt to Change

There are few things in life we universally detest. Change is one of them. As we get older, our resistance to change seems only to increase. We become stubborn and resistant, throwing toddler-like tantrums whenever life deviates in any way from how it's "supposed" to be. Why is it such a struggle for us to adapt to change? And what, if anything, can we do to make the process less miserable?

It's not that some people have willpower and some don't. It's that some people are ready to change and others are not. James Gordon

Until the latter half of the twentieth century, the world knew little about the country that has a lot to be proud of—the birthplace of Buddha, home to Mount Everest, and a land with one of the highest concentrations of UNESCO sites in the world—Nepal. That started to change in the 1950s, thanks, in significant part, to one man's dogged determination.

Dr. Toni Hagen

Some of the credit for Nepal becoming the tourism behemoth it is today goes to Dr. Toni Hagen (1917-2003), a Swiss geologist who visited Nepal in 1950 as part of the first Swiss development assistance mission. Dr. Hagen, who later worked under the auspices of the UN, had the taxing job of conducting a one-man geological survey of the rocky, high altitude, mountainous nation.

Dr.Hagen supposedly walked over 9000 miles on his mission to map out Nepal's topography, revealing the country's wondrous beauty to the world. Such a daunting mission in a foreign land had another flip side. It required personal sacrifices on Dr. Hagen's part since his job required him to spend significant time away from his wife and three kids.

The cost of adventure

In a NY Times article published in 1954, Dr. Hagen recounted an argument between his kids. His youngest daughter, Kathrin, all of five years old then, turned to her eight-year-old brother and said the nastiest thing she could think of— "I am praying to God to make you become a geologist." Suffice to say, she did not think very highly of her father's vocation.

Dr. Hagen couldn't do much about the demands of his occupation—a profession he loved and was incredibly good at. But, with his wife's support, he did the next best thing he could. The parents worked together to help their kids appreciate the advantages of living in a culture outside of their own, in a foreign land, with people who looked and spoke differently.

It worked.

In a few years, the kids made many friends in Kathmandu and spoke the local language fluently, so much so that Kathrin changed her mind, telling her father, "Geology is the only thing. Everything else is rubbish."

Embracing change

Kathrin wasn't the only one who had the ability to adapt to change in the Hagen household. Upon seeing the influx of Tibetan refugees migrate to Nepal and struggle to establish their lives, Dr. Hagen became more interested in humanitarian rather than geological problems.

In an article published in Swissinfo, freelance writer and Nepal-enthusiast Bernhard Banzhaf said this about Dr. Hagen:

"He was a geologist and mainly interested in stones, but when these Tibetan refugees arrived in Nepal, he became convinced that people are more important, and he changed his profession profoundly and went to work with the refugees."

Because of his ability to adapt to change, Dr. Hagen became not just one of the world's most influential geologists but a great humanitarian and advocate for refugees worldwide.

We revere stories such as Dr. Hagen's because they are rare. Most of us aren't huge fans of change. We get upset if the grocery store runs out of the cereal brand we're used to, let alone traversing through a foreign land thousands of miles away.

The vast majority of human beings dislike and even actually dread all notions with which they are not familiar... Hence it comes about that at their first appearance, innovators have generally been persecuted and always derided as fools and madmen. Aldous Huxley

What causes change?

Change can be extrinsic—triggered by an external event (usually out of our control), or intrinsic—brought on by our choices.

Adverse events such as being laid off from a job or a health crisis are typically hard to deal with because they often come with no warning and catch us unawares. So, it's only fair for us to resist such changes.

But why do we struggle to adapt to change even when we seek to make the change ourselves?

Even when no one is foisting the change over us, and it's entirely self-motivated, why do we still struggle to quit smoking, get rid of our daily soda habit, or get out to exercise?

Why are we as a species so resistant to adapt to change?

Why we dislike change

I'm in favor of progress. It's change I don't like. Mark Twain

There is a surprisingly simple scientific explanation for why we dislike change.

By definition, change is something new to us—an unfamiliar experience our brain does not yet know how to navigate. And when something is not familiar, the survival mechanism wired into our limbic system immediately kicks in to mark the experience as "potentially dangerous."

Let's say you take the same route to go to work every day. But then, one evening, you find the freeway closed to traffic. For the sake of argument, let's assume it is 1990, and you don't have a GPS handy to re-route you. (And, if you find the construct of a no-GPS-world unfathomable, think of it as a sci-fi movie with time travel to the past—I've been there. I have to say it was kind of cool.)

When confronted with the closed freeway, your brain senses right away that it's in unfamiliar territory. Then the brain does what it's supposed to do: tries to keep you alive. It activates neural circuits and stress hormones to put you on alert. No more driving on autopilot or easy-listening to your favorite retro radio station. Your brain requires you to do the work to figure out a new way to get back home.

Fear of the unknown

The fear of the unknown, in turn, evokes the fight-or-flight response. And, as almost all of us (unless you are an adrenal junkie) can attest, it brings about some rather unpleasant sensations—heightened anxiety, rapid heartbeat, reduced working memory, etc.

No, thank you. We'd much rather prefer the familiar and comfortable, which, in turn, is why we choose the status-quo over change, even when change is better for us in the longer term.

But cliched as it sounds, change is the only constant. So, instead of reacting like a deer in headlights to every change we encounter, there are ways to train our brain to, if not like, at least stop dreading change.

How to adapt to change

Before we can take practical steps to adapt to change, it can be helpful to understand some key concepts about the process of change.


One of the key aspects that define our personalities is the behavior trait of "openness" — an indicator of how open we are to novel experiences in life. Openness is at its peak in our twenties but gradually declines once we get into our thirties and then into midlife.

There's a reason for the decline. As we get more settled in life, with jobs, family, and social standing, we crave security and comfort. We like to "color within the lines." Change, at that stage, can be unsettling.

It is much easier for a 21-year-old to take a gap year after college to go backpacking around the world than for a 45-year-old with a mortgage, three kids, and a job.  

That said, a 2003 research study confirmed that personality traits (including openness) aren't set when we're young and that they can change throughout life, albeit at a slower pace. The first step to embracing change is understanding and accepting the limitations of novelty.

Change is not linear

Renowned psychologist Dr. James Prochaska, one of the world's leading clinical psychologists, is the proponent of the stage model of behavior change. His theory is that change isn't a one-and-done process but rather an involved back-and-forth mechanism of progression and regression.

Without getting into technicalities, suffice to say, like the familiar five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), behavioral change is a six-stage process.

Stages of change
Pre-contemplation: Acknowledging the status quo isn't great

For instance, you struggle to walk up a flight of stairs to catch up with your young kids. Then, you admit to yourself that you may have a cardiovascular fitness issue.

Contemplation: Finding an alternative

A little cardio exercise every day could help you not get winded climbing up a flight of stairs. In contemplation, you weigh the pros and cons of the proposed solution. Can you fit exercise into your already packed schedule?

It is during this stage that you convince yourself of the need for change. Or not.

Preparation: Putting the wheels in motion

You join a gym or sign up to do weekly fitness classes at the local park. The more detailed and firmer your plans are for this stage (including backup strategies—who'll take care of kids when you're in class?), the better your outcome will be.

Action: The doing

You actually start doing the things you said you'd do—you show up at the gym or run a block around the park. Regularly. Positive feedback at this stage can be constructive.

Maintenance: The habit

This is where you make exercise a habit instead of a goal. It is important to watch out for triggers that could set you back in the cycle—missing multiple workouts, for instance, could send you all the way back into the preparation stage.

Termination: Change accomplished

You've arrived! You have no desire to go back to your old sedentary ways. You have successfully modified your behavior and can now focus on the next change.

Though most of us aren't studying to be clinical psychologists, understanding these six stages of change can help us figure out what part of change is most challenging.

The power of tiny, barely-noticeable changes

Change isn't painful. It is the resistance to change that's painful. 

It is easy as we age to become creatures of habit—to eat the same breakfast daily, hang out with the same people and enjoy the same vacations. But when we get a little too entrenched in our comfort zones, even the slightest disruptions to our schedules can annoy us no end. And larger troubles can leave us reeling.

That's why it's important to change things up a bit every day—to make life not too predictable.

The tiniest changes, such as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, drinking your coffee black instead of with cream, and taking a slight detour to work, can prevent our brains from going into autopilot and bring us back to the present.

And ultimately, that's the only proven solution to adapt to change—to simply focus on the here and now instead of fretting about the consequences of change.


Everything in life is in a state of flux.

The cells in our bodies are constantly replaced, so much so that we are almost entirely new people, cellularly speaking, every seven years. The average Fortune 500 company's tenure is about 20 years.

In short, things change.

But most of these changes are barely noticeable on a day-to-day basis making it easier for us to adapt to change.

It's the noticeable changes or the ones we don't expect that throw us off.

Cocooning ourselves in our comfort zones and living our lives on repeat only makes us resist harder when we're confronted with unforeseen change(s). And resistance gets us nowhere.

For what if you should think that that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbor, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about. Seneca

While change is inevitable, our resistance need not be.

The best way to adapt to change is to learn how to live in the moment, in the breath—the here and now. That's all there is. Everything else is imaginary.



{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
Get a FREE detailed step by step guide to build a practical to-do list to achieve all your life goals. 
You'll also get weekly actionable tips based on science for a healthy, productive and happy life!