Why is "change" so difficult?

Ward Halverson has been helping people make significant changes in their lives for more than a decade. He believes that change, ultimately, is the only certain thing in life. Knowing that, people who are able to accept life's changes effectively tend to be the happiest, most comfortable, and least stressed.

What does stress have to do with change?

They are, clinically, almost the same thing. When a person undergoes change, he or she experiences stress. Most people consider stress as problems, worries, tension or pressure. It is more valuable and practical to see stress relating to change, however. Stress can come from any change that one must adjust to. Health problems can cause change in many dimensions of life. Stress can be an everyday fact of life for many. Some thrive on stress. A stressor, something that causes stress, can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Christmas, the holidays, a wedding, buying a house, having a child, all these can be very positive but stressful.

Stress is a sort of wear and tear on our body, mind, and spirit brought about by our reactions to the events of life. The stress response is the end result of the complex interaction between the individual and his or her world.


Stressors are things, events or people that cause us to change or adapt. Here are some common examples:

  • Physical: Personal illness, noise, heat, cold, weather, smoke, pollution.
  • Social: Illness in the family, relationships with family members, friends, neighbors, loved ones or coworkers. A stressful work situation, success, money problems, a major change in family life like getting married, or divorced.
  • Mental: Being in limbo, waiting and not knowing what will be happening, choices in general, not being able to meet a goal, frequently having to be perfect, quick temper, control issues, or addictions
  • Strong emotional reactions can come from or cause more stress.
  • Individual make-up (mind-body-spirit): Each person is different genetically and has unique strengths and weaknesses. These differences include our age, gender, physical fitness, places where tension may build or react in our bodies, illness and health habits.
  • Attitudes, beliefs and personalities. Each person interprets and responds to stressors distinctly. This is in part due to what we have learned in the past.
  • Learning style can come from family, peers, society, church, school, movies and TV.

How do people experience change?

Most of us, at one time or another, have wanted to change some aspect of our lives. Whether change involves something small like losing a few pounds, or a more serious issue like addressing depression or marital problems, the process can be difficult. But change is possible. Research has found that the people who are most successful at making changes go through six predictable stages. These stages are:

  • Pre-Contemplation
  • Contemplation
  • Preparation
  • Action
  • Relapse
  • Maintenance

Pre-contemplation is what most of us call "denial". This is the stage that many of us remain in until we are ready to look honestly at a problem or issue. Rarely do we seek help while in this stage. Contemplation is the stage when we start to say to ourselves, "I am not sure this behavior (issue, relationship, etc.) is working for me or in my best interest." It is a time of extreme ambivalence, however, because as much as a pattern may be hurting us, usually we do things for a reason. Sometimes a pattern which started out innocently has just become a bad habit.

Most people enter therapy when they are contemplating a problem. Therapy can be an excellent place to take inventory of a problem because it is designed to give a patient a chance to explore issues honestly. Without adequate preparation of a change, many of us fall back into old patterns. People often skip the preparation stage and move right into action without adequate planning. Therapy can be a place to design an action plan that will prepare for setbacks, keep the focus on long-term goals and obtain the support and encouragement needed in any difficult process.

Maintaining change is the ultimate goal of this process and therapy can help patients when they start to slip back into old behaviors. A therapist helps a patient learn throughout the change process and stay focused on what works. Maintenance is a learning process, often met with setbacks. This is, sometimes, when people give up, but therapy can keep the process going in a positive direction.

How do stress and change affect the body?

Stress triggers the fight or flight response within the body. Stress-related hormones are released into the blood: Heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up, breathing becomes quicker and shallower, perspiration increases, muscles tense, stomach acid level goes up, blood sugar increases, cholesterol increase, and more.

Originally the stress response helped us survive by increasing the ability to fight, or the ability to flee from an enemy. As men and women have become more "civilized" we have learned to control these powerful responses. Over time, if not managed well, chronic stress can lead to disease, a worsening of health problems and even death.

Does stress cause wear and tear on the body?

Absolutely - the effect is often described by three stages of the stress response, or the general adaptation syndrome.

1. Alarm stage: Prepares the body for the fight or flight response.
2. Resistant stage: The body tries to adjust to chronic stress.
3. Exhaustion stage: The body wears down and becomes prone to disease.
50%-80% of all diseases are stress related. Illness gives you stress!

What are the stress hormones?

Catecholamines (adrenaline and nor adrenaline) cause the body to ready for action. The heart rate increases, blood vessels constrict, blood clots easier, muscles tense, breathing rate increases, pupils dilate, the nerves are stimulated, and perspiration increases. Long term overproduction of these chemicals can lead to: ulcers, headaches, increased pain, diabetes, asthma, heart disease, sleeplessness and high blood pressure. These chemical have been related to reliving trauma as well - it's all interconnected.

Cortisone causes the blood pressure to increase, blood cholesterol to rise, slows vitamin D uptake, can weaken the immune system, increases the production of glucose, and slows digestion. Long term overproduction of this chemical can lead to hardening of the arteries, osteoporosis, sugar diabetes, ulcers, rashes, migraine or tension headaches and other diseases.

What are some typical signs of too much stress or change?

General irritability, hyperactivity or depression
Pounding of the heart
Dryness in the mouth and throat
Emotional instability; strong urges to run or fight
Inability to concentrate, Confusion
Accident proneness
Feelings of weakness or dizziness
Floating anxiety or panic feelings for no known reason
Emotional tension, alertness or feelings of being keyed up
Trembling, nervous tics
High pitched, nervous laughter
Sleeping problems
Grinding teeth
Frequent need to urinate
Stomach and bowel problems, indigestion, pain, nausea, constipation or diarrhea
Loss of or excessive appetite
Migraine or tension headaches
Neck or lower back pain
Increased smoking
Alcohol or drug problems, including tobacco (nicotine), tranquilizers, sleeping pills and caffeine

How do people cope with stress and change?

People can cope effectively or ineffectively. Ineffective coping strategies may help us temporarily feel better, or buy time, but seldom actually solve a stressful situation. We all learn ways to cope; some are less effective than others.

Here are some typically ineffective coping strategies:

  • Denial: "Everything's fine, no problem" but obvious evidence points to real sources of conflict or concern.
  • Wanting to retreat to a happier, simpler time in the past.
  • Complaining: Can be a release of energy but unless we are talking to the right person our problems are not being resolved.
  • Alcohol, mood altering drugs, overeating, or isolating oneself.
  • Working harder and harder.
  • Helping others too much at an ongoing cost to oneself.

The stressors and the stress are still there (and sometimes made worse!) when the effects of the chemical or behavior wear off. When we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, we are vulnerable to ineffective coping strategies. Use the idea of "HALT" (as just mentioned) and consider this next list:

Effective coping strategies that can be adapted for individual use.

  • Take a break. A change of scenery can clear the mind. Go for a walk, call a friend, count to ten.
  • Remember to take it "one day at a time." Action or acceptance. Face stressors by acting directly when possible. Problem solve. Dwelling on issues without action or acceptance adds to stress. Acceptance at times is difficult because powerful feelings are involved. With loss can come: Shock, anger, peace of mind, sadness and hope. Working with your honest feelings is a way to take it one day at a time.
  • Use positive calming thoughts and decrease worry ones. This can be difficult because to worry is easy. Worry about yesterday or tomorrow adds to stress. Positive thinking takes practice. We can change our physical state with our thoughts.
  • Nourish the spiritual part of yourself. Religion, beauty, nature, science and even painful life experiences have been used by people to deepen their sense of spirituality.
  • If religion is important to you, what part of your religious practice brings you closer to God? Take the time to do it! Be here now. God is user friendly.
  • Experience, strength and hope can be gained through painful life experiences.
  • The beauty found in nature, art, music and poetry can provide deep inspiration and peace.
  • Spend time in nature. Science with the elements of wonder and open-mindedness and the goals of relieving suffering and serving humanity, provides a method to seek what is Truth.
  • Learn to use a relaxation technique. There are many types. Conscious relaxation reverses the physical stress response. See Ward Halverson for specific ideas, or the next section for details.
  • Establish clear and realistic goals for your personal and professional lives. Manage time; don't let it manage you.
  • Pace your activity. In managing pain, recovery or a chronic health problem, it is useful to have an activity-rest schedule. This allows you to rest before you get too tired. Over-activity causes a corresponding increase of symptoms and down time. Activity means feet on the floor, including standing, moving about or sitting with your feet on the floor. Resting means the feet are up off the floor, including lying down or feet up in a recliner. Have a "sick day" (sometimes called "mental health day") plan for less activity and more rest.
  • Delegate responsibilities. It is OK to ask for help. Also, it is OK to say no and not feel guilty if no is the truth.
  • Be involved with people, family, friends or support groups. Many communities have support groups that are free of charge.
  • Therapeutic massage, either from a professional, trained friend, or family member, can be very beneficial for your body-mind-spirit. Neck and shoulder and foot massages are examples. Healing Touch techniques are relaxing.
  • "Talking it out," is a very good stress buster. It is helpful to share your thoughts and feelings with a family member or friend who is willing to listen. Some also find speaking with a professional provides objective support and encouragement. Locate someone you can trust! Some people find writing in a diary, journal or letter is a good way to "get it out."
  • Allow your vacation time to be a complete break from routine. Rest a day before you return to work.
  • Regular exercise improves the body's ability to respond to stress. Stretching and walking are easy, safe ways to release tension.
  • Good nutrition. Follow your prescribed diet. Try to include more whole foods. Drink plenty of water.
  • Stop smoking. Even though people smoke to relax, it actually increases the long term stress responses in the body.
  • Gardening, if taken in fun, comfortable doses, can be a fantastic stress reducer.
  • Heat, warm water. Hot baths and hot water bottles can work like magic on tired muscles.
  • Sleep provides relaxation and rest. Avoid regular use of sleeping pills.
  • Remember to have fun! Humor and simple fun are sure fire stress reducers. Hobbies, music or creative activities give your mind and body a break. Pets can also provide companionship and pleasure for people.
  • Assertive communication skills. Passive and aggressive communication styles tend to draw more stress to people. Be "open, honest, direct and respectful." Be respectful both to yourself and other people. Exercising these rights may cause stress to rise at first but it is a good stress that can over time greatly improve your stress management.
  • Service: Consider increasing compassionate action in your life, doing good for others. Compassion is touching pain with love
  • Create a beautiful and relaxing place for you to spend time. Aromatherapy, candles, water, meaningful objects.
  • Consider professional non-drug pain management.

How can someone use these relaxation techniques?

Also known as Mind/Body Self-Regulatory Skills, they're relatively simple and - once practiced enough - extremely effective. Interestingly, people tell others to relax, but not effectively how to do it. The word "relax" has been abused. Shouted as an order, guiltfully implored, or pleadingly requested, "RELAX!" can just increase tension.

Learning to relax is an art. Regular practice can yield many benefits. Be gentle and keep pointed to your goal. Begin with 10-20 minutes. Practice any of the techniques below once or twice a day. If one doesn't work, try another and another. One will ultimately work for you.

Relaxation techniques are exercises done that reverse the physical stress response. The belly softens, the breathing deepens, muscles ease, digestion improves, the heart slows and blood pressure lowers. Pain can be decreased or the duration of a severe pain flare-up can be lessened. It is important to note that tranquilizing medications and sleeping pills should only be used temporarily, under medical supervision. Relaxation techniques involve concentration or mindfulness and differ from day dreaming and watching TV. There have been 2,500 research studies suggesting the effectiveness of mind/body self-regulatory skills.

You might want to note that there are four key common elements to learning most of the relaxation techniques:

Comfortable position
Quiet environment
Object of concentration
Passive attitude

But work with what you are presented with in life. Relaxation can even be learned in the hospital! It is a great place to practice it.

Effective simple relaxation practice examples:

  • The Relaxation Response: Focusing on a word or phrase that has meaning to you. As the mind wanders notice "thinking," and kindly and gently return to the phrase or word. I encourage people to combine this with soft abdominal breathing, or an awareness of the breath at the tip of the nose.
  • Biofeedback: (BFB) Uses machine feedback that helps a person learn that he or she is relaxing. BFB is available in the Herkimer Count area - see Ward for more information. It trains you to systematically relax your muscles.
  • Prayer: Most religions teach this practice. It can bring physical and mental benefits as well as the spiritual ones.
  • Meditation: A practice which emphasizes soul awareness while sitting, standing, moving about or lying down. Concentration points like the breath, repetitive thought or prayer, physical sensation, sound or God or Higher Power are utilized to quiet the mind and open the heart.
  • Visualization or imagery: Uses your imagination to bring on a calm peaceful feeling.
  • Positive thinking or affirmations: Use calming thoughts to reverse the body's stress response.
  • Guided relaxation, nature and music tapes or CD's are available.
  • Lamaze and Bradley breathing and point concentration: Help to release the body's natural pain medicine and promote muscle relaxation.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Slowly go through the body -head to feet or feet to head- relaxing muscle groups. With illness or chronic pain, unless supervised by a skillful teacher do not tense then relax muscles. Simply soften and relax them. Let them be warm and heavy.

What about these assertive communication rights? What are they?

You have the right to act in ways that promote your dignity and self-respect so long as others' rights are not violated in the process. By assertively expressing your beliefs and needs, you increase the chances of: control through decision making, greater self-esteem, more respect from others and enhancing relationships. Overly passive or aggressive communication styles can affect one's body, mind and friendships in negative ways. Here are your rights as an individual:

  • The right to be treated with respect.
  • The right to say no and not feel guilty.
  • The right to experience and express your feelings.
  • The right to take time to slow down and think.
  • The right to change your mind.
  • The right to ask for what you want.
  • The right to do less than you are humanly capable of doing.
  • The right to ask for information.
  • The right to make mistakes.
  • The right to feel good about yourself.

How else can I improve my ability to deal with change?

Traditional approaches to stress management often focus primarily on cognitive areas such as time management and decision making, and these are very important skills. There is, however, a growing body of research and media publications which point to the development of Emotional Intelligence as the key to managing stress well. It is our unmanaged emotions which create stress and negative emotions such as frustration, fear and anger can and do interfere with our ability to think optimally. Ward Halverson's approach focuses on helping you to manage your emotions in positive and empowering ways, and most people find that an improvement in their cognitive abilities seems to flow almost automatically from this enhanced emotional awareness.

Emotional Intelligence is a way of recognizing, understanding, and choosing how we think, feel, and act. It shapes our interactions with others and our understanding of ourselves. It defines how and what we learn; it allows us to set priorities; it determines the majority of our daily actions. Research suggests it is responsible for as much as 80% of the success in our lives. If we lack emotional intelligence, whenever stress rises the human brain switches to autopilot and has an inherent tendency to do more of the same, only harder. Which, more often than not, is precisely the wrong approach in today's world. One great practitioner of emotional intelligence is Steven Covey, who outlined these 7 habits of highly-effective people:

Be Proactive. Here, Covey emphasizes the original sense of the term "proactive" as coined by Victor Frankl. You can either be proactive or reactive when it comes to how you act about certain things. Being "proactive" means taking responsibility for everything in life. When you're reactive, you blame other people and circumstances for obstacles or problems. Initiative, and taking action will then follow. Covey shows how man is different from animals in that he has self consciousness. He has the ability to detach himself and observe his own self, think about his thoughts. He goes on to say how this attribute enables him. It gives him the power not to be affected by his circumstances. Covey talks about 'Stimulus and Response'. Between Stimulus and Response, we have the power to choose the response.

Begin with the End In Mind. This is about setting long-term goals based on "true-north principles". Covey recommends to formulate a "personal mission statement" to document one's perception of one's own purpose in life. He sees visualization as an important tool to develop this. He also deals with organizational mission statements, which he claims to be more effective if developed and supported by all members of an organization, rather than being prescribed.

Put First Things First. This habit describes a framework for prioritizing work that is aimed at long-term goals, at the expense of tasks that appear to be urgent, but are in fact less important. Delegation is presented as an important part of time management. Successful delegation, according to Covey, focuses on results and benchmarks that are to be agreed in advance, rather than on prescribing detailed work plans.

Think Win/Win describes an attitude whereby mutually beneficial solutions are sought, that satisfy the needs of oneself as well as others, or, in the case of a conflict, both parties involved.

Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Covey warns that giving out advice before having empathetically understood a person and their situation will likely result in that advice being rejected. Thoroughly listening to another person's concerns instead of reading out your own autobiography is purported to increase the chance of establishing a working communication.

Synergize describes a way of working in teams. Apply effective problem solving. Apply collaborative decision making. Value differences. Build on divergent strengths. Leverage creative collaboration. Embrace and leverage innovation. It is put forth that, when this is pursued as a habit, the result of the teamwork will exceed the sum of what each of the members could have achieved on their own, or "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Sharpen the saw focuses on balanced self-renewal. Regaining what Covey calls "productive capacity" by engaging in carefully selected recreational activities.

Ward Halverson uses these principles regularly when helping other people cope with change, and sees them as a guiding vision for many future directions. There is, interestingly, an "8th habit" geared toward finding your own voice and helping others to find theirs, which can greatly change the way people see their professional life. Ask Ward about them if you'd like to know more, or apply the techniques to your own life more effectively.