You’ve just heard the news and you’re shocked. It’s big and unexpected, a shock. I’ve been there, so I know what it’s like. One summer’s evening in 2001, I learnt through a phone call that my younger brother had died of a brain haemorrhage. He was 38 and his partner was 8 months pregnant. It was a huge shock and my automatic stress response took over. All I knew was that at that moment I needed to get out of the house into the fresh air. The death of a loved one is one of the biggest changes we all have to come to terms with in our lives and each of us handles grief slightly differently. This blog is not about grief, I will write separately on that topic. It is about what to do in the early days when major change hits you hard. When you are shocked to the core. We all face big changes that are out of our control. So what happens to us when we hear of major change and what should we do next?
What happens to us immediately after the news.
Being told of an unexpected major change that impacts us is uncomfortable and scary and places excessive stress on us. Immediately our brains react to what our physical bodies are registering and try to make out what’s happening and what we need to do. Our ancient inherited stress fight, flight or freeze response is triggered and attempts to help us deal with the perceived threat.
When our fight or flight response is activated, chemicals are released into our bloodstream. This causes our body to undergo a series of dramatic changes to prepare us whatever we need to do next.
• Our respiratory rate increases and our impulses quicken.
• Our awareness intensifies.
• Our pupils dilate and our eyesight sharpens.
• Our perception of pain diminishes.
• Blood is moved into our muscles and limbs, to provide the energy and fuel for running away or fighting the threat.
During this time, we are in a heightened state of alert and become more aware of and seek out possible threats to our survival. As a result, our fear is exaggerated, our thinking skewed and we may overreact to situations and people that we would normally take in our stride.
The flight, flight, freeze response tries to help us act appropriately in stressful situations and the physical response will vary from person to person. You might want to escape the situation, whilst someone else might act impulsively or even freeze up. However, the response that it triggers for us may not be the one that is most helpful.
Looking through the lens of fear, it is difficult to remain positive about our lives. We are suspicious of others and focused on short-term survival. Making rational decisions becomes impossible. So what should you do to help you recover your equilibrium?
What should we do next?
In order to come to terms with the major change, you will need to pass through some recognised psychological stages. These are shock and denial; being defensive; acknowledgement and experimentation and finally, acceptance and adaptation.
In the first stage, you are likely to feel threatened by the coming change. You may even wonder if it is for real! During this phase, you will feel shocked and possibly denial too. You may feel timid and want to hide from the world. It is likely that you will struggle to concentrate on anything and your productivity will drop. You will be irritable and may feel tension and stiffness in your body.
In order for your body to return to normal and to dampen down the stress response, you need to help your body release the tension that has built up.
In the first few moments, I want you to focus on your breath.
Take some nice deep slow breaths that help keep you calm and send messages of reassurance to your brain and body.
If you can move to somewhere quiet, then do so.
It is important to remove yourself from the perceived threat and be somewhere you feel safe. As soon as you feel able to, focus on some simple stress management techniques such as
• deep breathing
• short bursts of exercise
• fresh air
If you want to you can read more about the other psychological responses to change you will go through in my blog ‘Are you onboard the change rollercoaster?’
Does it matter how you hear the news?
If you have just heard the news via email, then take a deep breath and read it again. Then close your inbox and move away from the laptop, give yourself a break. Maybe make a cup of tea or get a drink of water and allow the news to start to filter through. When you feel calm go back and read the email again to make sure that what you think it says is really what it says. Did you take in all the information provided?
If you are in a meeting and you can’t leave, focus on your breathing and remaining calm. Check your inner dialogue is not sending you messages of fear and if you can, replace those messages with some more positive or neutral ones. If your inner dialogue is telling you that this is a disaster, then give yourself messages of reassurance.
• Remind yourself that you have survived worse than this before.
• Try to assimilate the news, focus on listening.
• Avoid confronting the person who is delivering the news and try not to get angry.
• You will gain nothing by getting angry
So back in 2001, my desire to get out of the house was triggered by my flight response to get away from the place where this terrible thing had happened to me. I was in shock and also denial, somehow I felt that if I could get out of the house then this terrible thing would not be real. Since Graham died I have come to terms with what happened and whilst I might never forget what it felt like I have moved on in my life. I have faced many other major changes, although none quite on this scale. With experience often comes the development of coping skills and I have become better at handling change and you will too. I am more resilient.
If you are in this situation right now make sure you look after yourself and get someone to support you. You don’t have to do this alone. You too can learn how to cope better and become more resilient.
Get in touch if you need support for a change in your life,
I’d love to hear what you think, leave your comments below.