Change fatigue: When our brain’s adaptive capacity is depleted

All changes, even positive ones, come at a cost. Whether we deal with personal transitions — a new role, a newborn, a new city — or experience the wider societal shifts that impact our daily lives, each change forces our brain to adapt, altering its neural pathways to encode new patterns and to reduce uncertainty.

This is why change feels effortful: we don’t simply observe change, we change ourselves in the process, and each change recruits our mental and physical adaptive systems. This is why many of us currently feel so tired: these systems are mostly designed to deal with sudden change, not long, drawn-out periods of change.

The resources that allow us to deal with acute stressful situations have been drained by years of turbulence. As psychologists would put it: our “mental surge capacity” is depleted. We are experiencing change fatigue at an unprecedented scale.

A hidden driver of burnout

Imagine a world where, each morning, you would have to relearn everything you know. How to get out of bed, how to turn on the tap, how to brush your teeth, how to make coffee, how to open a door. It would be impossible to function.

Instead, our brain stores all those common patterns, then matches your actions to specific situations. Sometimes, you encounter a new pattern. It could be something mundane — maybe you have bought a new coffee machine which works differently than the previous one — or something more complex, such as a new project at work which requires different skills.

In those cases, performing the new action will require more effort. Maybe you’ll figure it out on your own, or maybe you’ll ask someone for help. Once the new pattern is acquired, your brain will match it to the corresponding reaction. The more often you encounter this pattern, the more effortless the process will become, and the less energy your brain will require.

This process, which seems simple on the surface, applies to everything we do. Over time, we develop habits and routines, we become more comfortable with the skills we use at work, and we certainly don’t think twice about how to brush our teeth.

But what happens when things keep on changing? When we can’t rely on many of the useful patterns we have acquired?

Slowly, our ability to cope with change starts eroding. Each new change requires even more effort. Because of the constant cognitive overload, we start feeling a sense of resistance, apathy, or resignation. If this goes on for long enough, we may even burn out.

Fortunately, change fatigue doesn’t inevitably lead to burnout. As often when it comes to mental health, being aware of the reason why we may be struggling is an important first step. When constant adaptation starts to feel like it’s becoming too much to deal with, some simple strategies can help to cope with change fatigue.

How to manage change fatigue

Change fatigue mostly arises when we feel like we’re not in control of the never-ending chaos that keeps on derailing our routines and forces us to constantly adapt. Very often, it is the case that change itself is unavoidable. What we have some control over, however, is how we react to change.

Instead of resisting change, adding to the load we put on our adaptive systems, we can strive to accept, embrace, and even foster change in a way that leads to personal growth.

  1. Accepting change. The first step is to confront reality. No, the situation may not come back to normal anytime soon, but you must maintain hope that they will at some point — even if it is in the distant future. This is known as the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral Jim Stockdale was a military officer who was imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp for eight years during the height of the Vietnam War, with no set release date nor certainty as to whether he would ever see his family again. He attributed his resilience to a way of thinking that may seem contradictory: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Accepting change is acknowledging the worst while still hoping for the best.
  2. Embracing change. Beyond the mindset shift of accepting that change, good or bad, is an integral part of life, the next step is to welcome the opportunity to learn how to do things differently. Change is a tough teacher, but a teacher nonetheless. An effective way to unlearn old patterns and relearn new patterns is to practice metacognition — thinking about thinking. Each week, write down surprising new patterns you’ve noticed, how your current reaction may not be appropriate anymore, and ways you could adapt. Treat this process as an experiment where your life is a giant laboratory, and where failure is just another data point which you can incorporate in your next iteration.
  3. Fostering change. The last step is to become a change agent yourself. You may not be able to alter the course of big societal shifts, but you can induce local change in your community, whether it’s at work, in your neighborhood, or even online. How can you support others through change? What actions can you take to improve the trajectory of projects and people around you? Is there any knowledge you can share with others, so they don’t only have change as a ruthless teacher? “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself. Everyone’s mental surge capacity has been depleted in different ways, and you don’t have to push through all three stages if you don’t have the mental and emotional capacity to do so. Simply accepting change is already an amazing feat of resilience.

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