Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher who lived between 530 and 470 BC, spoke about the importance of change. He stated that all things are in constant flux and in a state of “becoming”. He said:
“We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not” – Heraclitus
This has been widely interpreted to mean, “We can never step into the same river twice” because a river is forever flowing and changing. Heraclitus believed that for a river to remain a river, the thing that makes it what it is (the running water it is comprised of) must continuously be in a state of change. What this means for us is that rather than fearing change, we should embrace it. It is, after all, a law of nature and, paradoxically, the one thing in life that remains stable. Similarly, the Buddhist faith holds that impermanence is the nature of existence; however, it extends this idea by explaining that it is by letting go of our attachments to earthly things that we may find inner peace.
FEAR OF CHANGE
The fear of change, in its most extreme and phobic form, is known as “metathesiophobia”. The word stems from the Greek “meta” (meaning change) and “phobos” (meaning fear). It is characterised by a feeling of having no control over one’s life, an unwillingness to deviate from routine, living in the past, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s normal for us to be a little afraid of change at times (especially the kind that is thrust upon us) and to derive a sense of being in control and of security through our routines, in an otherwise unpredictable and chaotic world. However, reflecting on what it might be like to suffer from a phobia like metathesiophobia may give us a broader perspective on things. Although we attempt to maintain the status quo and like to think that we are mostly in control of our lives, this is essentially just an illusion.
CHANGE CAN MAKE US THRIVE
The futility of such thinking is even more apparent when we consider that even the physical bodies we inhabit are in a constant state of change. With the exception of the cells in the cerebral cortex, the lenses of the eyes and the female gametes, the cells in the human body are completely renewed within eight-years. This means that we are barely even the same physical entities that we were eight years earlier. To change is to grow: the opposite is to stagnate and decay. While the idea of change may fill some of us with anxiety, it may be reassuring to know that great thinkers and scientists have found that change is not only beneficial to our development but that it is also essential to life. In his 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species”, Charles Darwin states that it is the individuals who are most responsive to change who stand the highest chance of survival. While thoughts of evolutionary adaptation in a physical sense may immediately spring to mind when we contemplate Darwin’s ideas, it’s important to recognise that mental adaptation to change is just as crucial to our survival.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY
Thinking flexibly enables us to accommodate new and opposing ideas and opinions rather than becoming stuck in outdated and reactionary thought patterns, and psychologists have found that this can boost our creativity and problem-solving capabilities. A study by Ritter, Damien, Simonton, Baaren, Strick, Derks, and Dijksterhuis (2012) found that “diversifying experiences” (highly unusual or unexpected situations or events) push people out of their comfort zones, helping them to break out of old cognitive patterns and to think more flexibly and creatively. In similar studies, experiencing parental loss during childhood, having immigrant status, and living abroad have been linked to higher creativity levels. This demonstrates that situations in which change is key and may even seem undesirable, can, on the contrary, be highly beneficial to our cognitive functioning. Psychologists found that just by changing our routine, for example, by going to work via a slightly different route or even the order in which we make our breakfast creates new neural pathways in the brain. These new neural pathways can cause dramatic and beneficial changes over time to the ways that we think and live.
VIEWING CHANGE AS OPPORTUNITY
Being responsive to and embracing change enables us not only to make the best of any given situation; it also increases our resilience and self-confidence. We know that we’ve survived unwanted changes in our lives before, and even capitalised on them. Instead of viewing change as problematic and something we have to endure, there is much to be gained by viewing it as an opportunity. If we see change in this way, we are much more likely to maximise such opportunities, turning what might at first glance seem to be adverse circumstances into chances to improve our lives in some way. Losing our job, for example, might seem like a cruel blow initially, but by viewing it as an opportunity to get a better job, start our own business, and make more money, we are much more likely to profit from the situation.
CHANGE FACILITATES PERSONAL GROWTH
Most importantly, change facilitates our personal growth. An unwanted life change, such as the break-up of a relationship or bankruptcy, can force us to tap into inner resources that we never knew we had, making us more empathic, more adaptive, and more creative. It can change our value systems so that we view life in ways that are more conducive to our self-development. We can choose to be defeated by change, or we can accept it, and as Heraclitus suggests, like the river, we can go with the flow.