It is fascinating how change and routine are two opposing forces that shape not only human lives, but every living creature and our environment. The only thing we know with any certainty is that change is inevitable. As time marches forward … people live and die, world leaders rise and fall, new social phenomena are embraced then discarded, new discoveries obliterate old ideas and new technologies change our world at a blinding pace. What we view as “in” for this year is “out” by next year. What we like to eat, wear, do, with whom we wish to socialize and of what we dare to dream are all subject to the forces of inexplicable change.
At the same time, our neural networks love, crave and create routines (mini-programs) to make our lives as predictable and safe as possible. We are all prone to habits and find comfort in a certain “sameness” regarding our daily routines. Routines and habits make us more efficient and better able to complete tasks in a timely manner because we do not have to analyze each task as “new.” For example, try putting your toothbrush in a different drawer and see how many times you open the drawer where it used to be before remembering to check the new location. We form categories to short-cut processing time so that our minds are freed up to observe and analyze more important things such as crucial issues related to survival and safety. Think how quickly you can categorize a small, four-legged creature darting toward you as either a cat, squirrel, rabbit or (oh god, no!) a skunk!
Further, some people are far more dependent upon routine and thus far more upset by change. Yet some of us even really like change and get super bored when things remain the same for too long! This all begs the question of why, then, change evokes discomfort, even if the upcoming change is expected to be positive? There are many possible reasons for this, but let’s look at two: novelty and future projections.
One of the reasons our brains love habit and routine is that it is an efficient use of resources. If we always take the same path and have never been attacked or harmed on this route, then this known pathway is favored from a neurological viewpoint. Varying from this path would be viewed as “novel” and worthy of high scrutiny, giving rise to an alert wariness and detailed evaluation of the environment. All of this is a load on mental processes and costs resources.
In addition to novelty, change evokes anxiety due to the human capacity of projecting ourselves mentally into the future and asking “What if?” Unlike us, the owl doesn’t mourn the loss of the rabbit who escaped her clutches. She simply begins scanning for other potential prey. She doesn’t ask “why did this happen?” or “what if I lose the next one?” She focuses instead on her single-minded purpose: catch it! In contrast, humans can imagine unlimited outcomes – both good and bad. We run the scenarios in our head and worry about events that likely will never happen. Change means our future is suddenly uncertain and this starts the mental engines revving regarding potential danger. Thus, anxiety related to change is good, helping to bring in the “new” safely.