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Change and the Brain

The New Year is often a time of reflection and change. What immediately comes to mind when you hear the word “change?” Excitement, worry, anticipation, fear or maybe a combination of many thoughts and feelings? We all experience change daily. From small changes that we may not even think much about like waking up to weather changes that can impact us in profound ways. It’s important to understand what is happening in our brains when we experience change. Understanding our brain function is key to self-awareness and emotional health.

The brain sees change as either a threat or a reward. It treats it with the same intensity as it would a physical threat which helps us understand why changes in our lives often invoke a strong emotional or even physical response. In 2008 David Rock published a theory called the SCARF behavior model. SCARF is an acronym to remember how your brain deals with change.

STATUS: Status is your relative importance or seniority. Think of it as the “pecking order” in society. The perception of a potential or real reduction in status can generate a strong threat response.

CERTAINTY: Our brains are pattern-recognition machines and thrive on certainty. They are constantly trying to predict the future. Uncertainty takes attention away from your goals and forces attention to the error or break in the pattern.

AUTONOMY: Autonomy is the perception of exerting control over your environment and the feeling of having choices. An increase in the perception of autonomy feels rewarding.

RELATEDNESS: Relatedness is the driver of behavior and involves the feeling of belonging, connection to those around you or perceiving someone as a friend or foe.

FAIRNESS: Just like our brains crave patterns and predictability, they are also hyper-aware of fairness. Unfair exchanges generate a strong threat response. Perception of unfairness can also decrease empathy.

Take a minute to think about all the changes that you’ve experienced in the last year. Notice how your brain responds when you think about each change. Can you tell by your response which changes your brain sees as a reward or a threat? Most likely, the changes you see as rewarding had an increase in many of the SCARF categories. The changes your brain sees as a potential threat resulted in a decrease in at least some of the categories.

Most situations create a mixed response. For example, being part of a team can decrease autonomy, but lead to increases in status, certainty, and relatedness. Different people can also react differently toward the same change.

My family moved this past year and all of us have felt the uncertainty of that change. After some time of adjustment, though, some family members have embraced the move. They have felt an increase in status being in a new house, an increase in autonomy choosing things for their own rooms and being within walking distance of amenities in the neighborhood, more relatedness as they make new friends and meet people. Interestingly, I think their feelings of fairness have increased if their brains processed the move as a reward. Some family members have resisted the move, though, and feel that it was unfair. They have struggled making friends and feel less relatedness. They have felt a decrease in autonomy and status because they preferred the familiarity of living at the old house.

The way we react to change can impact our ability to adapt to our circumstances and can have significant effects on our lives. I took a new position at work last year. I thought it was going to be a good career move for me and a step up within the company, but a few months into the change I was really struggling. It really helped me to understand why when I learned about the SCARF model. I had anticipated my status increasing in my new role. Since I moved to a new department, my status actually decreased, and I felt like I was at the “bottom of the totem pole” and starting over. On many days, a new assignment was spontaneously given to me and I would need to travel locally or cover for someone at a different location for that day which caused a lot of uncertainty. In my previous position, I had a great deal of autonomy and flexibility with my schedule, but in my new position I had a new supervisor whose style was much more micromanaging. Getting to know new coworkers and feeling like I needed to prove myself as the new person affected my feelings of relatedness and fairness at times. Clearly, my brain saw my job change as a threat. That helped me to understand why I was resisting the change and why my emotional response was so strong. Not only did my response affect my personal feelings of satisfaction, I think it was affecting my job performance and my ability to connect with my new supervisor because my brain saw her as a contributor to the threat. It’s important to understand how our brains respond to change in order to recognize our emotional responses to the inevitable changes in our lives.

As we think about the SCARF model and apply it to a particular change, we can calm the primal brain which controls the threat response and engage the frontal cortex or logical thinking part of our brains. This helps us move from a reactionary place to one where we can make better decisions for ourselves. I think it’s a good exercise to “talk” to our primal brains. They are always on the lookout for threats and work hard to keep us safe and increase our status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and sense of fairness as a way of self-protection. We can thank them for their vigilance and care, but remind them that we are safe and our current situation isn’t necessarily a threat. It may feel awkward at first, but we talk to ourselves all day long and it’s beneficial to draw our attention to our inner dialogue. This is also a useful technique for handling fear and anxiety or other things that trigger a threat response. Exercising our brains in this way is essential for our emotional health and it benefits our physical health as well. Research has shown the importance of keeping our brains active and involved in learning new skills. Being able to adapt to change stimulates our brains in new ways and can improve their health and function.

As we practice becoming more aware of our brain function, we can see how easily our thoughts and feelings are often hijacked by reaction, instinct, and the need to survive. We can also see how it’s human nature to want to improve our status and safety and to promote ourselves sometimes at the expense of others. We may realize how eager the ego is run our lives and how it may actually hinder our ability to connect with others and adapt to the inevitable changing world around us. So, as you begin this new year, I challenge you to practice being more aware of your brain and how it is responding to the changes in your life. As you do, you will engage the frontal cortex and create new neurological pathways which are essential to your brain’s development and health.


Terra Spencer Gerritsen grew up in the Pacific Northwest. She has a BA in English and is working towards becoming a clinical social worker. She enjoys reading, cooking, and meeting new people. She lives in Utah with her husband and five children. 

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