Resisting Change

Have you ever noticed how just when it seems that we are about to get what we have been asking for, we resist it? While many rational explanations have been given for this irrational action, another very important reason may be lurking beneath the surface.

I ran into this phenomenon recently, when someone told me “Let’s go for it!” on one day and then “Oh, I can’t do this!!” a few days later. It did not matter what I asked them about this change of position, they were steadfast in retreating to their initial status of not doing what they had been planning to do just days before. In fact, my asking about this was probably entrenching their resistance even deeper.


Curious about this topic, I did a quick Google search and found that more than 36 million web pages refer to people’s resistance to change. Many of the initial 30 or so pages I looked at discussed this in the context of the business environment, but many addressed the general reasons people resist change. Here’s part of a list of reasons, that I found on

  • Loss of control
  • Excess uncertainty
  • Surprise & shock
  • Being “different”
  • Loss of face
  • Concern about future competence

There a number of books on the topic of resistance to change, and many consultants offer workshops and services to assist organizations deal with change resistance. Given the wide range of material on this topic, I am lead to conclude that we are still searching for the real answer.

Interestingly enough, I did find one author (Al Kaniss) who included in his material that we resist change because it represents “A THREAT TO OUR SECURITY, SAFETY OR SURVIVAL”. I suspect that he is very close to the mark, although the examples he gives deal more with the installation of nuclear plants in someone’s backyard.

If I Change, I’ll Die

A friend recently sent me information about a teleconference that dealt with fear and the promoters talked at length about how most of the techniques out there did not actually resolve fear for us. They promised to reveal the secret to resolving fear, and left me hanging to know if they had actually figured it out, or not. This subject of dealing with fear is worth an article on its own.

But what if fear was the key factor in resistance to change? And what if this fear was so deep inside of us it was almost invisible? Imagine a fear that runs under your radar, off your screen of awareness and is never, ever thought about consciously.

If this fear was the key factor in one’s resistance to change, then it would be the hidden driver behind so many behaviours that arise during change that we cannot easily logically explain. For the sake of simplicity and example, let’s say that it is a deep fear connected to our very survival – “If I change, I will die.” But where could such a fear arise from?

Some researchers have speculated that the Enteric Brain, which contains 100 million neurons, and resides in our gut, controlling digestion as part of our nervous system, is where this survival challenge is detected and acted upon. As with the brain in our head, the enteric brain system sends and receives impulses, records experiences and responds to emotions and feelings. Its nerve cells are bathed and influenced by the very same neurotransmitters, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norephinephrine and nitric oxide, that are found in our Head Brain.

Thanks to the vagus nerve which connects the Enteric Brain to the Head Brain with approximately 2000 nerves, these two brains can influence each other. If the Enteric Brain in our gut is upset, the Head Brain knows about it, and how!

According to researchers, symptoms of nervousness, such as increased heart rate or palpitation, difficulty with or the inability to speak, stomach irritation, and excessive perspiration are caused, in part, by the action of the vagus nerve. And, scientists at the University of Texas, as well as Columbia and Brown Universities, found that passing small pulses of electricity through the left vagus nerve group could alleviate depression that had resisted most medications.

If our Enteric Brain is sensing danger, it will respond by contracting the surface blood vessels and muscles, and shunting the blood to the deeper, more powerful, survival muscles. And, if the Enteric Brain acts pretty much like the Head Brain, then this sense of danger does not have to be related to an actual threat – it could be a memory of a past threatening event, for example. In our Head Brain, reduction of blood flow under stress reduces our capacity to think, as blood is diverted to the reptilian part, which functions mainly at a reactive level, ensuring our survival.
The hip bone is connected to the thigh bone

In order to live, multi cellular organisms (in this case, humans) require a homeostatic internal environment. Homeostasis is defined as a relatively stable state of equilibrium or a tendency toward such a state between the different but interdependent elements or groups of elements of an organism.

Connecting the dots, we can see how the Enteric Brain can influence our ability to respond to change. Since the human body needs homeostasis, it will actively oppose change to maintain equilibrium. The Enteric Brain, which is located in the gut, will trigger negative physiological responses to situations that it considers threatening to survival, regardless of the actual threat level – perception, even erroneous perception, is sufficient to trigger these responses. You can be triggered into remembering, even at a subconscious level, a painful experience from your past, and boom – your Enteric Brain system has you feeling nervous and wanting to leave wherever you are at that moment.

This defence mechanism has served us wonderfully in survival situations. Unfortunately, it can cause havoc when all we want to do is try a new profession, or move to a new town, or do anything that is out of the existing comfort zone that we have constructed for us to feel safe.

Getting your Brains Aligned

Given that the agenda of the Enteric Brain is to protect against all threats to survival by ensuring that we don’t experience too much change, we need to find a way to make change less threatening and more acceptable.

One of the ways recommended by some is to overwhelm the Enteric Brain by forcing ourselves to do something repeatedly until we get so numb to it that it no longer seems to bother us. I’m not sure that this numbing process actually resolves the issue – it might just be delaying a backlash response until later.

Another way, more respectful of ourselves, is to honour the reactions that arise when we encounter a potential change and allow those reactions to run their course. If we feel fear, we stay with the fear until it subsides, not trying to change it, suppress it or ignore it. We could even use some fully associated healing techniques such as EFT or TAT if the response is getting in the way of normal living. If the responses seem to be the result of a painful memory being triggered, we could heal the feelings surrounding that past event and this would most likely resolve whatever issue is being brought up.

We can also honour the Enteric Brain response by accepting that it is concerned about the change and perhaps have a little internal conversation with it, asking what seems to be the problem and responding with reassuring and gentle encouragement to try this new situation.

In this fashion, we can increase our chances of having successful change happen in our lives, with less stress and knee-jerk reactions.

Copyright June 2006 Robert S. Vibert, all rights reserved. First published on May be freely distributed with this copyright notice intact.