Positive change is in the psyche of the beholder. Whether the twists and turns or social transitions in our lives are viewed as exciting or stressful can depend on many factors, not least of all our psychological makeup. There is no doubt, though, that change can occasionally be highly stressful. Change is at the very heart of the scientific concept of stress. It was the Nobel prize nominee, Hans Selye, who coined the term ‘stress’ back in 1936, defining it as: ‘the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change’.
Today, we massively misuse and overuse the word stress: He’s stressing me, my stress levels are up, don’t stress it. We seem to use the term as a vague catch-all for almost any unpleasant emotion, primarily when the negative feeling is triggered by an external event, some unwanted change to the status quo. This could be something as trivial as a dead cell phone battery or as significant as the end of a cherished relationship.
Some of us will be even more distressed by the prospect of change than the actuality of it. If I tell my students that next lesson I’m going to flip the script and totally revolutionise the way we do things, some students will get excited, but at least a few others will be anxious and worried (stressed) about the prospect. There is an old saying that sums this situation up well: ‘you can’t be kind to the tigers without being cruel to the sheep’.
This link between change and stress is the reason why significant life changes and social transition often occasion the onset of psychiatric disorders. When we transition from single to married or married to divorced, from employed to unemployed, from old job to new job, we become more vulnerable to mood disorders. We might eventually ride the storm out, but having to adjust to the demands of a new situation can sometimes prove too much. When this happens, a psychiatrist might diagnose an adjustment disorder. This is a kind of halfway-house diagnosis, somewhere between a normal stress-reaction and a major psychiatric disorder.
Surprisingly, given the unprecedented social changes occurring in the Gulf nations, there have been relatively few studies exploring the psychological impact of change. One study that did address this question was published in the Journal of Social Psychology in 1991. This study examined perceptions of change and its relationship with depression among 280 Saudi students. The students at the King Saud University answered questions about the changes taking place in the Kingdom and the degree to which specific aspects of these changes bothered them. The students also completed a measure of depressive symptoms.
Almost all the students (90 per cent) felt that rapid sociocultural changes were taking place in the kingdom. There was, however, far greater disagreement among the students over how bothered they were by each aspect of perceived social change – some were stressed, some were excited by the changes and the prospects of further change. Interestingly, those who were less bothered by the perceived changes also tended to have the lowest levels of depression.
Like it or loathe it change is inevitable. Knowing that change is inevitable, however, doesn’t make it any less stressful. We will all be met by unwanted experiences (stressors) at some point, how we react to them is what is important. If we wish to safeguard our mental health in this rapidly changing world, we need to look closer at how we manage stress.
Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is a British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.