Surviving Change: The Change Curve
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
As the second period of lockdown gradually lifts, the picture of ongoing disruption and upheaval continues. So many uncertainties still remain. Covid-19 has not gone away. And whilst we are better informed about how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, many of us continue to face major challenges and change. In this blog we focus on surviving change and draw on Kubler-Ross’s Change Curve, to help us understand our responses and needs as we adapt and adjust.
What is the Change Curve?
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first described the Change Curve in 1969. It is one of the earliest change models and over the years has also been referred to as the Transition Curve or the Coping Cycle. Kubler-Ross originally developed the Change Curve as a way of understanding how we respond to bereavement. And in her book “On Death and Dying” she identifies five stages of grief as important in this process. These stages reflect the emotional journey typically experienced by those faced with loss or significant change.
However, all change involves loss at some level, and the Change Curve helps us understand how people react to change in a wide range of contexts in which loss is present. It provides an insight into the patterns of responses that may be present and the impact on our personal performance, energy and mood.
The Change Curve stages
In her original text, Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As the Change Curve has been used in different contexts these stages have been adapted and expanded. In the model presented here, we identify the stage of anger as part of a broader range of responses to threat. These include resistance, anxiety and frustration. Similarly we have expanded the stage of bargaining to reflect the associated activities of exploration and discovery.
This series of responses can be seen as defense mechanisms that protect us as we gradually make sense of and understand what the change means for us. They allow us space to explore the reality of the situation in small, manageable steps and can prevent us from becoming overwhelmed.
It is important to remember that whilst the model described appears linear, we do not necessarily move through these stages in a linear way. We may move back and forth between them or go through some stages more than once. This is normal and part of the process of learning to manage the change.
The Change Curve is a personal journey. Just as we will all experience change differently, we will all respond differently too. The order in which we go through the stages will be different for all of us. Personality, life circumstances and experiences will influence how we respond. This can sometimes make it hard for us to support each other and to feel supported.
Here are a few ideas that can help us survive and manage through change:
Learn to tolerate distress
When we experience the anxiety, frustration or anger associated with change it can help to take a moment’s time out. Using slow rhythmic breathing will calm sympathetic nervous system arousal, reducing our feelings of distress. This technique is easy to learn and can be applied in the moment when we most need it. Similarly, practicing mindfulness allows us to tolerate distressing thoughts as we teach ourselves to watch them come and go without becoming overly caught up in them. Remember, these symptoms of distress are normal and adaptive, so we don’t want to get rid of them. Accepting them as part of the process of change will help us to tolerate them and move on to the next stage.
Hold onto hope
Holding onto hope is key. Remembering that all things come to an end helps us maintain a belief that there are positives on the other side of the changes we are experiencing. As we come to realise that the period of change is temporary, we experience hope. This can draw us out of despair and allow us moments of exploration and discovery, helping us to adjust to the new future.
Draw on self-compassion
As we struggle with change, the resistance, anxiety, frustration and sadness can feel overwhelming. It affects our ability to think clearly and we can find it impossible to work out what we need to do. We can become drawn into self-criticism, expecting ourselves to recover more quickly or blaming ourselves for past events. At these times it can help to draw on self-compassion, to have empathy for ourselves and to let go of self-judgement. Having a list of activities that you find soothing that you can draw on at these times will help.
If someone you know is experiencing loss or change, it can be hard to know how to respond. Particularly if they are angry, frustrated or resisting the change. It can be easy to take their responses personally, not realising that they may be on a difficult emotional journey. Being patient, asking questions and listening will help you to understand their reactions. Showing empathy and giving them space to talk will support them to move through the process of grief.
In conclusion, the Change Curve is a model that helps us to recognise and understand our emotions and behaviours as we encounter and move through change. It helps us to re-evaluate our reactions to change and also to recognise that our responses are normal and not a sign that we are falling apart. We can also use the model to understand and support friends, family or colleagues who may be dealing with change.