I Fear Change: How to Cope With the Unknown

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The fear of change, or metathesiophobia, is a phobia that causes people to avoid changing their circumstances due to being extremely afraid of the unknown. It is sometimes associated with the fear of moving, also known as tropophobia. 

Why Do People Fear Change?

Human beings are naturally wired to fear change for several reasons. However, a fear of change may be more intense when the change is not within a person’s control. Verywell reached out to clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, to discuss why change is so scary.

Carla Marie Manly, PhD

When we choose to create a change, such as moving to a new home or shifting jobs, we feel more in control of the outcome. If the change is brought about by forces outside of our control, whether a boss, a pandemic or an accident, we feel disempowered.

— Carla Marie Manly, PhD

In instances of metathesiophobia, that disempowerment leads to strong resistance and a refusal to change solely out of the uncertainty that comes along with fearing the unknown.

Humans Are Wired to Fear Change

Historically, the fear of change is evolutionary and dates back to ancestral times. “From an atavistic [aka ancient] perspective, our brains are hardwired to prefer routine and consistency,” Manly explains. “Our ancestors preferred constancy as they inherently knew that change often brought a lack of safety.”

For example, our ancestors needed to move around to search for food, water, and shelter to survive. Staying in a location where these essential resources had been depleted out of fear could ultimately lead to starvation, dehydration, or death of the pack.

From a mental health perspective, things are no different in today’s world. Manly notes that our mental well-being tends to fare best when we have structure and routine in our everyday lives.

Manly continues, “When life feels predictable, we experience less stress and anxiety because we know what to expect. When life doesn’t feel predictable, and we are uncertain about what might be around the next corner, we feel stressed and anxious.” With clarity and knowledge of what may come if we are to pursue change, that fear tends to become alleviated.

How to Tell If You Have a Fear of the Unknown

Although being scared of the unknown is common among most people, having a phobia presents more extreme symptoms that may manifest physically, emotionally, or mentally and disrupt your life.

How can you recognize if you have a fear of change? There are many distinct characteristics of the fear of change that someone might experience in their everyday life. Some of these signs include:

  • You feel stuck or unhappy in a situation yet avoid creating positive change
  • You stay in a failing relationship despite wanting to leave
  • You do not strive for an ideal career when you are miserable in your current one
  • You have extreme anxiety over what is going to happen in your future
  • You have an inability to accept life changes that are within or outside of your control
  • You refuse to stray from an everyday routine because you're uncertain of what will happen if you don't stick to it
  • You reject invitations to events, celebrations, family, or friends homes
  • You frequently feel nauseous or have indigestion when you think about change
  • You experience heart palpitations when you think about change
  • You find yourself shaking, sweating, or trembling at the thought of a life change

Fear of change may also be related to a fear of failure, success, loss, self-doubt, or upsetting others.

When Your Fear of Change Becomes Destructive

In essence, there are two types of fear: constructive fear and destructive fear. “Constructive fear alerts us to an actual threat [and] keeps us safe from danger. Destructive fear alerts us to a non-existent threat. There is no actual threat, but our minds tell us there is,” explains Manly. Depending on the severity of a person’s fear of change, it may become destructive.

If destructive fear of the unknown is left unmanaged, potential complications may include:

How to Cope With the Fear of Change

If your fear of the unknown is less severe, there are ways to cope that you can pursue every day to overcome this phobia:

Journal

Journaling can help you better understand your fears to shift them. Manly says that when we journal freely and without judgment, we enable our minds to unload and potentially understand what could hold us back.

Meditate

Manly reminds us that the more we turn inward to self-reflect, the more we come to understand and appreciate who we are and what we need. When we set aside time for self-reflection each day, she says that we can become attuned to what we really want and need in life, which can help us welcome change a bit easier.

Create a Vision Board

Compile photographs, magazine clippings, and print images or art from the internet to create a board full of things that you would like to manifest into reality.

Manly says that creating vision boards gives our creative side a chance to imagine a different future. This process of imagining new possibilities for what our life can look like on the other side of change can be cathartic and support us in bringing those goals to reality.

Talk With Friends and Family

Discuss your fears with a trusted friend or family member. They may share a similar fear and offer tips on how to cope from personal experience. Otherwise, expressing your fears can help to alleviate shame, stress, or anxiety and make you feel less alone.

Set Micro and Macro Goals

Once you understand where your fear of change comes from, you can then set attainable goals in an effort to take actionable steps toward positive change.

According to Manly, fears tend to subside when we embrace a can-do attitude, take things one step at a time, and move toward them slowly, mindfully, and in conscientious ways.

Avoid Avoidance

Avoiding necessary changes due to fear can lead to a build-up of stress and lead to harmful situations or circumstances. Oftentimes, fear of the unknown can be more anxiety-provoking than it's worth in the end.

Rather than looking at what could happen in a negative light (e.g. as an enemy, or focusing on what could go wrong), Manly suggests reframing change as an invitation for a world of new possibilities to arise instead. She has witnessed positive change occur with her clients where people who finally took steps to move forward ultimately wondered why they didn't make changes sooner.

Treatment

Intense fear of change can lead to more extreme symptoms that can interfere with your daily life, including how you navigate socializing, working, and maintaining relationships.

However, it is possible to overcome this fear with the proper treatment, such as therapy or relaxation strategies. Medication may also be beneficial in times when holistic measures fail to provide relief.

When to Seek Help

At what point should someone seek help to alleviate their fear of change? If you feel chronically stuck, depressed, or anxious, Manly notes that it is important to reach out for professional help. She notes that trained professionals can be helpful by objectively pointing out self-limiting mindsets and supporting you in healthy life changes.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a crippling fear of change, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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