When will things get back to normal?

Do you think this is a strange headline for a science article? That is not surprising because we tend to think of science in terms of the courses we may have taken in school — geology, biology, physics or chemistry.

The broad field of behavioral science encompasses the study of human behavior and includes fields as diverse as psychology, sociology, anthropology, human physiology and economics.

My doctorate was in applied social psychology, which uses behavioral science knowledge and techniques to address questions in such applied fields as industry, education, corrections, mental health and management.

The founder of this field, Kurt Lewin, said, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”

He taught the paradigm that behavior is a function of the person and the environment or B = f (P + E). Our actions result from a combination of who we are (e.g., genetics, skills, emotions, experiences, traits and beliefs) and external forces (e.g., weather, laws, others’ expectations of us, culture, media messages and religion).

Therefore, the question about returning to normal posed in the headline has been addressed by behavioral science. The short answer to the question is both “never” and “we are already there.”

How, you ask, can that be?

First, we develop habits that are automatic patterns of thought and behavior. This gives order and predictability to our lives. We naturally resist change to protect the comfort that familiarity provides.

If, however, we must change, in spite of our efforts to avoid it, we react initially with strong emotions of insecurity, anxiety, fear, defensiveness and anger.

We long for the familiarity and comfort of “normal,” but our lives never return to such a place.

Instead, we gradually establish a new “normal” or period of relative calm and equilibrium.

Second, change has always been a part of our lives — whether man-made or nature-caused. Therefore, the normal human condition is always changing.

In that sense, we have never left the normal. As we grow, mature and age, we change. The normal process of coping with change is reflected in the Lamaze descriptions of the stages of natural childbirth, which also parallel Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief in death and dying.

What is not normal is our expectation that change should be smooth and continuous without disruption.

Also, we tend to expect change to occur quickly. In fact, change occurs in a predictable sequence of phases and it requires time for these adjustments to occur.

According to Lewin, the first phase, unfreezing, involves stopping the old behaviors (or habits) and beginning new ones.

This is the most difficult and critical phase because the associated emotions of anger, defensiveness and anxiety can cause the person to give up or observers to conclude that the change is not working.

The second phase, movement, involves the process of learning the new behaviors. The emotions are still strong, but less than during unfreezing.

Finally, the freezing phase is reached in which the new behaviors have become polished and the person has associated feelings of mastery and confidence.

How might knowing these phases help you cope with change? When we are confronted with change, we can prepare for, but not avoid, the inevitable disruption of unfreezing.

An example might be the need for workers to learn new trades when their old jobs disappear. Rather than fight the change, working to master the new job will limit the feelings of defensiveness, anger and anxiety.

For sure, if we gauge learning, mastery and skill based on our feelings during the change process, we may give up and conclude that the change doesn’t work or blame others for making us feel this way.

Future columns will explore how knowing about the change process can help us cope with the changes in our lives.


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