No pain, no gain

Neuroscientific research tells us that change is painful, as painful as breaking a bone in fact. When researchers at Columbia University (1) used fMRI imaging techniques to map the nerve centers of the brain, they found that the same neural receptors that register physical pain also light up when we go through significant emotional change (like changing jobs). So if change feels hard, that’s because it is.

Organizational psychologists have written at length about the impact of ineffectively navigating change on the bottom line and change management theory is now a well established field of study in all top international business schools. Harvard Business School, like most others, has developed whole curricula for executives on managing all manner of changes: turbulent change; change in the time of growth; change in response to a merger…..the list goes on. We have a ton of organizational development research available to support us as we figure out how to successfully drive change in our teams and organizations, but how about managing our response on a personal level?

Knowing about the pain associations that occur in our brains is a first step towards understanding why it can take so long and feel so hard to make personal and professional changes. Neuroscience also tells us that by focusing our efforts we can abandon old maps and create new neural pathways to learn new behaviors. Jeffrey Schwartz, a leading researcher in the field of self-directed neuroplasticity at UCLA’s School of Medicine, suggests that the brain is a quantum environment and therefore the laws of quantum physics hold true. Viz: the question you ask of your brain influences the outcome you see.

So what does this mean for us in the context of coaching and minimizing some of the negative impacts of personal and professional change? If the brain truly is a quantum environment then how and where we focus our thoughts and attention can allow us to make new connections, and thereby change habits and behaviors. If we decide to reframe negative situations by focusing on the positive (a central exercise in positive psychology) then we can re-wire our response to impactful change and decrease its negative effects. We can train our brains to do what Winston Churchill describes so eloquently: be optimists who see the opportunity in every difficulty as opposed to pessimists who see the difficulty in every opportunity.

Coaching has been shown to be an essential tool in supporting the creation and establishment of new neural pathways. By working with a coach we can learn tricks and techniques that help us actively focus on the habits, activities and actions we want to have more of in order to move away from old patterns, habits and actions we no longer wish to exhibit.  Coaches can point out the learning we experience as we create these new pathways and help us formulate solutions to problems we might encounter as we embark on this energy intensive process. Coaches acknowledge the successes and small victories we achieve as we create these new habits to help us stay on track with our goals- an exceptionally powerful process and one that Jeffery Schwartz discovered when he used his quantum brain theory to re-train the thought patterns of patients with severe OCD (2). It’s unlikely that we will be able to completely mitigate the pain that comes with change, but with the right coach and the right conditions, we might just get to those gains with a little less pain than usual.

(1)   Research conducted Edward E. Smith, Director of Cognitive Neuroscience at Columbia University quoted at, March 28th 2011

(2)   Schwartz, J. M., Stapp, H. P., and Beauregard, M. (2005). Quantum theory in neuroscience and psychology: A neurophysical model of mind-brain interaction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B360(1458):1309-27.