IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How to train your brain to accept change, according to neuroscience

Change is naturally more difficult as we age, but it’s beneficial to our cognitive health to stimulate and encourage it.
Doing something you never thought you would do can help build your confidence to enable you to be more receptive of other, less controlled changes.
Doing something you never thought you would do can help build your confidence so you're more receptive of other, less controlled changes.Michael M?ller / EyeEm / Getty Images/EyeEm

“Change can be a good thing.”

This is the sort of quote we hear often when we’re gearing up for a transition in our lives that is sure to challenge our routines. Perhaps we’re starting a diet or incorporating a new exercise plan into our regimen. Maybe the change is more intensive, like switching jobs, going back to school or relocating to a new city.

Whatever the change is and no matter how much we consciously accept or even welcome it, we may find ourselves struggling to adjust or acclimate. Change can be good, sure, but it can also feel bad.

Why is this? Part of it comes down to our brain’s resistance to change, a response system that has been built in us over the course of many years.

Our brain is trained to favor familiarity

“When we're born, our brain is completely malleable and experiencing new things all the time,” says Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, neurologist, neuro-oncologist and neuroscientist. “We’re figuring out positive and negative behaviors, what is good for survival and avoiding consequences that would cause even short-term pain. As we age, our brain learns ways to do things that make us do certain things, and behaving accordingly to each context and each stimulus.”

Essentially our brains learn what works and what doesn’t early on. This is great on one hand, because it means we don’t have to keep relearning positive behaviors. But the downside is that the brain gets used to doing certain things in a certain way so that over time, introducing new behavioral modes becomes challenging.

“Emotionally and cognitively and executively the brain has established a lot of pathways,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a licensed clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist. “The more you do something the more ingrained it becomes in neural pathways, much like how a computer that stores the sites you visit — when you log onto your browser, they will pop up because you use them a lot. Change is an upheaval of many things and the brain has to work to fit it into an existing framework.”

Your brain is protective to a fault

When we introduce any change of routine into our lives, our brain is also on guard and ready to pounce, immediately considering the possible threat change can carry.

“From an evolutionary standpoint we develop these neural pathways to adapt to live, so when we encounter change our brain shifts into a protective mode,” says Hafeez. “It has to use energy from reserves and it doesn't know, from that evolutionary standpoint, if the change is good for us or not. It doesn’t know if this change is a one-time deal or whether it needs to re-establish a routine. ‘Will it hurt me?’ A lot of red flags go up.”

“If you’re naturally aggressive and you have to change that angry behavior, that may be a struggle, while someone naturally relaxed who say, has to go through a legal battle may have to shift gears,” Hafeez says. “So much is involved.”

You can and should teach your brain to get used to change

Though change is naturally more difficult as we age, it’s beneficial to our cognitive health to stimulate and encourage it.

“You absolutely can and should teach your brain to change,” says Hafeez, noting that keeping the brain agile has been shown to help delay aging. “I've done quite a bit of work on the aging process and slowing that down. It starts with changing the aversion to change.”

Additionally, “if you stretch your brain past its comfort zone, you’re opening the door to being receptive to other types of change.”

Do cognitive rehabilitation exercises — the gym for your brain

So how do we do get our stubborn brains to open up to change? First we should consider cognitive rehabilitation exercises.

“This is like going to the gym for your brain,” explains Hafeez, who champions the sites Lumosity and BrainTrain. Hafeez clarifies that she has no affiliation with these sites but recommends them on a regular basis.

“These sites have visual, spatial and memory exercises. I say do them three times a week or 15 minutes day,” she says. “Get into a regimen. You will get frustrated, but that means it's working — just like how your muscles are sore after you take time off from the gym and return. You’ve been out of touch with this for a while, but the more you do it, the more your memory of how to do it come back.”

Learn a new language or a task that is out of your comfort zone

You should also expose yourself to new situations and pick up skills that you may have never before considered. Again, the idea is to get out of the comfort zones where we’ve gotten rusty in or ways.

“Let’s say you’re a financial planer who takes up knitting,” says Hafeez. “That is doing something very different, where the brain truly has to adapt new neural pathways. Learning a new skill like this have been shown to ward off dementia, aging and cognitive decline because it regenerates cellular activity. Learn a new language in middle age. You tax your brain by shaking things up and it’s effective for your body in the way HIIT is for your body.”

The more you change, the more confident you’ll be

Doing something you never thought you would do, or could do, should also help build your confidence to enable you to be more receptive of other, less controlled changes.

“Most people won't try something new because they’re deathly afraid of failing,” notes Hafeez. “When you see that something is doable it makes you more receptive and brave. There's that emotional, therapeutic factor that is separate from the neural pathway factor. Over the years, we learn to succeed by viewing our previous failures and successes in a certain light and as we get older we lose sight of that. When you try a new thing it makes you more confident to try to do more new things.”


Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.