Mastering The Stress of Psychological Resistance

“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.” – Peter Senge

Really…You Too…If I Had A Nickel For Every Time…

He said it. I was hoping he wouldn’t go there, but he did. Even though I have learned to expect this whenever discussing training and development, it still surprises me when incredibly intelligent and seemingly successful men and women go there. I noticed myself looking up towards the ceiling but caught myself, thankfully, before rolling my eyes.

I was working with the CEO at a startup discussing managing organizational change, employee engagement, and inspiring others.  When we began talking about strategies to create improved communication and productivity, the CEO stated: “Frank, you know there’s a reason I’m the CEO, there’s a reason I have an executive team that works for me, and there’s a reason my executive team has direct reports. People don’t change. They are who they are when we hire them…”

In my 20+ years as a strategic advisor and executive coach, I’m in charge of finding my clients’ “on” button that generates lasting change.  Whether it be a highly motivated CEO desiring a sounding board, an up and coming Director, a difficult person or a high conflict team, organizations (rightly so) want to see growth and results.

One of the first areas I dig into is belief systems around change. A common belief I run into with clients is “people can’t change.”  A logical consequence of individuals who carry this belief is a low initiative to improve or even absence of a desire to try something new and different altogether. Variations of this example would include “I won’t get promoted because I don’t like giving feedback to my direct reports” or “That is just the way I am.” Think about the consequences. To prove themselves right, and be successful, they probably can’t or will not change. And this mental resistance can occur in spite of the clear understanding by the same individual that life, in general, is a growth process.

If we survey a team, for example, a standard question is “do you believe you (or your team) has the capacity for change.” In the survey, the answer is most often “yes.” However, once we start assessing what is changing on a regular basis, or what the latest tool or strategy upgrade is, resistance rears its ugly head, and the reality is that the actions people are willing to take often don’t match the idealistic answers they give when previously surveyed.

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So what does mental resistance look like in real life?

Many activities elicit mental resistance. But people often don’t recognize it because it comes in many shapes and sizes. Resistance is often disguised as fear, self-doubt, procrastination, isolation, distraction, or over thinking.

The Neuroscience of Resistance and Change

Despite knowing the consequences, even people in life-threatening situations resist change.

(A 2007 article by Alan Deutschman in Fast Company Magazine quoted Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the Hospital and Johns Hopkins University. He stated that the 600,000 people a year who have bypasses, ninety percent revert to unhealthy lifestyles)

Most of what we do during the day is on automatic pilot. We wake-up, take a shower, get dressed, brush our teeth, drive our car to work, attend meetings, etc. We’ve shaped these behaviors by repetition.

What if there’s a change in one of these habits? What if you want to or end up having to re-align one of these behaviors due to situational circumstances?

To better answer this question, how about a practical example. Here in Silicon Valley where I live and work, traffic has become a nightmare. High-tech companies’ solution to this has been to charter buses for their employees. A client of mine had driven to work for the past five years. Our conversations would not be complete unless we mentioned traffic issues.

While switching to the bus sounded great it theory, and the idea of free Wi-Fi, less wear and tear on the car, saving money, less environmental impact, etc., the reality of mental resistance caused a very different internal dialogue. Dependence on someone else getting her to work, needing to be prompt to the bus stop and having to be more structured and organized created stress. Not to mention having little flexibility at lunch to do errands or leave the campus.

The night before her first bus adventure, she felt anxious. “What if I want another cup of coffee, want to sleep in a little more or want to finish watching something on the news. What if the bus is late?

Mental resistance was creeping in. After all, the client still needed to be to work at a given time, could grab an extra cup of coffee along the way and watch the news while riding on the bus. These were all just excuses being used to cover up the mental resistance in disguise.

Our mind seeks habits, routines, and rituals. It likes to be efficient and save energy. Moving from the independence of driving a car to depend on catching a bus is uncomfortable. The mind realizes it’s being asked to use more energy to do something new rather than react out of habit. It may begin to worry, panic or over-think the potential change.

But looking at this situation objectively, how much energy could this client save by taking the bus if it meant getting rid of the second vehicle, extra insurance, and plate fees, saying nothing of shortened commute time? When looking at the real ramifications, overcoming a small amount of mental resistance could create a significant shift in the quality of life.

When something is different from our usual experience, our minds, sensing a threat to change, often jump to a defensive position. When this occurs, we trigger an area of the brain – the amygdala – to signal the hypothalamus to initiate a cascade of events that form part of the body’s response to stressful events (1).  We go into a “fight, flight or freeze” mode.

Strategy For Getting Change To Stick

Historically, this was a mechanism to perceive and survive dangerous situations. But, while still an important part of our brain as a survival mechanism, i.e. jumping back when I see a car coming, intuiting danger in a dark parking lot, etc., our current culture is more safe and secure than hundreds of years ago.

Therefore, from a perspective of trying to make changes, trying to make changes may be perceived as ‘danger’ even if logically and logistically it will have a positive impact if we, in fact, change.

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To break through barriers to change, we need to implement strategies that re-wire our habitual patterns.

When helping clients to overcome and master their internal mental friction, an analogy I often use building a tunnel through a mountain. Upon initial observation, it seems like an impossible task to re-route traffic, dig a hole through the middle of a mountain and create a new road or path. However, with time and effort, we see cars going through rather than over or around this mountain. We see increased efficiency in the flow of traffic, savings in fuel, time and a safer driving experience. Within a few months, we automatically drive through the area without thinking we used to drive around it.

Our brain works in the same way, the more we work on something, the easier it becomes. Initially, there is a struggle. Over time, the change becomes easier to navigate. And by having techniques to spot resistance coming into play, you can keep seeing the big picture when your mind is getting in the way of executing the necessary changes needed for growth and advancement in life.

So, where do we start? What processes can we put in place to trigger change?

Part of my mission at Del Fiugo Consulting is to initiate positive and lasting change in organizations. And what is an organization if not a group of individuals? So creating lasting change for the team starts with each player in the group mastering resistance!

I do this by utilizing a holistic approach to accelerating change to improve individual and team performance; in other words, to develop greater happiness, fulfillment, and success in our work and personal lives. I’m passionate and regularly refining my mastery over mental resistance, and one of the best ways I have found is to regularly work with others and help them spot and overcome their mental blocks to change.

Do have any examples of when you have discovered yourself resisting? What did you do to overcome the behavior and master your mental resistance? Let me know in the comments below.

(1) Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience, p. 246, David E. Presti

About the Author: Frank Del Fiugo is the founder of Del Fiugo Consulting. To find out more about Frank, check out his full bio HERE.

Holiday Leadership and Managing Stress

When discussing leadership characteristics, the phrase “calm under pressure” is commonly mentioned.

  • The vision of the leader calming the employees during challenging times.
  • The general in the field, unflinchingly leading the troops through battle.
  • The CEO talking to the press about reorganization and future growth.
  • The leader reassures the company the upcoming product launch will happen on time.
  • The leader talking to the company about a recent tragedy and assuring the employees she is there with them.

One facet of leadership character is managing stress. One area of stress that leaders understand is found in the quote below:

The holiday season is often associated with family gatherings, time-off, good food, drinks and socializing. It’s often portrayed as “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Often, this is true. And, frequently, this couldn’t be farther from the truth because of family gatherings, deadlines for year-end projects, too much food and drinks, money spent and the re-evaluation of our earnings, etc.

Let’s look at the stress of the Fall season on a continuum – scale of 1-10.

Where do you see yourself now? What about in 2 weeks?


1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          10

Finding your Balance: A Challenge

Scale yourself between 1 – 10 right now. Do it in two weeks and commit to a mid-January stress evaluation.

Want to lead by example through the holiday and feel emboldened and energized?

Below is stress research and time-tested stress busters?  We can choose to manage our stress by focusing on our internal reactions to external happenings around us. Are you up for the challenge?

Many of us experience stress in life, whether this is in the short term from one-off projects, or long-term stress from a high-pressure career.

Not only can this be profoundly unpleasant, it can seriously affect our health and our work. However, it is possible to manage stress, if you use the right tools and techniques.

In this article, we’ll look at what stress is, what increases your risk of experiencing it, and how you can manage it, so that it doesn’t affect your well-being and productivity.


While the stress management techniques in this article can have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only. You should take the advice of a suitably qualified health professional if you have any concerns over stress-related illnesses, or if you are experiencing significant or persistent unhappiness.

What is Stress?

A widely accepted definition of stress, attributed to psychologist and professor Richard Lazarus, is, “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”

This means that we experience stress if we believe that we don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to handle a situation. In short, we experience stress when we feel “out of control.”

This also means that different people handle stress differently, in different situations: you’ll handle stress better if you’re confident in your abilities, if you can change the situation to take control, and if you feel that you have the help and support needed to do a good job.

Reactions to Stress

We have two instinctive reactions that make up our stress response. These are the “fight or flight” response, and the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Both of these reactions can happen at the same time.

Fight or Flight

Walter Cannon identified the “fight or flight” response as early as 1932. It’s a basic, short-term survival response, which is triggered when we experience a shock, or when we see something that we perceive as a threat.

Our brains then release stress hormones that prepare the body to either “fly” from the threat, or “fight” it. This energizes us, but it also makes us excitable, anxious, and irritable.

The problem with the fight or flight response is that, although it helps us deal with life-threatening events, we can also experience it in everyday situations – for example, when we have to work to short deadlines, when we speak in public, or when we experience conflict with others.

In these types of situations, a calm, rational, controlled, and socially sensitive approach is often more appropriate.

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

GAS, which Hans Selye identified in 1950, is a response to long-term exposure to stress.

Selye found that we cope with stress in three distinct phases:

  1. The alarm phase, where we react to the stressor.
  2. The resistance phase, where we adapt to, and cope with, the stressor. The body can’t keep up resistance indefinitely, so our physical and emotional resources are gradually depleted.
  3. The exhaustion phase, where, eventually, we’re “worn down” and we cannot function normally.


Fight or flight and GAS are actually linked – the exhaustion phase of GAS comes from an accumulation of very many fight or flight responses, over a long period of time.

Stress and the Way we Think

When we encounter a situation, we make two (often unconscious) judgments.

First, we decide whether the situation is threatening – this could be a threat to our social standing, values, time, or reputation, as well as to our survival. This can then trigger the fight or flight response, and the alarm phase of GAB.

Next, we judge whether we have the resources to meet the perceived threat. These resources can include time, knowledge, emotional capabilities, energy, strength, and much more.

How stressed we feel then depends on how far out of control we feel, and how well we can meet the threat with the resources we have available.

Signs of Stress

Everyone reacts to stress differently. However, some common signs and symptoms of the fight or flight response include:

  • Frequent headaches.
  • Cold or sweaty hands and feet.
  • Frequent heartburn, stomach pain, or nausea.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Excessive sleeping, or insomnia.
  • Persistent difficulty concentrating.
  • Obsessive or compulsive behaviors.
  • Social withdrawal or isolation.
  • Constant fatigue.
  • Irritability and angry episodes.
  • Significant weight gain or loss.
  • Consistent feelings of being overwhelmed or overloaded.

Consequences of Stress

Stress impacts our ability to do our jobs effectively, and it affects how we work with other people. This can have a serious impact on our careers, and well as on our general well-being and relationships.

Long-term stress can also cause conditions such as burnout, cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. (Sure, if you’re stressed, the last thing you want to think about is how damaging it can be. However, you do need to know how important it is to take stress seriously.)

How to Manage Stress

The first step in managing stress is to understand where these feeling are coming from.

  • Keep a Diary
  • Next, list these stressors in order of their impact. Which affect your health and well-being most? And which affect your work and productivity?
  • Then, consider using some of the approaches below to manage your stress. You’ll likely be able to use a mix of strategies from each area.

1. Action-Oriented Approaches

With action-oriented approaches, you take action to change the stressful situations.

Managing Your Time

Your workload can cause stress, if you don’t manage your time well. This can be a key source of stress for very many people.

Other People

Practice assertiveness; manage your boundaries especially dealing with unreasonable requests during the holidays!

2. Emotion-Oriented Approaches

Emotion-oriented approaches are useful when the stress you’re experiencing comes from the way that you perceive a situation. (It can be annoying for people to say this, but a lot of stress comes from overly-negative thinking.)

To change how you think about stressful situations:

  • Use Cognitive Restructuring: Remember our beliefs = our behavior. Change your beliefs to minimize unhealthy responses to stress.
  • Reframe uncomfortable situations. Focus on a positive outlook or belief.
  • Use Affirmations and Imagery to overcome short-term negative thinking, so that you feel more positive about stressful situations.

3. Acceptance-Oriented Approaches

Acceptance-oriented approaches apply to situations where you have no power to change what happens, and where situations are genuinely bad.

To build your defenses against stress:

  • Use techniques like meditation and physical relaxation to calm yourself when you feel stressed.
  • Take advantage of your support network   – this could include your friends and family, as well as people at work and professional providers, such as counselors or family doctors.
  • Get enough exercise and sleep, and learn how to make the most of your down, so that you can recover from stressful events.
  • Learn how to cope with change and build resilience, so that you can overcome setbacks.

We experience stress when we feel threatened, and when we believe that we don’t have the resources to deal with a challenging situation. Over time, this can cause long-term health problems; and it can also affect the quality of our work and our productivity.

To control your stress, conduct a job analysis, so that you know your most important priorities at work. Learn good time management strategies, so that you can handle your priorities effectively. Try to let go of negative thinking habits, and become a positive thinker by using affirmations and visualization.

Also, create defenses against stressful situations that you cannot control – use your network, be sure to get enough exercise and sleep, and learn how to relax.

Are you up for the challenge?

The holiday season is here. We have the understanding, tools and strategies to manage stress. Are you up for the challenge?

Let us know your thoughts and strategies for managing stress through the holiday season.


One doesn’t need elaborate therapy and costly sessions to get relief from stress. A few lifestyle changes can go a long way in helping you lead a stress free and anxiety free life.

  • Eat right.
  • Make time for a little exercise.
  • Utilize relaxation techniques viz yoga, breathing, meditation.
  • Take out time for yourself.
  • Spend time on your hobby.
  • Introspect.
  • Make out time for your family and near ones.
  • Set realistic goals.

Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response to what happens. And Response is something we can choose. – Maureen Killoran