The Science Of The Comfort Zone

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On the surface the Comfort Zone sounds like a pretty nice place to be. Sort of like being on a hammock, hanging between two coconut trees on a tropical island.  But really it can be a pretty dangerous place to get stuck (your comfort zone, not the hammock…).

I’m pretty sure you would have heard people talking about getting out of their comfort zones. And God knows there are enough memes and circle/arrow diagrams all around the Internet telling you that outside of the comfort zone ‘is where the magic happens’.  But what Magic are they talking about?  And what exactly is the comfort zone anyway?

Psychologically speaking your comfort zone is a behavioural and emotional state where you experience constant low levels of anxiety*.  In most cases anxiety is a result of how we deal with uncertainty, and typically humans tend not to be very good with dealing with uncertainty (believe me, as a recovering control freak I get it.)  Being within your comfort zone, behind that imaginary line between what is known and unknown makes us feel safe because we can anticipate the outcome.  As I said before, being comfortable doesn’t really seem like such a bad thing.  But people can get comfortable being depressed, doing a job they hate, or even staying in an abusive relationship – purely because it’s comfortable knowing what to expect from the situation.

While being within your comfort zone can also feel good (especially for your ego), nothing grows there; it tends to be a place of relatively low performance and little change.  In order to improve our performance, in order for us to grow, we need to do things that create anxiety within us.  You know the feeling; your heart races, you go hot, or cold, your palms start sweating and you can feel the adrenalin and blood rushing through every part of your body.  That physical reaction is your limbic system, the primitive part of your brain, responding to you feeling threatened.  This was a pretty useful tool when we were cavemen. But these days you don’t have a lion chasing you, you’re just going to give a presentation, or ask someone out on a date.  Good one brain!

Now, who knows, evolution may mean that our brain eventually catches up to meet the challenges of our modern world, but I’m not prepared to wait that long.  And actually, each time we push through our anxiety, we are actually changing our brains.  By learning new information and experiencing new situations we are forming new neural pathways in our brains.  And the more we repeat that learning or experience, the stronger the pathways get, and our anxiety lessens.  This is the science of neuroplasticity, this is the science of expanding your comfort zone.

But, honestly, do you really care whether or not you have a super highway in your brain?  Probably not.  But essentially these new connections mean that things that were previously hard, become easy (or easier).  They open your eyes to creativity; improve your resilience; help you live a more fulfilled life; improve your confidence; and ultimately allow you to explore the outer limits of your potential.

Personally, I’ve found that the greatest benefit of getting outside my comfort zone has been a shift in the way I approach so-called ‘problems’.  Instead of allowing my anxiety dictate my reactions, I notice how I am feeling and I ask myself why.  That way I can work out whether I am ready to push through the discomfort. Or whether I can find some way to change my reaction and reduce the anxiety.   In other words I am moving from my Limbic System to my Prefrontal Cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for rational decision making.

Getting outside of your comfort zone doesn’t have to be all skydiving and rock-climbing though.  Sometimes being outside your comfort zone can be sitting in gridlock on Military Road while you are running late for an important meeting, or dealing with toddler that won’t put her jumper on when it’s 10 degrees outside.  It’s not the glamorous, exciting type of comfort zone challenge but it provides you an opportunity to re-think your anxiety and importantly, your reaction.

The most important thing to remember is that your comfort zone is not fixed, actually it’s not even real, it is a mental boundary that you have created based on your previous experiences.  YOU are in control of changing it.  Having said that, no one can dramatically expand their comfort zone overnight.  You need to ease into it.  Your brain needs time and repetition to build those neural pathways.  And you also need to give yourself permission to be inside your comfort zone to relax, recover and reflect on your experiences.  Anxiety is not a state that you can (healthily) sustain for a long period of time.

So, while I’m giving you permission to get back onto your hammock – what I really want is for you to start to dip your toes in the water. What can you do today to get outside of your comfort zone?   And what have you done recently that has challenged you?  Share your experiences in the comments below, or post to the Facebook page.

Love Jane xx

P.S. Did you enjoy this post?  If you did and you know someone who would benefit from it, I’d love you to share it with your friends.

*Note that when I’m referring to anxiety, I am referring to the normal stress reaction in a healthy individual, rather than anxiety disorders.

 

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Finding Meaning at Terminal Velocity

Yep, totally cool as a cucumber.
Yep, totally cool as a cucumber.

I always used to pride myself on being ‘tough’ and ‘strong’.  I always had everything under control, I was organised and driven and un-emotional. At least that is what I thought. Until the illusion I had been living under came crashing down after the birth of my daughter, nearly three years ago. Suddenly my identity was gone, all the things I thought defined me were either not there anymore or no longer seemed important. And I realised, I had no idea who I really was. I think this is a really common experience for a lot of first time mums, but it’s definitely not limited to mothers, nor does it affect only women. For me working through this takes time (and continues to) – and a whole lot of love and support from my husband, family and friends… and my therapist.  But probably one of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve had recently came from jumping out of a plane. Really! Hear me out.

That is me in the picture above, jumping out of a plane from 14,000ft.  I can safely say that it was the most terrifying thing I have ever done, EVER.  But then again the expression on my face probably gave that away. The fear didn’t start there either, the anticipation of having to jump out of that tiny, rickety plane was bloody nerve wracking and I doubted whether I would actually do it, until 2 seconds before I jumped – and by ‘jumped’ I mean dragged along by the dude I was strapped to…  So why in the world would I do that to myself, you ask?

At this stage I could just blame my husband.  I mean technically he is the one who booked it for me, without my knowledge and then “gave” it to me (it didn’t quite feel like a gift at the time).  But quite honestly, I had been silently crying out for it.

You see two days earlier, seeing that I was moping around like a little ball of misery, hubby reluctantly asked “Are you ok?”  To which I responded (in an embarrassing-to-admit toddler-like whinge) “I’m just so boooored! Why does life have to be so haaaard.  I wish we had our old life back”.  And by ‘old life’ I meant our life before becoming parents.  I was going through one of my ‘episodes’ again. Admittedly, it was pretty mild compared to only a year or so ago where I would be curled up in a ball, not wanting to get out of bed and crying my eyes out. But it was that same heavy feeling of feeling confused, sad and trapped

So the next day hubby casually asks me “Have you checked your emails?”  Umm, no. Why would I check my emails on a Saturday, I thought to myself. I gave him a strange look and then went to find my phone.  I check my emails and found an email from Red Balloon in my inbox and thought, whaaat?  Then I get a second one pop up with Confirmation of your Skydive Booking in the subject box – FOR THE NEXT DAY!!

From the moment I read that email I started to get waves of nervousness, interspersed with feelings of complete disbelief that it was going to happen, then doubt that I would be able to do it, complete confidence that I could do it and of course fear that the parachute may not open and that I would die at the ripe old age of 37.  Those waves lasted until the moment of actually leaving the plane.  The whole flight up my palms were sweating, I was shivering and my heart was beating like crazy and I tried to keep calm by regulating my breathing (thank you yoga) and staring out the window at the beautiful view of the Sydney skyline.  Just as I started to calm down there was movement. Someone opened the door and people started shuffling towards it, one by one everyone in front of me started dropping out of the plane and I thought, WAIT! I’m not ready for this, no-one’s asked me if I’m ready!  But before I could get words out of my mouth my instructor was shuffling me towards the open plane door. ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ I thought at that point.  Then as I dropped out of the plane adrenaline and pure unadulterated fear took hold.  “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god” I kept repeating, which is weird because I am not even remotely religious.  Then I finally started to smile, the biggest joy-filled (and wobbly-cheeked) smile.

Before I knew it the parachute opened and the first thing I noticed was how quiet everything went.  There was a peace that came over me, a calm and also if I’m honest a sense of relief that the parachute had actually opened.  We gracefully floated down to the ground, and for those 6 minutes and I felt so full of joy, so full to the brim with gratitude for my life and an indescribable feeling of freedom.  Being up so high was beautiful, but for some strange reason looking down at the world like that gave me a sense of optimism, I felt that the world was an absolutely amazing place.  Somehow being removed from what was going on below made my perceived problems seem so small and gave me so much perspective on my life.

And you know, sometimes life IS hard, juggling work, children, groceries and cleaning – all the while trying to work out who you are and how you fit into this crazy world.  But one thing that I realised, as a result of my skydiving experience, is that it wasn’t so much the difficulty of it all that I was struggling with so much as the monotony.  We seem to work so hard to set up this life of a nice home, good job and nicely organised routine (that makes fitting in the aforementioned elements of life actually possible) that we sometimes make everything too “easy” for ourselves and start living our lives on auto-pilot.  It seems to me that who we are is forged not in doing what we always do and being who we’ve always been, but in challenging ourselves to grow, be better, to try things we’ve never done before and push ourselves to the boundary of what we thought we were capable of.

Since becoming a Mum I had written off the idea of ever sky-diving. I thought that it was something that I just couldn’t do anymore because I just had too much to lose. It was a risk that I couldn’t take*. But taking that leap made me realise that there is risk in everything, and I don’t want to go through my life fearing everything, not growing, not venturing beyond my comfort zone.  I want to be an example of courage to my daughter.  I want her to embrace the full spectrum of experiences that life has to offer.

So I urge you – get out there, get uncomfortable, push yourself past where you thought you could go. It’s the only way you’ll really know how AWESOME you are (and you really are, if only you’d let yourself believe it).

Love Jane xx

*Skydiving is actually remarkably safe, especially doing a tandem jump. You are more likely to die driving on the way there (not that you will… I’m just sayin’).

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