The Science Of The Comfort Zone


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.