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There are a lot of cliches out there about our comfort zone. The growth starts outside of our comfort zone. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. A comfort zone is a beautiful thing but nothing ever grows there. Are these things true? Is our comfort zone a bad thing? Are we missing out if we don’t get outside of it? What does it mean to be outside of our comfort zone and how do we do it without having a full blown panic attack?! These are all questions I see people processing and trying to make sense of on a weekly basis.
This post will discuss ways to identify our comfort zone and explore the benefits of staying in and getting out of it.
Comfort Zone: How do we Know?
Our comfort zone is the place where we feel safe, secure and comfortable (duh). We know this. But how do we KNOW this. What tells us that we are safe and comfortable? One way to identify your comfort zone is by listening to the signals your body and mind are sending you throughout the day. Start by asking yourself, when I am safe/comfortable, how do I know? Common responses include: a settling of the stomach, a releasing of tension in our body, our mind feeling clear etc. Pay attention to and identify what these signals are in your system and then look around and identify where you are and what is happening in your environment. If you are having a hard time doing this, no worries! It may be easier/more accessible for you to paint a picture in your mind of somewhere that feels calm/safe and notice how your body feels in that space. There are many guided exercises (you can find by searching: “safe/calm place”) that will assist you in getting to know the sensations of your comfort zone.
Society & Our Comfort
There are many ways in which our society keeps us in our comfort zone. From the temperature of our homes, to the ease of ordering food, to getting Ubers, pretty much any service we could ever need or want is at our fingertips. Our comfort is so ingrained into our societal fabric that it is difficult to even notice how comfortable we are. We may not even notice our comforts until we have moments of feeling uncomfortable. When we pay attention, what in our life brings us comfort? How are we continuously moving back into our comfort zone throughout the day?
Our brains are hardwired to seek comfort and security. We are always trying to move toward safety and away from suffering. We recover, process and understand our world in environments that feel safe and comfortable. This is natural.
Neuroscience of Being Uncomfortable
This comfortable life is wonderful in so many ways; but is it possible it is hurting our health? According to Michael Easter, the author of The Comfort Crisis, it is. In his book, he discusses how people are at their best, physically, mentally and spiritually after experiencing some discomfort. He states, “Scientists are finding that certain discomforts protect us from physical and psychological problems like obesity, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, depression and anxiety and even more fundamental issues like feeling a lack of meaning and purpose.” .
Neuroscience research supports the idea that being outside of our comfort zone is good for our brains. For example, a Yale research study explored being comfortable and the impact on our brains. This study concluded that stability shuts down our brain’s learning centers. Feeling uncertain and uncomfortable lights up the learning center of our brain and neural pathways for making new connections. Another study finds that people who were encouraged to embrace discomfort left those situations feeling more engaged, motivated and open to information.
With this in mind, we notice that our brains need a balance of both. Being uncomfortable facilitates an environment for our brains to learn and being comfortable allows for processing and recovery.
We often approach uncomfortable situations with doubt, fear and anxiety. By moving through these experiences we teach our brain that we can feel these feelings and still be ok, resulting in increases in confidence and self esteem. Practicing being uncomfortable also protects against common mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety and increases creativity and adaptability.
In my mind, one of the greatest effects of getting uncomfortable is the opportunity to gather more data about ourselves. Through getting uncomfortable we come to a new level of understanding about our ability to respond to adversity and our patterns in stressful environments. Or as relationship expert Esther Perel succinctly puts it, “being uncomfortable tells us both who we are and who we are not.”
How To: Physically, Emotionally, Spiritually
Maybe you are reading this and thinking, well where in the world do I start? This is a great question and I encourage you to remember that getting uncomfortable can be done in so many different ways: physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. What this entails will depend on where your comfort zone ends. Remembering we are trying to identify things in our “growth zone” (the space slightly outside of our comfort zone) and not our “panic zone” (the space very outside of our comfort zone).
Practicing getting physically uncomfortable might look something like: walking everyday, trying a new yoga class, running a marathon or taking a cold shower. Emotionally: telling someone how you feel, setting a boundary or going places alone. Spiritually/psychologically: trying out a new place of worship, journaling, reflecting or developing a practice to connect with your higher power or higher self.
Small shifts are what is sustainable. Identify 1 thing you can do this week in your “growth zone.” Get slightly more familiar with who you are when you are uncomfortable. What possibilities can you create?