What is a comfort zone?
A comfort zone can be a place, a situation, or a habit. Anything at all that you associate with ease and security. The human brain is superb at simplifying experiences, and turning them into routines. The apartment you moved into that first seemed so new and exciting gradually turns into a place of humdrum existence, in which everything becomes safe and predictable. While this is an advantage in streamlining your life, it can become a pitfall for the unwary. When we settle for too much routine the brain has less and less to learn, and the mind will hard set.
Jobs, relationships, homes – even beds can also become comfort zones.This can apply whether the job is hell, the relationship miserable, and you have outgrown your parents. Staying in bed when you are bored or miserable is another safe zone. The truth is that many ‘comfort’ zones are not comfortable at all; they are hiding places.
Building comfort zones proceeds partly from attachment to pleasure. Eating junk food, smoking cigarettes, going to the pub rather than the gym, shopping online for things we can’t afford or don’t need, playing repetitive video games, gazing over social media, newspapers, television and Netflix. All of these things can be sources of sedation that distract us from the more pressing issues in our lives.
There are three types of comfort zone:
Easy but limiting. These are common-place attachments most people identify as comfort zones. For example, weight-loss requires that you change your eating habits and do more exercise. The easy thing many people do is try a weight-reduction program for three weeks, and give up because the new diet leaves them feeling jittery, and the gym routine feels too much like hard work. Their attachment to comfort was stronger than their desire for change.
Security zones. These zones are safe, but unchallenging. For example, you have been in the same well-paid job for many years. In it you might feel you are stagnating. But a career change might require you to go back to college, or accept a lower-salary and work your way back up the ladder. So you think about your affluent life-style and settle for the safe option.
Avoidance zones. These aren’t strictly comfort zones but the unsatisfactory mind-set you stay with when you refuse to take a risk. So when you don’t go over and talk to that attractive stranger in the bar, you are settling for the status quo rather than risking rejection. But each time you do that you are building a mind-set based on timidity. That makes it harder to do next time.
Comfort zones and mental health issues
Some comfort zones are created as a response to anxiety. A person with social phobia is invited to a party, and decides that the stress will be too much and stays indoors. The relief the person feels over not going out reinforces the avoidance behaviour, and is attached to the television in the sitting room. In that way social anxiety can turn into creeping agoraphobia, as each refusal increases anxious thoughts over the next invitation, gradually turning the home into a prison. A similar mechanism underpins depression: each time the person gives into their depressed mood and goes back to bed, the avoidant behaviour is reinforced.
Alcohol and drug abuse are maladaptive reactions to discomfort that also create comfort zones. That discomfort may come from life-circumstances: dead-end jobs, dysfunctional families and stressful environments to name three. Or else from unresolved mental health issues: trauma, abuse and chronic anxiety, to name three more. But addictive use substitutes sedation and distraction for problem resolution.
For example, an alcoholic might drink in the same bar at the same time every night, using the same brand of beer, with the same fellow-drinkers, having the same conversation, and the same delightful feeling of carefree abandon. Meanwhile, the alcoholic’s debts are mounting, their job is on the line, and their partners are getting ready to leave. No matter, the zone of oblivion awaits.
Staying in your comfort zone weakens resilience
Resilience refers to the skill-set that enables you to adapt to adversity and overcome stress. Resilient people are addicted to growth, not stagnation and for that reason are wary of getting too attached to a comfortable life-style. Like the ancient stoics they recognise that good times are followed by bad times, and practice against the day when those hard times will fall again. There are several ways you can practice this for yourself:
- Do one thing different every day. Break your routines by regularly changing them. Change your habitual style of dress. If you drive to work, cycle instead. If you always go to the same snack bar, try a different one. Newness fosters growth, and makes it easier to give up your attachments.
- Give up one thing every day. Go without a meal (or give up a favourite food/drink item); get up one hour earlier; if you like hot showers, take a cold one instead. This helps you break your attachment to comfort.
- Have one honest conversation every day. Telling the truth about how you feel is one thing most people shy away from. Learn instead to have assertive conversations rather than avoidant ones.
- Learn something new every day. This could mean spending thirty minutes a day learning another language. Or it could mean reading a book, listening to a podcast, or practicing a new skill.
- Take one small risk every day (or at least once a week). Years ago, when I was on a Rational-Emotive Behaviour therapy training, we were regularly given assignments related to things we feared doing most. The most common avoidance was drawing attention to ourselves in public. That was why we students were regularly found taking a wooden toy for a walk around the streets of London, saying hello to complete strangers, or getting up on a soap-box in a shopping mall to preach about something or other. This is an extremely effective way of breaking down inhibitions and boosting self-confidence.
- Hang around with fearless people. The second-best way to practice resilience, other than practicing it yourself, is to watch other resilient people go about their business. That way you start to see comfort zones as your enemy rather your friend. Before too long breaking them will become an unconscious habit.
- Travel often. Exploring different ways of life and cultural differences is a great way to get out of your comfort zone, and expand your horizons. This especially applies if you take the trouble to learn the language of the place you are going to.
Embracing the new, taking risks, and breaking stale routines on a regular basis encourages brain neuroplasticity. In which the cells of the brain develop ever more complex learning networks, thus expanding your ability to adapt and change. This will prepare you for bigger challenges in the future.
How to get out of your comfort zone
In what follows it is assumed that you have already developed the habit of breaking smaller zones by following the advice in the last section. Doing that you will enhance your appetite for change.
The bigger comfort zones refer to risky, but significant life changes. Such as leaving home, changing your vocation, finding new relationships, moving to a new town, expanding your income, or swapping one life-style for another.
The first thing to do is identify your comfort zone (or avoidance zone), and alongside that to identify your parallel growth zone. For example, your safe zone might be the town where you live now. While your growth zone might be the cool place you visited when you spent the weekend with someone that lives there.
Now take a pencil and draw two imaginary islands; one for the safe zone, and the other for the growth zone. On each island write down all the things that happen there, or might happen there. Not forgetting to include the feelings, thoughts and activities you could have in both. Finally, compare the two islands. If the Island of Growth looks considerably more interesting than the Island of Stagnation then get ready to go.
The next step is to identify the most important personal values and desires that propel you towards change. These might already appear on the list of things that appear on your Island of Growth. For example: friendship (on the basis that you have friends in that new town); better job prospects; a vibrant community; cultural/artistic opportunities; proximity to the sea, or to Nature. Be sure to add in the changes you want to see in yourself: happiness, learning, love, fulfilment; wider horizons, and self-actualisation.
Now identify, and label all the discouraging thoughts that keep you in your comfort zone. Recognise it is not change that frightens you, but your thoughts about it. Some of these thoughts might include:
I can’t live on my own
It frightens me
The others will think I’m crazy
I can’t afford it
It might not work out
I don’t have enough confidence
Maybe it’s just a dream
So and so will be upset if I leave now
I’m not ready
Now separate out all these thoughts into three types: feelings, things you can’t do anything about, and things you can do something about.
If your thought relates to a feeling (e.g ‘scared’, or ‘lacking in confidence’) then practice thought acceptance and defusion. Accepting that it is human to be scared, whilst not letting it deflect you from your aims and values.
If your thought relates to something outside your control (e.g. the reactions of others, or events in the future) then let that go too.
If your thought relates to things you can influence (e.g. ‘getting ready’ or finding a place to stay) then develop a SMART goal. Make enquiries, ask for advice, do the math, develop a plan, break down the plan into easy steps, and gather support. That first step might be tiny. For example. you might just go and stay with your friend in that new town for a few more days. What’s more important is that you take that first small step on the journey towards your bigger aim. And get out of your comfort zone.
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
Susan Jeffers. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.