To get the life you crave, the newest neuroscientific research reveals how to break free from your comfort zone – and it’s not as scary as you’d think.
You’ve heard the inspirational quote so often that it barely registers. “Step out of your comfort zone!” shout self-help books, promising a better life waiting for you. But it’s tempting to stay firmly inside our comfort zone with all the snug, PJs-and slippers feelings it evokes. Rhonda Britten, author of Fearless Living, describes the comfort zone as our safe place, the cornerstone of our identity founded on our accepted idea of who we are. “It’s your norm, the regular and predictable,” says Britten, a favourite on Oprah’s sofa.
While that comfy zone might sound appealing, it can become stale. “If you pretend that you don’t need a comfort zone you’ll be stressed all the time,” says Britten. “However, cosying in it for too long and not stretching yourself can make you develop negative beliefs about yourself and what you’re able to achieve, or see you holding on to self-doubt.”
And there’s more: the frustrations of your comfort zone can trigger the urge to do something unnecessarily drastic. An impulse to resign without a backup plan, or to move to Darwin/Beirut/the Arctic Circle then wake up the next morning wishing you could rewind time.
Now, there is a new way. A recent study from Yale University reveals we have a better chance of realising our ambitions when we zigzag back and forth between challenging situations and our comfort zone. Daeyeol Lee, Yale’s professor of neuroscience, explains that the anxiety and adrenaline that rise when you leave your comfort zone signal to the brain to kickstart learning.
“From time to time, new experiences or information can be exciting and used to improve your performance,” says Professor Lee. “However, being constantly out of your comfort zone, where you’re unable to predict what’s going to happen next, can backfire. Your brain interprets the stress as a threat, and can lead to anxiety or burnout. Instead, to realise your full potential, you need to get out of your comfort zone, but not permanently. It’s a back and forth – or zigzagging – from comfort to discomfort.”
Push things forward
It was in 1908 that American psychologist Robert Yerkes first revealed his theory about comfort zones. He believed humans need to elevate stress levels to slightly higher than normal in order to achieve optimal brain activity. Whether that means braving public speaking or signing up for a kombucha-making course, the anxiety that you get when leaving your usual routine helps to focus your efforts and perform at your peak.
However, turning anxiety into action is often easier said than done. HR manager Susie, 29, found the fear of giving a presentation almost crippling. “I had no experience of standing in front of a room full of people, but when I got promoted I knew it was expected.” Thanks to support from her line manager, Susie was able to prepare and practice for her first presentation and ultimately had a positive experience. “I felt very nervous but I got through it. Afterwards I went for a walk around a park near my office to give myself a break, process it and luxuriate in my comfort zone.”
It’s not only professionally where it pays to take a leap and try something new. When Emma, 32, became newly single two years ago she wanted to take up rock climbing as a way to get totally absorbed in a physical challenge and quiet the panicky voice in her head. “I’m not exactly sporty, either, which made rock climbing feel scarier. I booked an introduction course and reasoned that even if I hated it, this was only 90 minutes of my life. I ended up loving it and, two years on, I still climb at least once a week.”
On a macro level, the current climate of political and economic uncertainty can make it tempting to stay firmly in the cosy zone. But pushing past our self-imposed barriers can build invaluable mental resilience to help you survive if, say, you lose your job or the whole Brexit situation completely torpedoes the housing market. “By taking risks in a controlled fashion and learning to live outside your comfort zone, you can prepare for bigger life changes that force you out of it,” says Dr Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston. Her TED Talk on embracing vulnerability has been viewed more than 37 million times.
Maintaining a balance
So: short-term discomfort can be beneficial. But exactly how long should you spend out of your comfort zone? “A good rule is to be out for less than a third of your day,” says Dr David Hamilton, author of How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body. “While the optimum amount of time varies, try to get out of your comfort zone regularly, every day if you can.” Hamilton recommends mirroring the model of a simple meditation exercise which involves breathing in for four seconds and then breathing out for eight. So, retreat for double the amount of time you were doing a stressful activity: after an hour at a networking event, you’ve earned two hours of scrolling on the sofa.
“It’s vital to give yourself space to feel comfortable and unchallenged before pushing yourself again,” Dr Hamilton says. “When we’re out of our comfort zone it’s a time of high activity, forming new neural pathways and using the hormone cortisol to focus our brains. The brain learns it’s good to stretch itself. But if this state lasts too long you risk over-feeding the brain with cortisol, meaning your reserves deplete and you can end up damaging it.”
Understanding the brain’s neural changes associated with leaving your comfort zone might have helped Simeta, 30, a lawyer from London who began retraining as a doctor two years ago. “I worried I wasn’t intelligent enough so I pushed myself all the time,” she says. “I rarely let myself have time off studying, but I was so stressed it became harder and harder to focus.” After talking to her tutor, Simeta was able to learn to ‘zigzag’, helping her unlock a sweet spot in which she felt motivated to learn yet not so overwhelmed she was unable to do anything.
This is advice echoed by management scientist Professor Tina Seelig in her TED Talk The Little Risks You Can Take To Increase Your Luck. “As children we take risks all the time – for example learning to ride a bike,” says Seelig. “But as we grow up, we stop. Being willing to take small risks and look at life through the lens of possibility is an easy way to increase your ability to see and seize opportunities.”
Over half of us Brits don’t venture outside our comfort zones, yet fear we will live to regret it, according to research from the British Heart Foundation. Pushing your personal boundaries isn’t about not feeling the fear, it’s about being brave and doing it anyway – and knowing that your comfort zone safety net (and your sofa and PJs) will always be there to catch you should you need it.