We spend a lot of time here at You Understood talking about how it’s important to take things slow, find what works for you and create a routine that helps you stay focused. There’s no doubt that all of those things are vital to maintaining positive and robust mental wellbeing, but it’s possible for us to slip into a life routine where everything gets a bit too comfortable, and we feel a bit stuck – doing the same things every day might mean we find ourselves well and truly in our comfort zone.
The concept of the comfort zone comes from a classic experiment in psychology where Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximise performance and achieve more, we actually need to put ourselves in a state called ‘optimal anxiety’ where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal.
If you’ve ever pushed yourself, you’ll know that you can achieve better results than if you don’t try hard – this might make us feel nervous, tense, worried or scared but the reward of feeling excited, exhilarated and empowered usually outweighs any discomfort. However, if the feelings of stress go beyond this slight increase, it can have a detrimental impact where we are too stressed to be effective and become overwhelmed, so there is a sweet spot of pushing ourselves to the point where we optimise our abilities.
What do we gain from striving for more? As we mentioned in our previous blog on personal growth, there are physiological benefits to personal growth. By mentally challenging ourselves, we change the structure of the brain by creating new neural pathways, which increases neuroplasticity. This helps to physically protect the brain from ageing, and improves cognitive function that can help stave off dementia.
The very act of challenging ourselves boosts confidence and self-esteem by triggering the release of the hormone dopamine, known as the ‘feel-good’ chemical, which can act like a protective shield against negativity – knowing we have this method of coping with challenges helps us become more resilient, and better able to cope with setbacks or risks in the future. This change in the way we view ourselves can give us the courage and freedom to step outside our normal every so often and reap the benefits.
How can we push out of our comfort zone without pushing the balance too far? It doesn’t have to be something major like skydiving or bungee jumping (although you can try these if you feel brave enough!) We can break out of the everyday with some relatively small changes. Perhaps try taking a different route to work, or changing your regular coffee shop for one down the street. Or maybe try cooking a new recipe, or giving your wardrobe a makeover – anything to change your perspective can be enough to push you out of your comfortable zone and into new territory.
You might want to be a bit bolder and try learning a new hobby, volunteering at a local charity, taking on a new responsibility at work (like giving presentations) or going travelling (abroad or slightly closer to home, as long as it’s different and new). Just be sure to take your time and do things step by step; you want to avoid doing too much at once and overwhelming your mind. Taking time to reflect on the change you’ve experienced is key to learning from it and growing as an individual.
If you do take the opportunity to push yourself, it can open up new avenues to you: expanding your social circle, gaining you a promotion at work, or even a whole new career, adding a new skill to your repertoire of talents, or elevating the way you see and feel about yourself – all of which can add up to a more fulfilled life with a greater sense of purpose and achievement.
It’s worth mentioning here that choosing to step outside of your comfort zone because you’re ready to discover more is a positive and brave step. However, the vital component of this action is will - if someone pushes you beyond a boundary that you are willing to cross, this may result in an emotionally scarring experience which can have longer-term impact. If you feel this happening to you, take a step back from the situation if possible and see if you can change the way things are going. If this is something you have already experienced, be kind to yourself and take any new experience slowly. If you feel you need support, talking to a therapist, your GP or a support group maybe useful.
Challenging ourselves is about experiencing new things, learning what we’re capable of and feeling fulfilled in life. But don’t forget that the comfort zone is also a place where we can catch our breath and get the head space we need to reflect and relax, so a balance between the two is a recipe for positive and sustainable personal growth.