Whether or not you realize it, you probably have a comfort zone you like to stay in. Maybe you follow the same routine at the gym, or you gravitate toward a certain type of person when it comes to dating. Or maybe you’ve been in the same job for ages, but just the thought of doing something else is enough to make you break out into a cold sweat. Whatever it is, your comfort zone can be simultaneously comfortable and limiting.
It’s your safe haven—the spot where you feel the most protected, free to be yourself, and uninhibited. And even if you fancy yourself an adventurous type, you probably have one—which is totally normal.
Why people form their own comfort zone
“Comfort zones are safe, protected, stress-free, and low-risk. They keep stress and depression away,” says licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. Basically, when you’re in your comfort zone, you feel at home.
And, for similar reasons as why it feels so good to cancel plans and stay in, many of us feel the most comfortable being at home, where we know exactly what to expect. “We are creatures of habit, and habits allow us room to relax and avoid things and situations that are needlessly stressful,” says licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, author of Hack Your Anxiety.
“We are creatures of habit, and habits allow us room to relax and avoid things and situations that are needlessly stressful.” —clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD
Why, though, are we creatures of habit? According to David Klow, LMFT, author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist, people are hardwired to seek out comfort and security thanks to a defense mechanism encoded in the brain. “If there is a threat, then we will instinctively move toward safety,” he says. “Yet in our modern world, the threats are often social and emotional.” In practice, these things can make you want to stick with what’s familiar and keep you returning to the same habits and routines. Hence, the widespread love for JOMO and staying home.
Finally, comfort zones allow you to get things done—to an extent. “They allow for routines and momentum that are critical to staying the course,” says Dr. Clark, who caveats the need the exercise portion control with our comfort-zone appetites. “Comfort zones can become havens of avoidance when we constantly choose comfort over discomfort, holding ourselves back from stretching when we need to.”
Because let’s be real: Some level of discomfort, and maybe even social anxiety, can be helpful for fueling personal growth and coping skills. “In our constantly changing environments, adaptive change requires stretching—and stretching simply can’t happen in your comfort zone,” Dr. Clark says.
6 benefits of forcing yourself to be uncomfortable
1. Lowers risk of depression
Sure, stepping out of your comfort zone can be uncomfortable, but going for it can give you a boost in the mental-health department. “The ability to cope with the stress and discomfort of life’s challenges protects against a variety of mental-health symptoms, including depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Clark.
2. More likely to perform better
Stepping out of your comfort zone can cause some anxiety, which can actually be a good thing—seriously. “Performance anxiety has the benefit of motivating us to perform better,” says Dr. Mayer. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, moderate stress and anxiety are associated with maximum performance. “You can’t perform at your best without a moderate amount of discomfort,” says Dr. Clark.
3. Positive for personal growth
Doing the same thing repeatedly means your situation—and you—won’t change. But having new experiences greatly increases the odds that you’ll grow, and according to Dr. Clark, you “can’t help but grow stronger when you stretch.”
4. Beneficial for creativity
It’s easy to put your mind on autopilot when you’re in your regular routine. But getting outside of your ordinary forces you to challenge yourself and think on your feet: “When you have to think spontaneously, you become your most creative,” Dr. Mayer says.
People are most creative when they’re in a state of flow, which is not a place that exists in the comfort zone, says Dr. Clark. “The discomfort is trumped by the experience of being in the zone, where the effort is reinforced by the pleasure of accomplishment, which creates a feedback loop of momentum. It can actually feel good to be out of your comfort zone in the momentum of creativity and productivity.”
5. Helpful for becoming more adaptive and self-reliant
If you’re constantly doing the same thing, day in and day out, it’s going to seriously throw you for a loop when your routine is disrupted. But if you regularly step outside of that, it’s easier for you to react when things unexpectedly don’t happen as you expect them to. “Practice makes perfect when it comes to adapting,” Dr. Clark says. “The more you deliberately stretch outside your comfort zone, the more comfortable you will become with doing so.”
Basically, if you can be at ease outside the confines of what’s familiar, you’ll feel more confident in your ability to handle what life throws at you. “Self-reliant people recognize challenges as the vehicles for maintaining strength and resilience,” Dr. Clark says. “They know they can tolerate whatever comes their way, which in turn helps resist the whisper of doubt that so often proves a gateway to avoidance.”
6. Decreases likelihood for boredom
While undeniably comfortable, following the same routine day after day can feel super dull. But stepping out of your comfort zone and into new experiences can help keep you from feeling stuck in life, says Klow. “Finding ways to have novel, new experiences can add depth and satisfaction,” he says.
Stepping out of your comfort zone can be uncomfortable—here’s how to make it easier:
Simply thinking about being outside where you feel most comfortable can be scary, which is why Dr. Clark recommends taking baby steps. It’s possible to break up the process into benchmarks so small, you barely notice the change.
Here’s an example: If you want to push yourself beyond the workout routine you’ve adhered to for years, start by adding a few extra minutes to it. Then, add a few more reps or exercises so that you’re physically pushing yourself. Once you get more comfortable, you can take bigger steps, like swapping a new class into your rotation that seems challenging.
The same concept can be applied to the challenge of meeting new people if your roadblock is that you feel shy about getting out there. Start by downloading a social app like Meetup to see what kind of offerings exist in your area. Read about different groups, pick one to start, and send an email to get familiar with people you’ll meet at the IRL event. Slowly but surely, you’re making a new routine less scary to adopt.
The more you do these things, the easier they’ll be—in all areas of your life. Eventually, the novel changes in your routine won’t be so jarring, and you may even find yourself stepping out of your comfort zone without as much hesitation.
“Getting comfortable with discomfort requires practice, and starting small can be a great way to cultivate the tolerance we all need to keep at it.” —Dr. Clark
“It is like dipping your feet in a pool,” says Dr. Mayer. “Test the waters first and make sure it is safe for you.” Patience with how quickly you get in that pool is key here: If you feel too overwhelmed by the changes, you’re unlikely to keep doing them.
“Stretch where you can without stretching so far that you harm yourself. You want to bend, not break,” Dr. Clark says. This looks a little different for everyone, so you ultimately have to figure out in advance what the difference is between pushing yourself a bit and making yourself so uncomfortable that you want to beeline back into your comfort zone and stay there.
To be clear, it’s always acceptable to return to your comfort zone, and knowing how long to leave is something that varies from person to person, Klow says. If you try something different and feel okay—maybe even great!—about it, then good keep doing it. And if you feel a little freaked out? Simply scale back and try again when you feel ready—hey, having pauses along the way is totally normal. “Getting comfortable with discomfort requires practice, and starting small can be a great way to cultivate the tolerance we all need to keep at it,” Dr. Clark says.
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