In order to do that, though, it's helpful to first acknowledge the bounds of your particular comfort zone, and the very real purpose it serves. “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 to 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
But why are we such creatures of habit? According to David Klow, LMFT, author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist, we're 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.” And they can often encourage us to stick with what’s familiar, rather than explore or embrace the unknown. Hence, the widespread love for JOMO.
Beyond serving our natural instincts, though, comfort zones can be productive and supportive, particularly in times of upheaval or unpredictability, says therapist Alexis Bleich, LCSW. (Hello, global pandemic!) In that way, they can keep everyday life chugging along smoothly.
“Comfort zones allow for routines and momentum that are critical to staying the course,” says Dr. Clark, who caveats the need to exercise portion control with our comfort-zone appetites. “They can become havens of avoidance, though, when we constantly choose comfort over discomfort, holding ourselves back from stretching when it might benefit us to do so,” she says. In some cases, that can mean a comfort zone keeps you from achieving your full potential. "You won't really know what you can accomplish until you challenge yourself," says Amy Morin, LCSW, editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind.
To that end, stepping out of your comfort zone—at least, on occasion—can be a worthy endeavor. Below, the experts share tips that can make doing so that much easier.
10 actionable tips from therapists for stepping out of your comfort zone
1. Create pros and cons lists for both scenarios
Laying the facts out on paper is a simple way to minimize some of the fear that might be holding you back, says Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, mental-health expert at Ro Mind, a digital mental-health platform for people with anxiety and depression. "Sometimes, the anxious thoughts or feelings of uncertainty that come with stepping out of your comfort zone may seemingly outweigh the reward of doing so," she says. But outlining the pros and cons on paper can clearly elucidate how much you might really stand to benefit from a leap.
2. Acknowledge the inherent scariness of the unknown
Bleich suggests offering yourself a friendly reminder that feeling nervous about doing something you've never done before is completely normal. Trying something new is inherently a bit anxiety-provoking, so if you feel those thoughts start to swirl, accept that it's just your body's natural response to the new, novel, or unknown, she says.
3. Break the action into smaller mini-goals
It's possible to break up the process into benchmarks so small, you barely notice the change. In other words, take baby steps, says Dr. Clark. For 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. And once you get more comfortable, you can take bigger steps, like swapping a new class into your rotation that seems challenging or outside the box.
The same concept can be applied to the challenge of meeting new people, if your roadblock is feeling 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, these steps can bring a new routine within reach.
4. If the first step still feels scary, try something entirely unrelated (but still outside of your norm)
Any time you do something you normally wouldn't, you're flexing your break-free muscle, and getting more comfortable with risk-taking. So, if your big goal is to start taking workout classes at a local gym, but even the first step of signing up feels out of reach, try shaking up some other element of your life.
"Maybe that means you cook a new dish at home rather than ordering in, or you read a book from a genre you wouldn't normally touch or start classes for a job-related skill or hobby," says Bleich. In any of these cases, you're stretching beyond your usual limits, which can help reinforce the idea that you're someone who's capable of enduring risk. And that feeling, in turn, can make the original goal of attending the workout class loom a little less large.
5. Consult friends or acquaintances who've taken a similar leap
Having more information will always serve you better than having less, when it comes to reducing anxious thoughts. In this case, that could simply mean asking someone you trust who's taken a similar step out of their comfort zone about how the process went for them. "Learning more about the potential risk or change—whatever it is that's on the other side of your fear—from people who've been there can help with improving confidence," says Mancao.
6. Record your progress
Morin suggests writing down not only your wins, or examples of steps taken, but also your failures or mistakes. "While you don't want to dwell on failures, making mistakes can be real proof that you're pushing yourself," she says. "And taking note of your missteps can be a helpful reminder that you're not going to be perfect when you make changes."
7. Keep track of your comfort level throughout the process
As you're taking steps forward, record your comfort level on a scale from 1 to 10, says Morin, with the goal of staying somewhere around a 6 or 7. “The idea is to stretch where you can without stretching so far that you harm yourself,” says Dr. Clark. “You want to bend, not break.” This will look a little different for everyone, so you ultimately have to figure out through trial and error 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.
8. Set up an accountability system
If the comfort zone you're attempting to break free from is related to a relationship, it's helpful to collaborate with your partner to identify ways you might challenge each other, says Mancao. But even if the out-there goal you're working toward isn't tied to a relationship, recruiting a friend or loved one to keep you accountable is a proven strategy for boosting your motivation, she says. Once they're in the loop, they're one more person who's rooting for your success.
9. Have patience with yourself
The process of trying something new won't necessarily be linear—and in some cases, you might bump up against feelings of frustration, doubt, and worry, in the same way that you hopefully will start to encounter some fun and joy and spark, says Bleich. "Anticipating these feelings and the potential setbacks they might bring can help you recognize them when they show up, and feel more agency over how you proceed," she says. Choosing to tolerate and move past the discomfort may be an option in certain cases and not in others—and both are valid choices, as you experiment with pushing the envelope.
10. Return to the comfort zone when needed
To be crystal clear, it's always acceptable to return to your comfort zone, and the barometer for when that feels necessary is different in every person, Klow says. If you try something different and feel okay—maybe even great!—about it, then you're good to keep doing it. And if you feel a little freaked out? Simply scale back and try again when you feel ready. “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.
Once you make stepping out of your comfort zone a regular habit, you stand to reap a whole host of benefits—all of which can also serve as extra motivation for taking that additional step.
6 mental-health benefits of stepping out of your comfort zone
1. It can lower your 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. It may improve your performance
Stepping out of your comfort zone may trigger 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. It supports 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. You could feel more creative
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.
Essentially, 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 when you experience the momentum of creativity and productivity.”
5. It naturally increases your adaptability
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 routine, it’s easier for you to react in an agile way when things don’t happen as you expected. “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,” says Dr. Clark. “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. You'll likely feel less bored
While undeniably easy, 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 regularly have novel experiences adds depth and satisfaction,” he says.
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