Expanding Your Comfort Zone Through Stretch
Everyone tells us that we need to move out of our comfort zone to grow. I agree, but the term “comfort zone” gets thrown about so frequently that it risks becoming a cliché. And clichés often lose their original meaning and impact. Therefore, I would like to explore the concept of comfort zone from the perspective of neuroscience and brain-based coaching.
First, what is our comfort zone and why do we even have one to begin with? According to Wikipedia, the comfort zone is a psychological state in which things feel familiar to us. We feel at ease and in control of our environment and experience low levels of stress. Many things that we are able to do without conscious effort fall into our comfort zone. For example, driving a car or riding a bicycle. However, there was a time when we did not know how to do these things, when they were not yet part of our comfort zone. In fact, in order to learn them, we actually had to leave our comfort zone of the time. This involved some risk, putting ourselves in the uncomfortable state of learning a new skill. When we first learned to drive, we probably felt very uneasy and unsure of our abilities. It took a while to gain a sense of control, to coordinate the various elements of driving: steering, breaking, turning, judging distances, etc. Eventually, however, after much practice, driving became second nature to us. In a sense, by going out of our comfort zone, we ended up expanding it to encompass the new skill.
When we learn a new skill, we are forming new neural pathways in our brain. This process entails making new mental representations of reality – or mental maps – and comparing them to our existing maps. This activity makes heavy use of the prefrontal cortex, the executive function of our brain. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of conscious thought, metacognition and working memory. It is the most recently evolved part of the brain, the part we associate with our humanity. It represents less than 5% of the brain’s total mass; however, it uses a disproportionate amount of energy, especially oxygen and glucose. Like many things in nature, the brain seeks to conserve energy. Therefore, it delegates thoughts and behaviors that occur on a repeated basis to the evolutionary older and energy-efficient pre-cortical systems of the brain, where these behaviors and thoughts become automatic. This is a survival mechanism that frees up the precious and limited resources of the prefrontal cortex for energy-intensive tasks such as learning something new, problem solving and decision making. In fact, according to neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux, the brain cannot hold more than seven concepts in working memory at once. On the other hand, the unconscious subcortical systems have virtually unlimited capacity and can manage multiple tasks simultaneously.
This process of hardwiring repetitive or familiar ideas, thoughts, actions and behaviors is how habits are born. In fact, our comfort zone is our habitual way of doing things. As we have seen, the fact that we have a comfort zone is not a bad thing. It is a result of how the brain has evolved and is part of being human. Our comfort zone is efficient and reliable and often serves us well since it allows us to perform countless activities with little effort or stress and to filter out the noise and distractions of everyday life. Without these filters, we wouldn’t be able to function.
Nevertheless, sticking to what is familiar to us can also limit our potential for growth. If we want to think big and reach a goal that right now seems out of reach, chances are we are going to have to make some changes in our habitual way of doing things. This requires us to leave our comfort zone. The key question here is how far should we stray?
Back in 1908, psychologists Yerkes and Dodson identified a relationship between boredom, stress and performance. In a nutshell, when we are bored, our performance suffers since we are not motivated. As we get more enthusiastic and engaged in an activity or task, our performance improves up to a certain point. After that point, further arousal causes our performance to fall off as we become stressed. This empirical observation has been borne out by more recent research in neuroscience. Neuroscientist Amy Amsten has identified a “sweet spot” or “Goldilocks mix” of peak performance that occurs when we have the right balance of norepinephrine, the chemical of alertness, and dopamine, the chemical of interest. The right balance depends on the individual; however, it occurs through positive stress. In other words, when we are moving towards something that we want to achieve that is challenging, but not overwhelming. This is also referred to as Eustress. We tend to work at our best when we are stretched. Stretch allows us to develop new ways of thinking and taking action.
The key is to challenge ourselves to step gently out of our comfort zone. This works best when we break down larger goals into more manageable chunks that we tackle gradually. When we break a larger goal down this way and take action toward it every day, we are more likely to achieve the right mix of neurotransmitters. Small challenges each day will generate enough norepinephrine to keep us alert, but not so much that we are overwhelmed. In fact, increased norepinephrine inhibits the ability of the prefrontal areas to make new connections, while at the same time strengthening more primitive brain areas such as the amygdala, the “fight or flight” center of the brain. This is why it is important not to “weoponize” the comfort zone. If we force ourselves or someone else to move too far out of the comfort zone, we are likely to create a strong “threat” response that will shut down any opportunity for learning and growth. Leaving the comfort zone is not about jumping into the deep end of the pool before we have learned to swim. It is about gradually taking small incremental steps that will eventually allow us to jump into the deep end and then swim around it for pleasure.
As we make steady progress towards a goal each day, we give ourselves a regular dose of dopamine. Dopamine plays a central role in maintaining a “toward” state, a state in which we are interested, engaged, motivated, open and curious. In the toward state, we have wider perception, improved cognition, increased creativity and work better with others. In fact, higher dopamine is associated with a greater number of neural connections; or in other words, better map making.
In conclusion, rather than looking at our comfort zone as fixed, we should view it as something that can be expanded through learning and growth.