The “comfort zone” is a reliable place of retreat, especially in times of stress – living through a global pandemic, for instance. But psychologists have long ƒextolled the benefits of stepping outsideit, too. The clinical psychologist Roberta Babb advises regularly reviewing how well it is serving you. The comfort zone can, she says, become a prison or a trap, particularly if you are there because of fear and avoidance.
Babb says people can be “mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, occupationally” stimulated by facing their fears or trying something uncomfortable. “Adaptation and stimulation are important parts of our wellbeing, and a huge part of our capacity to be resilient. We can get stagnant, and it is about growing and finding different ways to be, which then allows us to have a different life experience.”
Facing fears can increase confidence and self-esteem, she adds, and achieving a goal is associated with a release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. “Then you start to feel better about yourself – you’re aware of what you can do, more willing to take positive risks. You have more energy. It’s a kind of domino effect.”
In her bestselling 1987 book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers advised people to try something “small or bold” outside their comfort zone each day, building confidence “so that stretching your comfort zone becomes easier and easier”. But it isn’t about becoming generally “fearless”, as if we could override all of human evolution. “People often ask: ‘How can I prevent myself from ever having those kinds of fearful responses?’ My initial reaction is: ‘You wouldn’t want to live life without the ability to experience fear,’” says Ethan Kross, professor of psychology and management, director of the Emotion and Self Control Lab at the University of Michigan, and author of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It. Fear, when appropriate, is a safety mechanism, but “it can sometimes become miscalibrated, so that the fear doesn’t match the reality of the circumstance”.
Kross doesn’t see the benefit of taking on fears for the sake of it – you don’t have to jump out of a plane or do a bungee jump unless you think it will drastically improve your life. Instead, he says, it’s about facing the fears, or overcoming the discomfort, that prevents us from doing the things “that are really important for our wellbeing, our relationships and our performance. Those are the instances in which you want to try to regulate the fear.”
Different things are daunting to different people, of course, and there is a spectrum to their severity. It could be going on a date, or giving a presentation at work, or having a difficult conversation with a relative. It could be making a big decision, such as leaving a relationship, or a job. It may be relatively minor – getting up an hour earlier to exercise might not trigger a debilitating phobia, but might feel uncomfortable – and it could still bring benefits to your life.
It’s hard to generalise, says Kross, about the psychological effect of facing one’s fears, or stepping outside the comfort zone, but doing it can change the way you think. “When you’re afraid of something, you have a mental representation that tells you it’s dangerous. If you then go through that situation, and learn ‘This wasn’t as bad as I thought it was’, that, typically, will update that mental portrayal of the situation.” There are clearly more tangible potential rewards for stepping outside your comfort zone, too – a better social life, a pay rise, more intimacy in a relationship, a new skill.
In her book Fear Less, the performance psychologist Pippa Grange sets out the ways that living in a “fear culture” affects our lives. “It may have shrunk you, so you have stayed small in some ways, limiting your potential and what you can achieve. Fear can also stiffen you into rigid over-control of yourself and the people around you. And it can also push you into painful, burning shame. All of these things send you down a rabbit hole away from your real potential as a human being.” Many of the fears that keep us safely within our comfort zone are what Grange calls “not-good-enough” fear – fear of being exposed, rejected, of not being loved. One way of tackling it, writes Grange, is her “see, face, replace” strategy: explore the fear, face the impact it has on your life, then replace it with something, such as a different story, or a sense of purpose or humour.
Get comfortable with the idea, when trying something new, that failure is possible, says Babb – or rather, don’t view it as failure. “We go in with a perfectionistic idea about achievement, and that we should be able to do it. The reality is, outside our comfort zone, why would we know how to do it? That’s the whole process.”
If you are ready to expand your comfort zone, consider breaking down the uncomfortable action into steps, advises Babb. “People think about going from zero to 100, as opposed to all the different steps in between. This is linked to a cognitive behavioural therapy technique called exposure and habituation – you are building up to what you want to do. You have an opportunity to celebrate the little wins that give you a boost of confidence and energy, which makes it exciting.”
Kross says “different tools work for different people in different situations, and there’s a bit of self-experimentation that’s required”. He also recommends building exposure to demonstrate the way our “fear responses are often out of sync with the actual danger. When we confront those situations, we quickly learn it’s not actually so bad.”
Another technique he recommends is to “coach” yourself through a situation. The idea, he says, is that we’re much better at giving advice to other people than to ourselves. “So what would you say to someone else? Use your own name: ‘All right Ethan, here’s how you’re going to manage the situation.’ We call this ‘distanced self-talk’. One of the reasons we think it’s useful is because the link between using a name, and thinking about someone else, is very strong in the mind. It switches your perspective, it gives you some distance, which helps you think more rationally about the situation.”
Turning a fear into a “challenge” can also help to overcome it. “In a situation,” says Kross, “we ask ourselves two questions, often subconsciously: what is required of me, and do I have the resources to deal with it? If you determine ‘No, I can’t do it,’ that’s a ‘threat response’ and it is associated with [negative] behavioural and physiological reactions – you perform less well under stress.” Switching the answer to “Yes, I can do this”, makes it “a ‘challenge response’,” says Kross. Distanced self-talk can help: “It activates that challenge response. You can consciously choose to change the way you think about a situation.”
It means that, if you are ready to step outside your comfort zone – or rather broaden it – you can start right now.