Comfort zones

Recently I have been working with a client who suffers with severe social anxiety. She is incredibly brave and week after week she had been finding the courage to put herself into difficult situations. She was hoping that if she just exposed herself to these situations enough she would get better. But actually she had been getting worse.

To understand why it’s important to understand a bit about comfort zones:

Comfort zone

This is the space you are working in when you do things that are easy for you to do. So for example brushing your teeth. You do it easily, without thought and certainly without any anxiety.

Discomfort zone

This is the space you are working in when you do things that challenge you, but that you are confident you can cope with.

Panic zone

This is the space you are working in when you do things that make you really uncomfortable and scared. If you are in this zone you probably feel like you can’t cope and it’s all just too much.

Moving between the zones

As humans it is important for us to venture out of our comfort zone on a fairly regular basis. Doing so gives us opportunities to grow and to become happier and more fulfilled as the comfort zone expands.

So for example, as a child, tying your shoelaces would probably have been out of your comfort zone, but you kept practising until your comfort zone expanded to include tying shoe laces. Interestingly though, as it did, it would also have expanded to include anything else at the same level of discomfort as tying shoe laces. Once you achieved shoe-lace tying your brain assumed you could achieve anything else of the same level of difficulty.

So, in short, moving into the zone of discomfort is a good thing.

However the zone of panic is another thing entirely. When we are forced into this zone, we feel deeply uncomfortable and unhappy and the fight or flight part of the brain interprets this as extreme danger. When this happens we tend to retreat, as quickly as we possibly can, back into our comfort zone. Unfortunately as we do this, our brains tend to circle the metaphorical wagons, drawing the comfort zone in on itself and actually making it smaller.

And this is why my client, in spite of all her strength and bravery, was finding things were getting worse. As she pushed herself daily into her zone of panic, her comfort zone was getting smaller, containing fewer and fewer things that she felt confident with. Things started to improve though as soon as she understood these comfort zones.

When any of us try to make positive changes in our life and start to challenge ourselves it is important that we carefully consider the steps we are taking. Breaking them down into small manageable steps that challenge us in a way that helps us to grow, rather than forcing us to retreat.

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