Safe. Familiar. Comfortable.
These are just a few terms you might use to describe what it feels like when you’re nestled within the confines of your comfort zone. If you avoid uncertainty and settle for what you know, then you won’t have to risk being judged or feeling anxious in new situations, right? It makes sense especially because humans have a natural tendency to be creatures of habit.
While this may be true, deep down you know that personal growth, optimal development, and life lessons are often found outside of your comfort zones, when you’re engaged in challenges and daring to fail. When you’re uncertain and a little scared but you try anyway. Often, beauty is found in the most uncomfortable situations.
The Dangers of Avoidance
One common explanation for wanting to remain small rather than venture into unfamiliar territory is fear of the unknown. Avoiding situations you’re unsure about may help to alleviate anxiety in the short-term, but long-term avoidance can actually lead to greater levels of stress, as shown in a 2011 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Researchers assessed 1,211 late-middle-aged participants three times over the course of 10 years, examining the association between avoidance-coping strategies, acute and chronic life stressors, and depressive symptoms. They found a correlation between avoidance coping and greater life stressors—chronic and acute—four years after the start of the study. Moreover, greater life stressors and avoidance coping also linked depressive symptoms in participants after 10 years.
Perception or Reality
Interestingly, you may perceive what you don’t know as more stressful than if you knew the outcome was going to be unpleasant, according to a 2016 study conducted by researchers at University College London. In the study, participants who knew they had a 50 percent chance of receiving a painful electric shock were significantly more stressed than those who knew for certain that they were going to receive one. (Not surprisingly, those with a zero percent chance of being shocked were less stressed as well). On the plus side, subjects who responded to uncertainty with the highest stress levels were most likely to accurately predict whether or not they’d receive a shock, suggesting that stress enhances your ability to accurately judge risk.
The researchers point to numerous real-world examples where the findings would apply. When applying for a job, for example, you’re more likely to be relaxed if you believe that you’re a shoo-in or you don’t think you have a chance at all than if you don’t know where you stand. The anxiety lies, they argue, in the uncertainty. In other words, the fear of the unknown.
A 2016 review published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders examined the criteria that makes up our most fundamental fears. The researchers proposed that fear of the unknown may be the fundamental fear that underlies all other fears. This uncertainty not only elicits anxiety and impacts mental disorders, but they suggest it also plays a role in everyday emotions and decision-making.
After reading the above research on fear, you may wish to extinguish it for good. I’ll be able to step into the real world and live my life once I stop feeling all of this fear, you may think. This doesn’t work for two reasons:
- You can’t think your way through fear. You can try with all of your might to think yourself brave, but the only way to truly break free of the fears that hold you back is to expose yourself to them. In other words, you have to experience them to work through them.
- You need fear for survival. While it can often feel as though fear is working against you, it’s actually on your team and constantly working to protect you. Without fear, you would put yourself in situations that threaten your safety and well-being. Your stress response serves to protect you.
You might think that it’s your stress response that’s impeding your ability to face life outside of your comfort zone but it’s actually your perception of it, according to a 2016 study that looked at the human default response to uncertainty. Researchers found that while your stress response to uncertainty is always present, it is inhibited when you perceive a situation as being safe. When you’re uncertain of your safety, despite nothing threatening it, your stress response activates and can contribute to chronic anxiety and other health issues. Fortunately, safety in situations can be learned via exposure to them.
Exposure therapy is often used to treat individuals with anxiety disorders, allowing them to gradually face their fears while decreasing avoidance and the dread that often accompanies it. The more they experience situations outside of their comfort zone and the anxiety it evokes, the more they will be able to work through it and realize the threat they once feared is without credence.
The opposite of exposure, or facing your fears, is avoidance. When you avoid the anxiety and discomfort that you may temporarily experience outside of your comfort zone and instead opt for safety and security, you’re not only missing opportunities for personal growth but research indicates you’re increasing your anxiety in the long-term.
According to a 2013 study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, children who avoid situations they perceive as frightening are more likely to suffer from anxiety. Avoidance behaviors of the more than 800 children surveyed predicted anxiety levels throughout development. Children who reported avoidance at the time of the survey reported more anxiety a year later. Those who participated in cognitive behavioral therapy with an exposure component displayed less avoidance behavior and reported feeling better, likely a result of facing what once scared them, according to the researchers.
There’s no shortage of research to support the advantages of stepping outside of your comfort zone. But thinking about how to get out of your comfort zone may bring mixed feelings. It’s something you know you need to do and likely want to do, but how exactly should you go about putting it into action? The following ways to break out of your comfort zone will ease the transition from life in a safe and secure bubble to experiences you’ve long been craving but perhaps feared and avoided.
1. Show Up
You often avoid doing things you’re uncertain of because you set your expectations unrealistically high and then fear you won’t be able to meet them. You might decide to not even bother and save yourself the disappointment. But how much easier would it be to try something new without putting so much pressure on yourself? What if your goal was to simply show up and see where the challenge leads you? No expectations, just action.
2. Start Small
All-or-nothing thinking can be a huge hindrance when you want to branch out. If you think too big, instead of taking things in smaller doses (think exposure therapy), something will inevitably feel too overwhelming, perhaps even paralyzing. Your safe little bubble seems like a much more appealing option. Think of a goal you can set for yourself outside of your comfort zone and set smaller goals for meeting it—baby steps make it easier to achieve your bigger goals. Remember, it gets easier the more you do it!
3. Change One Thing
It’s easy to get locked into a routine or thinking pattern. Regardless of how miserable it might make you, the familiarity it brings you keeps you from stepping outside of it. Having the courage to change one thing, even if it seems small and insignificant, can go a long way. Mixing up one thing will signal to your brain that you seek change and it isn’t threatening.
Take a different route to work, strike up a conversation with a random person like the barista who makes your morning coffee, or try cooking a new recipe. Your brains crave novelty, no matter how big or small. The more you feed it new experiences, the easier (and more enjoyable!) they’ll become. As you learn to expand your comfort zone, you just might enjoy where it takes you.
4. Question Your Inner Critic
Your inner critic is not the best judge of character. It often tells you things about yourself that simply aren’t true. The problem is it can be pretty convincing, especially when you’re already feeling unsure and fearful. Becoming more aware of that little voice when it starts chiming in will allow you to stop it in its tracks before it’s too late. Challenge it. Question whether what it’s saying is true or if it’s just your anxiety talking. Not only will this help you to speak kindly to yourself, but you’ll also build up trust in your capabilities. (Note: Mindfulness is a great way to enhance your awareness of your inner critic).
5. Practice Self-Care
Facing uncertainty is challenging but it’s made easier when you’re at your best mentally and physically. Exercising, eating healthy, practicing relaxation techniques, connecting with loved ones, and doing activities you enjoy are just some of the ways you can support yourself when you’re facing a daunting and unfamiliar situation. The process of stepping out of your comfort zone will be more enjoyable and less anxiety provoking if you’re strong in both body and mind.
As trite as it may sound, you only live once. This life isn’t a dress rehearsal so it shouldn’t be lived as one. Pushing away the life you desire to live out of fear of uncertainty will only prolong your anxiety and discontentment. So, start small, be kind to yourself, and if it helps, reward yourself after you’ve faced a fearful situation head on. Celebrate your efforts as you move from a life of familiarity and predictability to one of excitement and satisfaction.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.