Stepping out of your comfort zone

In my role as a therapist I work with people from all walks of life who are experiencing a wide range of problems, such as agoraphobia, depression, social anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder. There’s a lot of variety in my work, but I have come to notice that there is one thing that unites all of my clients: a fear of stepping out of their comfort zone.

Over the past 12 months restrictions on our daily lives due to the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a shrinking of our comfort zones. Now as we begin to take steps back towards ‘normality’ many of us will be feeling a mixture of excitement and fear about stretching our comfort zones again. I wrote a blog last year specifically about Post Lockdown Anxiety which you may like to check out.

Our brains are hard wired to make us avoid discomfort, so naturally when we are struggling with symptoms of depression or anxiety we retreat back into our comfort zone, where we feel safe and nurtured. This ‘hunkering down’ can be a really important part of our healing process, but if we stay in our comfort zone for too long it can exacerbate the problems which led us there in the first place.

By staying with what feels safe and known we unintentionally ‘shrink’ our world. We don’t have the opportunity to learn that the things we fear are unlikely to happen, and even if they do, we can cope better than we realise.  

Let’s look at some examples from my therapy room …

After a car accident Karen developed post traumatic stress disorder and her comfort zone shrunk to just driving along familiar local streets and even this was hard.  Gradually Karen processed the traumatic memory and challenged herself to drive further afield.  She practised driving in towns, the countryside and on motorways.  She even returned to the roundabout where the car accident had happened. 

Mike had struggled with social anxiety since he was a teenager and by the time he was 30 years old his comfort zone consisted of a few close friends and a local cafe which one of them owned.  Mike used cognitive behavioural therapy to help him to manage his anxiety better and widen his comfort zone.  He has now been able to join a local photography group and is dating for the first time.

Natalie was suffering from panic attacks which made her worry that there was something seriously wrong with her heart.  Due to this she had stopped going to the supermarket, couldn’t pick her children up from school unaccompanied and couldn’t get on a train.  Through treatment Natalie learned that although frightening, her symptoms were in fact safe, and this gave her the courage to step out of her comfort zone.  Panic attacks are no longer holding her back and she feels such a sense of freedom to be able to do the ‘simple things’ in life. 

Stepping out of your comfort zone takes courage, so it can help to have a clear plan in mind…  

  • Identify what is holding you back and why.
  • Think about where it is you want to get to – what is your goal? Then consider the steps you can take to gradually get there.
  • As you challenge yourself you will feel uncomfortable, but don’t let that put you off.  Discomfort is a natural part of the process and will decrease over time.
  • Everyone’s comfort zone is different, so be careful to push yourself just as far as feels right for you – a little discomfort is good, but too much could be overwhelming and drive you back into your comfort zone.
  • Celebrate what you achieve by reflecting on your experiences, talking to others about it and collecting physical reminders such as photos, certificates or souvenirs.

When you widen your comfort zone your self-belief and confidence increase.  Suddenly you realise that you are capable of so much more than you thought.  This can be good preparation for dealing with lifes unexpected changes and challenges.  Generally you’ll find that the more you practice stepping out of your comfort zone the easier it gets.  By sitting with that discomfort and ignoring those mental blocks you can access a whole new world of exciting experiences – the world is yours for the taking!