You know that feeling when the airplane wheels leave the ground on your first trip, or when you finally take the plunge and jump off that platform into the gorge below? It is a feeling that is so euphoric and yet scary at the same time, and you can only achieve it when you leave your comfort zone behind.
But what is a comfort zone, really? Why does it differ from person to person, and why does leaving it behind affect us so much – physically and emotionally?
Let’s break this feeling down a little bit – ‘The Big Short’ style (minus the celeb cameos):
Essentially, your comfort zone is just that – a place where you feel comfortable. This comfort is caused by the presence of a few factors:
Feelings – good or bad – are caused by the release of chemicals caused by our thoughts or our surroundings. When you’re comfortable and life is good, your brain can release chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which lead to happy feelings.
When you are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with a situation, you can experience negative feelings, such as:
These feelings inhibit the release of the happy chemicals, and cause the release of other chemicals from your brain like adrenaline and glutamate. Our body releases these chemicals as a preparation for dealing with a potentially harmful or undesired situations. They cause our senses to be heightened, our hearts to race and our bodies to sweat. This chemical release varies in severity based on how far outside of out comfort zone we really are.
Basically, if we feel safe in a situation, our brain releases chemicals which allow us to be relaxed and happy. If we feel unsafe or uncomfortable, our bodies tense up and prepare to deal with a harmful situation.
What determines if an activity is outside of our comfort zone?
The comfort zone differs from person to person, mostly based on their previous life experiences and their own belief of what they can or cannot do.
It’s all about confidence…
If you think about riding a bike, and you know that it’s something you’ve done before and you’re pretty good at, you’re within your comfort zone – it’s something you believe you can do/ handle pretty well. But if you’re thinking about bungee jumping and you’ve never done it before, you’re wondering if you’ll die, or be so scared that you’ll soil your pants, or that you won’t have the courage to jump, or that the feeling of falling will be so horrible that you’ll scream and cry like a baby – you’re outside of that comfort zone boundary.
Naturally, the more you bungee jump, the better you get at the process, the less it scares you, and the more you enjoy it. The activity moves closer and closer towards being inside your comfort zone, and you start thinking that something like skydiving may not be so bad as well. You don’t mind the feeling of falling, and the heights aren’t as scary as they used to be.
Your comfort zone naturally expands with experience.
But what about the good feeling?
Yes, some people thrive off of the rush of trying new things. That adrenaline rush is caused by the fear, and naturally the less fearful you are, the less of a rush you get. Comfortability, however, causes the release of the happy chemicals, and those in combination with a bit of adrenaline will make for a different kind of rush which feels pretty good too. That way you’re not scared enough to vomit on the spot, but you’re running off of a nervous excitement.
What does all of this mean?
Baby steps. If you’re crippled by fear and a slave to familiarity, start with smaller new experiences. You may not think you have the courage to skydive, but after you’ve bungee jumped a few times, skydiving doesn’t seem so terrifying after all.
The bigger your comfort zone becomes, the more confidence you gain, and instead of new things feeling like they’re a million miles outside of your comfort zone, they may be just beyond the rim.
The fact is – scary as it may be – the best things in your life usually happen when you’re outside of that zone.
You surprise yourself, you have a great time, you learn things, you grow as a person, you become more accepting of new situations and ideas. When you’re too comfortable you’re complacent, and you need the motivation that comes with a bit of anxiety in order to accomplish things and grow. That’s why we need goals, deadlines and responsibilities.
At the end of the day, the more you do and try new things, the less new it all seems.
If you make trying new things a part of your routine, your comfort zone actually expands, and newness becomes less fear-inducing and more pleasureful. That means the fear chemicals are released less-often, and the happy chemicals can take charge. Instead of new things seeming terrifying, they’re a welcome challenge that you may be nervous about, but hey now seem doable and worthwhile. A bit of fear is healthy, and just like home, your comfort zone is a place you should frequent, but not reside entirely.